July 26, 2013
Cantorial Soloist Marjorie Hochberg, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ
I recently watched an HBO special starring African-American comedienne, Wanda Sykes. Among other comments she made about growing up black in a mostly white society, one was especially memorable to me. She said her mother would not let Wanda and her siblings dance in the car. Picture it: a great song comes on the radio. Wanda and her brothers and sister kids starting grooving to the beat. And their mother slams on the brakes. She would say, "There is no dancing in the car. Either we are driving or dancing, but not both." She would continue, "White people are watching you."
"White people are watching you." Today, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, those words seem ominous. A little over a week ago, a Florida court acquitted George Zimmerman of charges of 2nd degree murder and manslaughter in the death of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin. Many of us heard this verdict on television as it was delivered from the Florida court. More than any other verdict in recent memory, this one has spurred a flood of discussion, commentary and criticism about many issues, including the nation's gun laws, the state of the nation for African American youth, and race relations in general in our country.
I'm not a legal scholar and do not feel qualified to weigh in on the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman, or about the way the case that case was conducted. The jury reached a verdict, and we must respect that verdict and the judicial process. However, I do think that it is right and proper for us—as Americans and as Jews-- to focus our attention on the lessons this trial brings to bear, particularly when it comes to issues of race relations.
It's challenging to discuss the subject of race at all when African Americans and white Americans seem to be talking about different things altogether. As Larry Wilmore, a correspondent on "The Daily Show" said the other day, "According an NBC poll, 80% of white people think America is color-blind. 80% of black people think they're crazy."
Why is this divide so great? Partly, it's that those of us who are white and don't have regular contact with people of color don't have much opportunity to hear their stories and experience their reality. That's why it was so important for President Obama to say, in a recent news conference, "Trayvon Martin could have been me." It was important for him to day he'd seen white people cross the street to avoid him, or heard the click of car locks as he walked by. Hearing the reality of other peoples' experience can increase our sensitivity to their circumstances.
Another reason this divide is so great is fear, and not just the fear of "the other." I believe that, second only to the fear of death (and perhaps public speaking), most people's greatest fear is the fear of hurting others. None of us wants to be the bad guy, which is why it's so hard to acknowledge that our ideas, attitudes or behaviors might be racist. President Obama heard the click of car doors locking as he walked by—in the white-flight 1960's I was in that car. While my parents and their friends supported the civil rights movement in theory, in practice, angry black people on the streets wearing dashikis and sporting afros were frightening to them.
Fear of hurting others also keeps us from acknowledging that racism is not just violence, but a wide range of limiting beliefs and attitudes. Until they are challenged by a contradicting life-experience, they may be completely unconscious. I'll offer an example from my own experience. In my student days in Tucson, I often worked as an office temp. One day I was sent on a job, and when I walked in one of the other employees instructed me to take a seat and answer the phones. He pointed out the boss's office—an office directly behind my desk—and said the boss wasn't in yet, but I'd receive further instructions when he arrived. Another employee came in, introduced himself, and said again that the boss wasn't in, but would be in shortly. About an hour later, a good looking African American man walked in, said, " Good morning,"...and walked into the boss's office. My mouth was open and almost said, "Excuse me, the boss isn't in yet," when I realized that that nice-looking black man WAS the boss.
My next thought was, "Oh, that's racism."
I hasten to add that, as assumptions go, mine wasn't malicious, violent, or mean-spirited. Having made it didn't make me a bad person. However, it was a racist assumption none the less.
In this weeks parasha, Eikev, the Israelites are exhorted to 'cut away the thickening of their hearts," sometimes translated, "circumcise the foreskin of their hearts." Part of ending racism involves opening our hearts to truly hear and understand the experiences of others. It also involves confronting the hurtful or limiting attitudes we have learned--fearlessly, lovingly, and without defensiveness--and resolving to eliminate them in ourselves and in the world.
Having been strangers in the land of Egypt and in many other lands as well, we Jews know all about prejudice, alienation and exclusion. This Shabbat may we resolve to be like God, who, according to this parashah, "shows no favor... and upholds the cause of the fatherless, the widow and the stranger."
Let there be no strangers in our house.