A recent conversation has made me consider something that all people of color eventually have to think about. When to have the “talk” with your child. No, not the one on the birds and the bees, but the one where you inform your child that they’re not just like everyone else. That society has preconceived notions on who they are, what they like, and their potential for success based entirely on what they look like. It is a conversation (or series of conversations) that people of color have been relaying to their children for generations. A discussion that combines societal realities with the tools they need to both cope with these preconceptions and rise above them.
Now, I’m not a parent yet, so I haven’t had to relay this lesson myself. But it is a lesson that was imparted to me by my parents, grandparents and other relatives. It’s a lesson I saw taught to my male relatives, and I recognize its results in the man my husband has become. It’s the lesson about maintaining a sense of pride in yourself and your cultural history, constantly striving upward and not becoming constantly angry at or fearful of society. It’s refusing to be regulated to the uneducated, drug dealing, criminal stereotype that society limits black males to or the stereotype of a drug addled, over sexed, unfit mother on public assistance that society often thrusts on black women.
Maybe some people think it’s creating a victim mentality in a child, but parents and people of color call it acknowledging reality. We do not and have never lived in a color blind society (we can get into why I think the whole color blind concept is offensive at a later date). It is a reality that children of color encounter racism, prejudice and disparate treatment by law enforcement. It is best to prepare a child, rather than let them be blind sided or even harmed due to ignorance. Teaching a black male how to respond to police inquiries, whether they feel such inquiry warranted or not, can be the difference between a brief if unpleasant encounter and a starring spot on the evening news.
And no being Jewish, or even an Orthodox Jew will not allow a parent to avoid this lesson. Yes, yes, I know, I know…we’re all Jews, yada, yada, a Jew is a Jew, is a Jew, I’ve heard it all before. And no, progressive Jews, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows if you are a non-Orthodox Jew who happens to also be a person of color. The lessons are essentially the same. You have to impart a strong Jewish identity as everyone, Jew and non-Jew are quick to question your Jewishness because you don’t fit their stereotype. A kid has to be instructed on how to deal with questions of conversion, family history and observance whether put forth by a stranger, peer, or elder. What do they say when they are interrogated about “how” they are Jewish? Does it matter if that person is a peer or an elder, a stranger, local shopkeeper, or friend of a friend? How to deal with blatant stares and whispers at Jewish events and kosher eateries? How should you teach your child to react when another child comes up to your table and stares while you eat with no censure from their parents? What do you tell your son (or daughter in more progressive circles) to do when he shows up and is the 10th man, but they don’t start the minyan, because they’re not sure of his Jewishness (regardless of a kipa and visible tzitzit) or how to respond when their favorite rabbi lets “shvartze” fly freely and unapologetically out of his mouth. And shidduchim…oh dating….what to do when even your friends have no suggestions other than the other 2 or 3 other Jews of color they’ve heard of regardless of age or observance.
I’m not saying these things are occurring on an everyday basis to every person of color or even every Jewish person of color. But it is happening with regularity. It doesn’t mean Jews of Color can’t be fully integrated members of their communities. Even those of us that are, face some of these issues on a semi regular basis. But, I also know too many Jews of Color my age who’ve opted out. Not out of disinterest, but out of fatigue. Some whose parents tried to adopt the “we are all just Jews” mentality, found that in reality that was more of a slogan than an actuality. As I get more involved in Jewish diversity work, I often contemplate what tools we can equip young Jews of Color with that will keep them in the community. What do they need, how should we provide it, and when do we start?
The more I think about this, the more I try to remember when my parents had these conversations with me. Truth is, I can’t. I remember the lessons, about being loud in public spaces, feeling comfortable to walk out of a store when someone didn’t want to help me, knowing how to respond when I’m being followed around, how to dismantle someone’s perceptions about my socioeconomic status and/or family makeup, etc. I know it wasn’t middle school because it wasn’t a surprise when a friend said I couldn’t come over because “her mother doesn’t like black people.” I knew how to respond the first time someone told me to “go back to Africa” and I’ve always been informed enough about my cultural and racial history to combat anyone who wants to distill it to the rap videos shown on BET (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with hip hop culture).
So when does it start? Were they all conscious lessons…or were some learned by observation? What does that mean in the increasingly multicultural world we live in? When parents of children of color aren’t necessarily people of color…or even part of a couple were one parent is a person of color. How do these lessons change and evolve in an ever-changing society? Of course there’s been progress, but there is still so far to go. How do we balance having a black president with the disparate implementation of stop and frisk and the shooting of Trayvon Martin? When racism is increasingly subtle and even white progressives accuse people of color of “being too sensitive” or “too focused on race” when they raise issues of race and prejudice?
So I guess this post is more about questions than it is answers. Questions about how people of color have been educated to interact with the world…how these lessons are still necessary in a Jewish environment. And when and how we impart these lessons to the next generation. And remaining hopeful, that one day the need for these lessons will be a thing of the past.