A parenting article that was posted on kveller (the popular Jewish parenting site) earlier this summer entitled “When to Hide Your Race or Religion” http://www.kveller.com/blog/parenting/when-to-hide-your-race-religion/ just came across my Facebook news feed the other day. At first I didn’t know how to react to it. I had a visceral reaction to just the title.
Hide your identity? Why and for what? I kept reading, because maybe the author lives in a place where Jews face real and constant oppression. Maybe this author’s kids are in constant fear for their lives. Then I realize that doesn’t seem to be the case as the author and her family seem to live in NYC….unless I missed the tear in the universe where this bastion of liberalism became an oppressive regime (soda bans aside) (although I will grant that the author did grow up in Odessa, Ukraine) .
Look, I realize that both racism and anti-Semitism are very real parts of our society. I spent my childhood in the states known for being the home of the one drop rule and the capital of the confederacy. I’ve had kids tell me I couldn’t come to their house because a parent doesn’t like black people and “to go back to Africa” in the school cafeteria. My parents fought to keep me in honors classes when teachers tried to convince me not to take them (despite my getting A’s in their classes) while those same teachers encouraged white students who were getting B’s and C’s to “challenge themselves”. I grew up with my parents telling me stories of segregation (I have an aunt who integrated her high school). My grandmother participated in a bus boycott years before MLK famously led one in Montgomery, Alabama. I’ve been turned down for a multitude of dates because the guy’s “family would flip out.” I’ve had jobs not hire me due to my Shabbat observance. People make anti-Semitic comments to me because they assume I’m not Jewish. I’ve had friends tell me I’m “going to hell.” I get it …life as a Jew, person of color, and particularly a Jew of Color isn’t always easy.
Unfortunately, discrimination is a reality in the world we live in and I understand parents wish to shelter their child from as many of society’s ills as possible. However, sometimes that desire to shelter does more harm than good. What seems like a way to teach your child to avoid prejudice is actually a very harmful denial of self and incredibly damaging to a child’s sense of self-worth.
What kind of pride and confidence can you instill in your child when you ask them to deny their identity to anyone who might take issue with it? How many hits to their self-confidence will result from sitting meekly while their peers mock African-Americans or Jews? How can they not question whether something is wrong with who they are if instead of defending themselves they are taught to hide?
Why are you advocating teaching your child to live in fear? Are you allowing your own fears to be exaggerated to a point where it has created an unnecessary and unreasonable suppression of self? To use the example of Andrew Goodman to illustrate the status of Jews in the south, both ignores the reality that his participation in the civil rights movement was the cause of his death, not his Jewishness and the fact that Jewish communities in the south are some of the oldest and recently, the fastest growing Jewish communities in the United States. To not acknowledge that the prejudice against people with “stereotypical African-American names” has a lot to do with classism, not just racism is missing a critical piece of that issue.
As the saying goes, “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” What kind of lessons are you teaching your child? Encouraging them to remain silent when bigotry is spouted by a classmate, particularly when that bigotry is directed toward an integral part of your child’s identity? Have we not learned from the rash of suicides publicized in the news media, the results of intolerance allowed to go unchecked by peers. When ignorance and bigotry are not met with admonishment and disapproval it flourishes. Its proponents are emboldened by thinking that everyone agrees with their ignorance.
The author’s idea is not new. ”Passing” has a very storied and documented past. And… admittedly, I don’t have the luxury of passing… at least as a person of color. Although, I could choose to hide my status as a Jew. Even though I strictly follow the laws of tzniut (modesty), people often assume I’m Muslim, Rastafarian, or a conservative Christian (the former two, particularly because I usually cover my hair with scarves rather than a wig), particularly since my English name is not a stereotypically Jewish one. I’ve had many an opportunity to avoid disclosing my status as a Jew, not just to peers, but to employers, professors, and neighbors. Opportunities where the easy thing would have been to say nothing…to let an anti-semitic mark slide. But I didn’t.
Why? Because my parents instilled me with too much pride in myself. They taught me, that yes, I would face discrimination and prejudice, but the problem was with others, not me. That the best way to defeat prejudice was to be confident in who I was and educate where possible, but to stick up for myself when necessary. That if you let people get away with ignorance, the ignorance will increase…not cease. That too many people have fought and died for you to be who you are to hang your head in shame. Homer Plessy was so fair-skinned he could have ridden that train without comment, but instead he allowed himself to be arrested and taken off the train in pursuit of equality. How many Jews in this country allowed themselves to get fired every week rather than violate the Sabbath?
Instead of teaching our children to hide themselves to satisfy the prejudices of others, maybe we should be teaching them that sometimes, the right thing to do…is the hard thing to do. To remain confident in the face of bigotry. When they’re feeling discouraged about who they are…just point to the black woman with an ethnic name who became the Secretary of State or the biracial guy with an ethnic name who became the most powerful man in the world.