The first time I heard my 75-year-old Jewish neighbor refer to the African-American woman who cleaned her house as her “girl,” I silently cringed. How could a Jew, of all people, speak that way? It didn’t occur to me at the time that by not confronting her, I was perpetuating the racism her words reflected.
Today, as Americans continue protesting the senseless murder of George Floyd by a White police officer and, more broadly, the racial discrimination and violence that his killing represents, I have finally come to see that failing to confront racist language is just one symptom of the white privilege that made me racist too. It is, no doubt, the tip of the iceberg.
Recognizing this makes me shudder with shame. I am, after all, a liberal Jew, highly sensitized to racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. I believed that my sensitivity, combined with my connection to a legacy of oppression and suffering, made me anything but racist. I support and write for organizations dedicated to racial and social justice. I treat and care about everyone equally, regardless of race or ethnicity. Indeed, I have regarded myself as someone who is colorblind.
But I was just blind.
It is not nearly enough for me to be not racist. As Ibram X. Kendi puts it in his book, How To Be An Antiracist, “The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.”
Yet, even being antiracist or loudly condemning racism is not enough, as Kihana Miraya Ross’s reflections have recently made clear, because ‘racism’ is an overused, oversimplified word that does not embody the reality of Black people in this country. The word that does is ‘anti-blackness.’
According to Ross, “Anti-blackness describes the inability to recognize Black humanity.” It depicts life as it is and always has been for African Americans in this country, which “made black people into things,” and has continuously subjugated them through discrimination in education, employment, housing, health care, and most notably, through violence and murder. Although slavery ended more than a century ago, it still characterizes existence for black people. “Thus, in the minds of many, the relation between humanity and blackness is an antagonism, is irreconcilable.” That is, in this system black people aren’t fully human.
This is an unbearably harsh truth, one that many white people, like me, have not faced.
Every time I spinelessly chose to ignore my sweet neighbor’s use of the term “girl,” or worse, when, 20 years ago, I failed to confront the mother of one of my children’s friends for using “schvartze,” the vile Yiddish expression for black, I abetted the systemic injustice that benefits people like me. Every time I’ve opted not to call out someone for needlessly noting race only when discussing people who are black, I have been complicit in perpetuating the racial discrimination driving the unjust system that serves me.
It is, of course, such systemic, institutionalized injustice that protesters across the United States and around the world are denouncing. George Floyd’s murder was the spark that has ignited years of fury and anguish over not just the brutality and killing that black Americans routinely suffer at the hands of whites, including police officers, but also the radically disproportionate rates of infection and death from Covid-19 among black people. The murder as well as the disparities in Covid-19 cases and outcomes have exposed, as we all now see, the catastrophic racial and ethnic inequities in every aspect of life in the U.S., from education to employment to housing to health care.
As a public health writer and social activist, I’ve credited myself with firmly grasping these disparities and inequities, which I oppose. Now I see the arrogance in my self-assessment or, more accurately, self-deception; how I have misused it to justify my shameful silences; and, how limited my understanding has been from the perch of my many privileges.
Weeks of heartrending demonstrations and destruction have forced me to face my ignorance and complicity. They have helped me to see that, as Nylah Burton recently wrote in The Independent, “The conversation about white liberal racism is long overdue.” And they have helped me to understand my moral duty as a participant in this conversation: to listen to African Americans and other people of color without imagining that my understanding of Jewish suffering qualifies me to understand theirs; name the injustices that mark black lives; and, most importantly, own my own anti-blackness, by, among many things, confronting an elderly neighbor who makes a racial slur.