More Musings on Racism
Racism has been with humankind for centuries. Americans focus on our sin of slavery. After slavery was abolished, a more subtle form of subjugation took hold in the South. The remainder of what was the United States at the end of the 19th century continued to function with other forms of bondage. Less obvious, but detrimental to African Americans, were discrimination in housing, education, justice, and overall opportunities for socio-economic advancement. Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans suffered greatly, in specific regions of the country, during our history.
Mea culpa--I am white. I will never know exactly how it feels to be non-white. I am Jewish, though, so I have an inkling of the deadly effects of discrimination.
The brief summary above takes one through the 20th and early 21st century. Unfortunately, racism is alive and well. I grew up in a period when segregation of races was commonly accepted. My parents never demonstrated hatred of other races; however, my mother and father did not exactly embrace people of color. There's was a standoffish attitude. The San Francisco of the 1950's and 1960's that I experienced during my childhood was characterized by segregated schools and neighborhoods. I never set foot in the Black and Mexican neighborhoods. I did visit Chinatown because of the restaurants and shops. As cities go, San Francisco was liberal and polite. Hatred was not acceptable nor encouraged. However, integration of the races was discouraged. When the house next door was sold to Black Americans, my parents and the neighbors went slightly ballistic. I knew then that something was not right in the state of Monterey Heights, my neighborhood in San Francisco. The family moved in, and there were never any serious problems or incidents. My younger brother played with their youngest daughter. I remember fondly when Myrenia and her grey cat came to our kitchen to "play cards" with my brother. The experience of having Black neighbors in the mid 1960's enabled our family to grow and become less fearful. It must be noted that we never socialized. My first direct experience with African American peers was in junior high school. The kids lived in an area called Ingleside. They were hardly ghetto tough, but to me they were intimidating. They didn't shy away from asserting themselves. I shrunk like a fading flower. Most important was the academic tracking that occurred. As the achievement level of the students in a homeroom increased, the number
of Black youngsters decreased. This was classic discrimination based on race. My class had two Black students; I was in an average group. I remember them well. Ted was probably the first gay young man I ever met. Rochelle was very sweet, smart, and an excellent student. She went on to become a pediatrician. Again, I knew that something was rotten in the state of Aptos Junior High. My academic high school consisted primarily of white and Asian students, with a sprinkling of Blacks, reminding me of a pinch of pepper in a creamy colored soup. This is shameful to admit but I do not remember any Black students during my college years, in the 1970's. As I think back on this realization, I am astounded. There was one African American young woman--who unfortunately dropped out--in my master's degree program in Boston. There was a large population of Blacks in Boston at the time. My most valuable lesson occurred in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I have lived for the past 44 years. I was employed by the public school system, so I plunged into a pool of staff and children from all over the world, including the ghettos of Washington D.C. I feel lucky to have worked side by side and socialized with staff of all colors and shades. I learned a great deal of value, both from the adults and students. Not all was positive, I admit. The lingering effects of generational poverty--caused by inequities--left me feeling frustrated, defeated, and hopeless. I am a work in progress in relation to racism. As Americans, we must constantly re-evaluate our opinions about others--not a task for those who refuse introspection. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) required staff in the 1980's to take in-service classes in Black, Asian, and Latino studies. Therefore, I have a strong foundation in racial/cultural bias. I was also exposed to the concept of institutional racism in college classes. Nothing nor anybody are perfect, and the school system is continually criticized and forced to address racial issues; but, I believe MCPS was ahead of its time. Now I move on to a subset of racism or a branch on the huge tree of racist thought and policy. I write of religion, a most controversial subject, especially in the present chaos that is our society. I am Jewish, so I will only address what I know. This is in no way meant to focus on Jews in a critical manner. I am writing about positive change; we can improve ourselves forever. It is a well-established fact that Jewish people have lived in a variety of countries, literally in all parts of the world. Jews are not only white and European; they are brown, black, and tan. They are Middle Eastern, African, and Asian. By now, the majority of Jews are aware of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, the former being of European descent and the latter of Spanish and Middle Eastern origins. But, do you know that there are Jews who live or have resided in China, Morocco, Central Asia, India, and Ethiopia, to name a few countries? In our quickly changing society, intermarriage of the races and religions is increasingly commonplace. International and domestic adoption creates interracial families. So, a Black person, for example, may come to a Shabbat service some Friday night or Saturday morning at a synagogue near you. I know that my first thoughts when I see someone of color sitting by me (before COVID) on Shabbat is, Why are you here? Are you Jewish? How did you come to be Jewish? In contrast, when I see a person who looks Jewish and/or is white, I think, Oh, good, maybe he/she is interested in our congregation. When I see an Asian child sitting with a Caucasian parent, I think adoption. But, I could be wrong, the young one could be from the union of an interracial marriage. But what happens when that child grows up and steps into a synagogue? My son, adopted from Peru, refuses to visit my accepting, inclusive congregation. He feels he would be the only "brown person." And on most Fridays and Saturdays, he would be correct. My fellow congregants would not ask, "Are you Jewish?" They know he is adopted. But what would transpire if my son walks into a synagogue somewhere else? He would probably be welcomed. But congregants would ask themselves the questions I say to myself. Would the police guard get jumpy? Would the women shy away from him? And just as damaging, would he have to explain himself ad nauseum, each and every time he meets a new congregant.? Why not a Jewish person who comes from Peru? I happen to know of a Jewish woman, who is brown, beautiful, and Peruvian. Her father was posted to Israel for the foreign service. She converted to Judaism while living in Israel. The most embarrasing error one could make is when a person of color is at a Jewish celebration and is questioned per usual. His/her answer is, "My father/mother is Jewish." Why should this person be put on the spot, to feel awkward, or to divulge personal information? The visitor or congregant is from an interracial marriage. Of course, the individual is as Jewish as I am. Skin color is not part of the equation.