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Commentary: Confronting Racism
On May 4-6, I and three other Detroit Jews of Justice leaders attended a “White People Confronting Racism” weekend training with Training for Change in Philadelphia. I arrived home surprised at how heartwarming a weekend confronting racism could be. The training ended with full hearts, affirmation and genuine love for one another. I left feeling the most hopeful I have in a while. I was inspired by the bravery of bringing our full selves to the table: fears, tears, insecurities and all. I left feeling ready to bring openness and compassion to the difficult conversations necessary for confronting racism.
The weekend offered safety to feel uncomfortable, a space for white people to practice talking about race and whiteness. It didn’t take long to realize how little we had talked about being white while growing up. A facilitator reflected, “Silence is also a way we learn a lot about race.” Often fear drives silence. Fear of the guilt that arises when confronting racism and privilege. Fear of being rejected, criticized, judged. Fear of saying the wrong thing, of not being a “good” white person. Doing harm. And the list goes on. We humans are very good at fear.
Although silence may at times be well-intentioned, the impact can still be harmful. It prevents constructive action. It normalizes the notion of whiteness as default, that white people move through the world without a racial identity. It can result in white children growing up without the awareness or skills needed to constructively talk about race.
For many, the intersections of Jewishness and whiteness came up in discussion. Almost half of the group identified as Jewish, with multiple generations represented. We shared insights about feeling marginalized as Jews, carrying historic trauma and fear, and how that can sometimes lead to disassociating from white identity.
I thought about how I have found comfort in presenting myself as a Jewish person, the marginalized component unconsciously absolving me of some white guilt that so often leaves me feeling frozen. We discussed how holding on so tightly to the collective pain of our Jewish identities fails to fully acknowledge the impact of our white identities. Participants also spoke to the importance of bringing our whole selves, finding a balance between validating our experiences as Jews and staying aware of how people perceive the other identities we carry.
For other participants, it wasn’t Jewishness that resonated, but their own feelings of living on the margins, whether because of sexual orientation, economic status, gendered experiences or trauma they carry with them. A room full of people bonded through whiteness, each holding their own diverse perspectives and lived experiences.
We talked about moving beyond the binary of viewing situations as all-bad or all-good. It’s not innately bad to feel the pain of marginalized experiences. It can build empathy. As Jews, this can fuel our fight for justice. But sometimes starting from a place of marginalization can create a barrier to genuine connection. The challenge is to work from a place of empathy without equating painful experiences.
White guilt and the self-loathing that flows from it often motivate us to disassociate from our whiteness. Thinking that if we reject our whiteness, we won’t have to associate with all the “bad white people” or take responsibility for the damage of white supremacy. As temporarily comforting as denying our whiteness might feel, this in itself enables white supremacy, by failing to recognize how we benefit from and participate in a racist society. It also allows for the co-opting of white identity by white supremacist narratives, leaving us to believe the only way to claim whiteness is to associate with the white pride paraded around by neo-Nazis. It’s sad to think this is the only option for feeling confident as a white person in the world.
When we hate our whiteness and what the system has represented for so many centuries, we stay stuck, frozen and unable to re-envision a white identity that could be positive and focused on anti-racist work. The training invited discussion about the idea of building positive white identity. How do we acknowledge the toxic legacy of white supremacy, colonization, oppression, etc., while envisioning a future where whiteness no longer perpetuates this history?
The weekend modeled how we as white people can live out our values more actively in our daily lives. It was a sort of microcosm for what we as a society need to do if we’re ever going to become a sustainable, equitable society. We need to reflect on internalized messages of racism. We need to create more safe spaces to have uncomfortable conversations. We need to bring more love and compassion to the table as we grapple with the root causes of our country’s divisiveness and the immense racial and economic disparities.
It will be difficult to recreate the transformative space offered by Training for Change that weekend. I know this was a special and rare opportunity. But I did walk away knowing there are things I can do.
I can try to create moments of safety for white people in my life to grapple with our fears and confusion about our whiteness. I can bring more compassion to interactions with the people I hold dearest to me and with people whom I might be quick to judge. I can be brave enough to stand by my values while also engaging in authentic curiosity about how others’ experiences shape their current views. I can acknowledge my fellow white people’s humanity, as I challenge myself and others to work toward a world that respects and celebrates the dignity and lives of all people.
Though my fears and perfectionism will slow me down, I know I will make mistakes along the way. I hope that my white community will help me learn from my mistakes, sit with me in the pain of them and encourage me to keep moving forward.
Raised in a Humanistic Jewish community in Ann Arbor, Emma Share moved to Detroit a few years ago to work in youth-serving organizations including a Head Start preschool in Southwest Detroit and, most recently, an infant mental health program at the Children’s Center. She is an active leader on the Detroit Jews for Justice (DJJ) water justice team.