I am not a racist.
I recognize that, in this politically correct era in which we live, this is not the contrite, apologetic pronouncement expected of a what has become known as “the old white man.” But to say that my white skin automatically qualifies me as a racist–something I hear every day–simply punishes the Truth.
It most certainly does not describe who I am.
I hearken back to something once said by one of my greatest heroes, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., who clearly stated that we hope for the day when a person is judged by the content of his or her character, and not by the color of his or her skin.
So why would anyone who claims to follow Dr. King wish to judge me so harshly simply by the color of my skin, without knowing the content of my character?
Such a judgement belies ignorance of what it was like growing up as a white boy in a society where racism was everywhere, and hard even for someone with a pure heart to defy.
Now, what I am willing to own is that, by virtue of this white skin I’m wearing, completely by accident of fate, I’ve benefited from “white privilege.” Where many doors undoubtedly would have slammed shut on a black man or woman, I’ve found opportunities aplenty simply because of my good fortune at having been born white.
Am I going to feel guilty about that? Should I somehow find some way to “return to sender”? Absolutely not! What would be the sense, what would be the value in that?
I think it makes far more sense to extend those benefits to everyone, no matter their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or whatever other labels are used to divide us. I would venture to say that, under any circumstances, enjoying a measure of good fortune should dictate that I share at least some part of that fortune to help others get a leg up. That is simple human kindness and decency.
I think it behooves any of us who are interested in ending systemic racism, as well as reforming our government so that it fulfills its promise to ensure, defend, and protect the unalienable rights of all citizens, to understand the challenges posed by racism for those of us with white skin in a racist world, living among racist family and friends.
So let me begin by describing my own journey through the racist society in which I was raised. Nobody can judge my perspective on race until they know the challenges I’ve faced due to racism.
When I was a child, I don’t remember my age exactly, but it must have been in single digits, I used the “n-word”–not because I knew what it meant…I remember that much…but because I was egged on to use it by some friends. I happened to be within earshot of my mother and, before I knew what was happening, a hand came around from behind me and slapped my face. I was hurt, humiliated, and crying, and all I remember was my mother’s anger and disappointment in my use of that ugly word. My mother taught me from an early age, years before MLK gave his famous speech, that I was to judge a person by their character, and that skin color meant nothing.
That lesson was not to be underscored by my experience with other family members and friends. Let me give a few examples:
I loved my grandmother. I don’t think anyone could fault me for that. Yet my grandmother held some typical racist attitudes for the times in which she lived. I remember well when she told my father that “the schwartzes (a Yiddish word equivalent to the “n-word”) are within six blocks of here” meaning that they had moved in and were living close to her North Philadelphia neighborhood, which also meant that the resale value of her house was dropping, due to what became known as white flight. Next I remember that “they” were living within two blocks of her home, and she had to get out.
This, to me, was grossly unfair and bigoted. As a kid of maybe 16 or 17 years old, I tried to explain how unfair and bigoted she was being. But she verbally slapped me down and warned me not to be disrespectful. What could I say after that, without disrespecting my own grandmother?
I will also mention that, some years after my grandmother sold her house, our neighbor’s grandparents moved out of their South Philadelphia home after black teenagers pelted the grandmother with eggs as she walked home from the grocery store. She no longer felt safe in the neighborhood in which they had raised their family after immigrating there from Italy. Maybe kids will be kids, but that incident–one of several–did nothing to allay the racist attitudes that those two elderly Italians held, and shared with anyone who would listen.
And their daughter, my neighbor, who was like another mother to me, spoke about her own experiences with the black girls who went to high school with her at South Philadelphia High School. Those experiences did not reflect well on black folks. I, of course, knew by then some of the horrific bigotry that those black girls suffered, the deprivations and humiliations of being under the thumb of the white supremacy and systemic racism of the Philadelphia of the 1940s, when they were in high school together. But again, when I protested my “other mother’s” racist attitudes, I was warned about being disrespectful.
Generally, if you came to the defense of black people, and were known to be an admirer of King, or Malcolm, or Eldridge Cleaver, or Rosa Parks, or Angela Davis, or any of the other great black leaders of that era, you were dismissed–no, “dismissed” is too weak of a word–”despised,” spit upon–as an “n-word lover.” And that could get you beaten up, or worse, especially if you were an adolescent, and an unpopular one at that, as I was at the time.
There are complexities to the racial problem in the USA that I don’t see being taken into consideration, that are far from simply black and white. And accusing someone of racism into perpetuity, based simply upon the color of his skin, does not take any of those complexities into account.
As a Jew, I can tell you that I’m well-equipped to empathize with the black experience here in the United States. Knowledge of the history of Jew hating in the European and American Christian worlds should convince a reasonable person of that.
When they were able, Jews fled countries where they were, in just about every respect, the “niggers” of Europe. Jews were often forced to live in isolation from the “good Christian” population. In fact, the word “ghetto” is an Italian word for the sectors where Jews were forced to live, before Italy just went ahead and expelled all the Jews from within their borders.
Jews could not work as professionals, were barred from the universities, as well as from many of the most lucrative trades. Even when they fished, they couldn’t take the best fish–in some jurisdictions, Jews could only take the bottom feeders, which is why we make such good use of carp. In fact, many of the typical “black” delicacies, such as chitterlings, have Jewish equivalents–we call it kishke, and it’s made from cow intestine, rather than pork.
In Russia, Poland, the Ukraine, and some other Eastern European countries, Jews were often attacked in the middle of the night, by military units and private citizens alike, the men and children murdered, women raped and murdered, houses burned, livestock killed or stolen, often in the dead of bitter winters that killed off whomever might have survived because they had no shelter.
Sounds an awful lot like a Ku Klux Klan attack on black citizens, eh? This, among other reasons, might be why Jews empathized with the black American civil rights movement, and why we participated sometimes right up front with MLK and other leaders.* In fact, two of the three students murdered in Mississippi while registering black voters in June of 1964 were Jews.**
Let me also point out that, while my experience with bigotry in this country can’t compare with what black folks endured during the Jim Crow years and beyond, I know what it’s like to endure being kicked, spat upon, beaten up, and humiliated by a gang of Christian kids looking to bully a Jew.
I would also offer my experience as a gay man. Homosexuals also suffered unwarranted beatings and murders at the hands of Christians–both black and white–as well as others, for many hundreds of years. While being gay is not evident from the color of my skin–I’ve been told I “can hide it,” so somehow the hatred-inspired violence I’ve suffered doesn’t count–I did, in fact, hide it for many years because I was terrified to be found out and then subjected to the same horrific treatment of other gay people that I saw all around me.
This isn’t a contest, but what do you think is worse? Experiencing actual hatred and bigotry with the support of parents, friends, and relatives who can commiserate and even help you know how to navigate the bigotry, or living every minute, awake or asleep, with the lonely nightmare of discovery and subsequent ruin, fearing that family and friends will abandon and abhor you?
I would also point out the abject hatred experienced by gay men as we suffered with an unknown sickness now known as HIV. While we tended to the sick and dying, instead of help from our neighbors and our government, we suffered further from condemnation and outright curses from self-righteous religious folks, instead of receiving the help that we desperately needed.
So yes, I’ve known enough suffering in my life, and among the various people with whom I identify, to be able to empathize with the plight of my black brothers and sisters.
And trust me: I’ve encountered people who want to quietly be supportive of me, but who don’t want to be up-front about that support, lest they be identified with one or more of the groups to which I belong. Like the “n-word lovers” of earlier times, they don’t want to arouse suspicion about their own sexual orientation. They certainly don’t want to attract unwanted attention. They’re perfectly willing to have the government find a way to make things right, so that they don’t need to make a stand.
And that raises the question: What stand are you unwilling to take yourself, that you prefer that government take for you, so that you don’t need to stand up and be counted as opposing those close to you who may disagree with that stand?
As I’m watching cities burn from the rioting, I’m reminded of a time when I was just coming up, when we saw the same images of destruction on the televisions and plastered on the front pages of newspapers. I think it’s important for everyone involved to understand that racism is not simply a “black problem,” but one that infects each and every one of us living in this society.
I honestly don’t think that many black folks understand the impact that racism had on a white adolescent coming of age in the Sixties. I remember seeing the police dogs being loosed on peaceful protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I remember the fire hoses turned on human beings, and Governor Wallace in the schoolhouse door, and the marches and speeches of Martin Luther King.
And I also remember the reactions of white family and friends, some grudgingly favorable to the demands of the marchers, but most of them openly hostile.
If I’ve raised awareness about the conflicts of allegiance faced by a white child coming of age and realizing that his own family stands on the wrong side of justice, then I’ve accomplished my goal here.
What do you do when those whom you have been taught to love and respect express something so vile and disgusting?
And to be sure, I am not saying that, growing up as I did, I never harbored a single racist attitude. How could I help not picking some of that up from those who surrounded me?
But I was ever vigilant to examine my own motives, my own attitudes and, where I saw any hint of racism (or any -ism, for that matter) cropping up in my interactions with other people, I recognized them for what they were, and quickly swept them clear from my mind, as well as my interactions with other people.
We all need to learn to work together as a team if we are going to prevail against bigotry that has been so ingrained into our culture and all of the institutions of our government and society. We cannot do that when we handicap others from the get-go by dubious accusations that have no basis in reality. I would venture to say that many of us harbor prejudices that need to be, and have been, cleared by the fresh air of the facts. Nobody should be despised ad infinitum for that.
Let’s begin from that premise, and make the world a better place for all of us, as equals.