This past week was intense, right?. Let’s just say it wasn’t the greatest election result for those of us who believe in racial justice. Tabitha and I were tense and walking around New York the day after the election was eerie–it was raining, everyone looked warn out and the future was dire.
Thankfully, I jumped into a bubble of racial justice on Thursday: I had the privilege of attending Facing Race, a conference for racial justice held in Atlanta this year. I had been to Facing Race once before, but this time was different. In 2012, I worked the conference with Kids Creative, creating a musical with kids whose parents were attending. The musical was about activist robots who broke down while giving a speech and had to be fixed by an owl before someone spilled oil on the stage. The play was imaginative and fun and the rest of the conference in 2012 was well structured, exploring issues of systemic racism.
Enter 2016. There was a pall hanging over the entire conference. It was deep, important and after this election season, it was cathartic. The mood was more urgent than ever–everyone asked the same question: what do we do with a President Trump? I went as a representative of the Race Working Group at Kolot Chayeinu, the wonderful, progressive synagogue that Tabitha and I attend with our son in Brooklyn. I was with two educators from the Kolot, Franny and Kendell, and together we joined white Jews, black Jews and Mizrahi Jews from the organization Repair the World, all looking to expand the Jewish community’s approach to racial justice. We went to learn, embrace and ready to make change.
Here are 5 things I took away from the conference:
- White people: We are just waking up but we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back just yet. Woke-ness is an ongoing process. I’m not woke. I’m on an evolving path to wake up, but waking up doesn’t happen after one conference. We have to face the truth about our privilege and think critically about a lot of things that can seem complex, like gentrification and white privilege. For people with privilege, equality feels unfair and we need to step out of our box and unpack that feeling of equality that may feel uncomfortable at first. We have to be ready to do something.
- Facing Race is necessary as the topic of racial justice competes for attention on a national level. The conference occurred 2 days after the elections and we were all stunned. Literally stunned. Traditionally marginalized people went from saying “please recognize systemic racism and my marginalized status” to “I’m afraid because people, including a President-elect, are blatantly racist and threatening my right to exist in this country”. We went from the first Black president moving the country forward on major progressive items to a President-elect intent on destroying that progress. There was a lot of conversation about those who had registered with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), who were feeling semi-welcomed by having temporary sanctuary and safety in the country where they were raised to realizing “Oh shit, I’m registered with the government as undocumented (as ironic as that may be) and the new administration wants me gone”. The concern was palpable, tears were flowing, people were hugging and everyone was walking around in a daze. But it was good to be around people that were talking about it. As huge sections of the country quickly legitimized the racism and bigotry of the campaign, it felt like a treat to be among people that do not see this behavior as acceptable.
- I can embrace my White male privilege in this space…by being aware of my White male privilege. I don’t get eyed very often for what I look like, but at Facing Race I felt a few looks of distrust. An important note–this doesn’t reflect negatively on the other person. It reflects the general fear that marginalized people have of those with traditional positions of power. For some, it may have been: Oh great, he’s here to dominate, to expect privilege, to mansplain (it’s a real thing, I’ve definitely mansplained before). For me, this conference was about facing the space I am in, acknowledging my privilege, not making excuses for it and not letting it dominate the conversation. It’s also about being understanding with people who have been traumatized by it and realizing that not everything is about me. It’s not about the white male in the room.
- If you’re white and you read Ta Nehisi Coates, it’s not time for congratulations. Coates is just the beginning. “Between the World and Me” is a great read and a wake-up call for white people, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As individuals, we need to continue the work on facing racial disparities in America and we don’t have to do it alone. There are so many other brilliant people who are writing, thinking and working in the space of racial justice that we can look to for guidance. Just check out the lineup. At the conference, there were sessions on entrepreneurship for racial justice, education, environment and so much more. The sense that everything is interconnected was not just present at Facing Race, it was handled in a way that didn’t make it as overwhelming as it often feels. After a REALLY long and REALLY negative campaign season (I think that nobody realizes the effect of seeing so much negativity all over the media for over 1.5 years), it was important to be in a space where each person is honored.
- The arts are essential in racial and social justice. Sometimes you need to listen to a speech, sometimes you need to talk and sometimes you need it to hit you in the face through dance or a painting or a film. If you don’t know Lady Dane, check her out! Let’s just say that “Trump’s worst nightmare”–an ancient jazz priestess of Mother Africa trans performing artist–has a great voice.
- Jews have a very important role in racial justice. As Jews, we don’t have to separate our fear of anti-semitism from the greater conversation of racial justice. They are interrelated, especially for Jews of color. During college, I chose to start wearing a kippah. After college, I stopped. It was a deliberate decision. While my religious beliefs have changed so that I no longer feel that I have to wear a kippah all the time, I also didn’t want to be judged as a Jew working in a secular world. I didn’t realize at the time what a privileged decision that was. People of color can’t change their skin color. A Jew of color who chooses to wear a kippah is making a deliberate decision, but they have already been living as an “other”. They don’t have the choice of privilege. As a welcome to Trump’s America, someone I was traveling with, a Jew of color wearing a kippah, had change thrown at him while going up the escalator in the Atlanta airport, very much a traditionally anti-Semitic thing to do. He wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt but their laughs gave them away. Subtle hatred has moved into blatant hatred. We were all shaken by this incident but we rallied around him.I’m not always sure how to feel about being Jewish in liberal spaces, so perhaps the most profound thing to me was that despite the fact that this conference was not about anti-Semitism, I felt support for Jews–and anyone who is “othered”–without anyone mentioning it. The space was so hyper-aware of intolerance and injustice that everyone was ready to take a stand for everyone else. Even protesters got their chance at the mic.
This conference was cathartic and I so needed it. Blatant racism is only a short distance away from structural racism and we need to fight to stay away from that.
What’s the biggest thing I learned from the conference?
As a white, Jewish man I need to listen. I need to listen. I need to listen. And I need to act.