From a Letter to Jeff Hitchock
My own leanings towards anti-racism started to crystallize last winter during my term at Pendle Hill: I took a Facilitating Group Learning course and was paired with an African American member of Cambridge Meeting, Michelle Brimage. It took much work and sitting together in the fire to come to trust one another: it was worth it. We both learned and grew.
People of color have played a significant role in my life. My African American nanny took me on play dates in her neighborhood; I was given the loving nickname “Jamal” in high school for sitting at the Black kids lunch table; Artists of color have been important collaborators (I’m a lighting designer). I considered myself pretty racially enlightened.
Through the work at Pendle Hill, I realized that it is impossible to be White in America and not be racist. The most personal aspect of my own racism is, from a young age (I remember it from 5), I have never been attracted to a Black woman. My dearest friend is a beautiful woman; we connect on a deeply spiritual level; I can truly say I love her. The buds of a romantic relationship, no? I have never felt the slightest physical attraction because she is Black.
I don’t say this to condemn myself. I am not a bad person. But this bit of racism (among others) is an intrinsic part of me: to know myself, I must recognize it. As Willa said, being White is like being a fish in water. It is so easy to not feel one’s privilege and be oblivious to how others might feel uncomfortable wet.
Returning to last year at Pendle Hill, Michelle and I ran a small workshop; I found a letter from a freed slave to his former master (through Ta-Nehisi Coates). The letter moved Michelle, and we wanted to share it. Without telling people about the letter, we invited the community to a Quaker-Theatre experiment. After a brief container building exercise, I taught the participants the Gibberish Game. Two pairs hold a conversation, each person having one of two roles. One begins by speaking in gibberish (“Gobbly Gook? Hog, nog, blubberbus?”). Her partner translates into English. One of the other pair responds in gibberish, followed by his partner translating. No one person is in charge: the four have to create and navigate the event together. Much laughter was had as we explored romance, Work Morning fights, and Quaker Singing.
After the group got a hand of it, we pause as I handed out the letter. Michelle read it aloud and we sat in silence to give everyone a chance to read. The pairs were re-juggled and they were tasked with creating a conversation between the former master and slave, using the game. It was difficult, perhaps especially for the master pair. Especially as Michelle was the only African American or person of color in the room. But it was powerful work. Afterwards we held a worship sharing and, I believe, went deeper than we would have without the performance.
Whew. That’s a lot and sorry to overburden your inbox. I’ve got a bit more for you yet, though.
The Name: EAQWER. I’m actually more comfortable with the out of date title from the NYYM website: White Friends Working to End Racism. Though my family is originally from Eastern Europe, as a Jew, I don’t identify with “European” culture. Particularly as Jews only became “White” in my parents’ lifetime. While not comparable to Black segregation, my parents were members of Jewish pools and social clubs, as they were not welcome at White ones. On the other hand, I am undeniably White.
It’s important to remember that White and Black are fluid categories, essential to America, but only tangentially related to ethnicity and culture. Kenyans, African Americans, and Afro-Caribbeans are all Black in this country, erasing their important differences. Greek-, Jewish-, and English-Americans are all White, erasing their important differences while imparting privilege.
As life is so often serendipitous, I arrived home this evening to read a New York Review of Books’ article on Jews and Catholics. A couple passages:
Some Catholics at the Second Vatican Council said the charge of decide against the Jews was so silly it should not be dignified with a refutation. John Connelly in his book From Enemy to Brother writes that the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray actually claimed that he had not heard the charge until he was forty. In the same way, deniers of anti-black prejudice in America forget that there was slavery, or say it was ended without aftereffects, or it wasn’t really so bad (no worst than, say, “wage slavery” up north—slaves, after all, could not be fired from their jobs. The prejudiced cannot recognize their own prejudice—as one cannot taste one’s own saliva.
The American Jesuit John LaFarge was an outspoken critic of America’s anti-black racism. When Pope Pius XI learned of his work, he asked LaFarge to draft and encyclical on racism. But again the Jesuit general, Ledóchowski, intervened. He assigned a racist German Jesuit to be LaFarge’s coauthor. Thus, as Connelly write, when LaFarge turned from “advocating the rights of African Americans victimized by discrimination…to Catholic writings on the Jews, [he] drew upon the same anti-Judaic tradition” as his racist coauthor. The encyclical was never released, since it said that Jews, “blinded by a vision of material domination and gain,” were an “unhappy people, destroyers of their own nation,” who had “called down upon their own heads a divine malediction.”
There were only four, other than Michelle and myself. If there were more, we would have asked for volunteers. ↩
Garry Wills, Catholics and Jews: The Great Change, NYRB, March 21, 2013. Unfortunately behind their pay wall. ↩
A claim I heard at Pendle Hill. I could have been more temperate in my response to it. On the other hand, my anger provoked the rest of the table to defend the proposition. ↩
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