Four Ways to Work on Racism

The following is from a Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year] Dvar Torah [sermon] about racism given by Cherie Brown (the International Liberation Reference Person for Jews) at her synagogue on September 21, 2017.

The growing list of issues we face today is overwhelming. White supremacists shouting racist and anti-Semitic chants. Devastating floods in Texas (USA), India, and Bangladesh; hurricanes in the Caribbean, and in Florida and Puerto Rico (USA)—not to mention [and of course] all the contributing factors from climate change. A proliferation of nuclear weapons. And that doesn’t even begin to address all of the horrific policies of our forty-fifth [U.S.] president. Where do we even begin?

Several years ago I was about to give a keynote speech at the University of Texas. Right before my talk, the international director of Amnesty International addressed the group. He gave a hard-hitting speech about all the horrific human rights violations taking place [happening] worldwide. I was in the women’s room right after his talk, and I overheard two young women commiserating with each other: “There are so many awful things going on [happening] in the world. After that talk, we are totally depressed. Nothing we do could possibly make a difference. Let’s just go home.”

And yet, Rosh Hashanah is calling us, shouting to us, to break through our numbness, to hear the sound of the shofar [a ram’s horn blown during Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur]—to dare to let our hearts break about what is happening all around us. To not just go home.

So, this morning, I want to try to break through the feelings of helplessness that I know we all battle with and to offer four specific actions for working on racism that we can each take now.

1) The first: Build one authentic, deeper-than-we-think-we-can-go, jumping-off-a-diving-board-into-the-deep-end relationship with a person targeted by racism who will then trust us enough to tell us the truth about what their life is like. There is no other way we will move forward.

Many years ago I was leading a program in Birmingham, Alabama (USA), in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where the bombing in 1963 killed four Black girls. Every religious leader in Birmingham was in the room. At one point, a white woman who taught at the University of Birmingham raised her hand and said to me, “Cherie, help me. I feel like the Black students in my classes let me into the living room but not into the kitchen.”

I never forgot her statement. Living room relationships are polite. They are formal. They don’t challenge us to our core. Kitchen relationships are messy. They disrupt things. They make us look at what we don’t want to look at. The work on racism requires us to do one key thing: build these authentic in-the-kitchen relationships.

A friend and work partner of mine identifies herself as a dark-skinned Black African-heritage woman and a descendant of kidnapped and enslaved Africans. The Klan killed her grandfather on the front steps of their house while her mother watched. For the past thirty years she has been one of those in-the-kitchen, pushing-me-off-the-diving-board-when-I’m-screaming-I-don’t-want-to-jump close friends.

There was the time a few years ago when she was late for our meeting with a client in New York City because three taxi drivers had picked up everyone around her but refused to pick her up. There was the time she cried to me about someone sitting next to her on the airplane who had leaned toward her and said, “I like your perfume. I thought you people smelled.” There was the time the dean of a major law school here in Washington, D.C., where we were doing anti-racism work, called to tell me that my organization should fire her. Why? Because she had dared to encourage a participant in our training to look at their racism. And then there was last week when she called to tell me that her beloved grandson had just turned fourteen and she was terrified because she knew he had just crossed an invisible threshold. He would now no longer be seen as a cute little Black child, and she was terrified about what would happen to him. Can we dare to find the courage to hear these things?

My friend Larry, an African American man born and raised in Washington, D.C., whom I’ve known and loved for thirty years, let me know last year that after being stopped by police here in D.C. too many times, he had started keeping his driver’s license in the dashboard of his car so he’d never have to put his hand in his pocket and risk being killed.

And then there’s my friend Mona, who is a devout Muslim. After Trump announced a ban on all Muslims coming into the United States from certain countries, Mona opened up to me about something she hadn’t told anyone, not even her husband—that she’d been spit on getting onto the Metro [public transportation] here in D.C. She was brokenhearted, because she was considering whether she should take off her hijab before getting on the Metro to go to work. Mona, who would never take off her hijab anywhere in public, was terrified that in D.C. something would happen to her. And then what would her daughter do without a mother?

Could we each dare in this next year to take one relationship we have, or could contemplate having, with a person targeted by racism and turn it into an honest, no-holds-barred [unrestrained] personal friendship in which that person trusts us enough to tell us the truth, to tell us what racism is really like in their life day to day? Take a moment now and think who is that person for you. And if you can’t think of someone now, come back to it in your quiet meditations over the next eight days before Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism]. If each of us in this room could build one new relationship this year in which we become a solid ally to a person targeted by racism, it would transform us, and it would transform our community. There is just no way we can make a sustained commitment to take action against racism without having these personal relationships that propel us toward action.

This kind of one-on-one relationship building is often dismissed as not doing enough of the real work needed to end systemic racism. But actually it is the most reliable way we can each begin to do the work to confront racism—our own and everyone else’s. I believe strongly that it is because of sexism that relationship work is so devalued. It gets seen as soft, touchy feely, and therefore women’s work. But the truth is, we women know a whole lot about what is needed to change the world. After all, it was Sarah who had the biggest vision of what was needed for her son, Isaac, and ultimately for the Jewish people.

2) The second action: Rosh Hashanah calls each of us to believe in the bottom of our hearts that, despite all appearances to the contrary, change is possible. That human beings can change. That we can look deep enough inside ourselves today and throughout the Yamim Noraim, the days of awe [the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur], find those places that need repair, and then offer teshuvah [returning—or repentance] and begin to change. We need to believe that human beings can change, or we will never be able to sustain the kind of activism needed to end racism.

I once did a training for a group of skinheads referred to me by the courts after they had painted swastikas on their school playground, and I saw them change. I actually asked them to leap in the air and shout, “It’s great to be a white male skinhead!” And afterward I listened to each of their stories of how they’d experienced mistreatment and what the white supremacist group had meant to them. After I listened to them, slowly, one by one, without any prompting from me, they began to tell me that they hated what they had done but that they’d been afraid to back down and possibly lose friends. That honesty and teshuvah came only after I was first willing to offer them a space to be listened to and to be proud of their self-proclaimed identity. When we rob people of pride and dignity, they cannot change, no matter how much we want them to.

3) The third action step: Decide to be an ally first.

A few weeks ago, at a Friday night Shabbat [Jewish Sabbath] dinner in my neighborhood, someone asked me to talk about what we could each do after Char­lottesville [the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, in August 2017, in which white supremacists and neo-Nazis promoted racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, and a man linked to white supremacist groups killed one person and injured nineteen]. I shared a story about my friend Azi, a Muslim woman who had grown up in Iran and had reached out to me and a few of her other Jewish friends after Trump announced his plan to set up a Muslim registry in the United States. We had all immediately written back to her, as I’m sure you would have, “Azi, if there is a Muslim registry in this country, be assured that we will all be first in line to sign up as Muslims.” I had hardly finished my story when the woman sitting next to me at the Shabbat table blurted out, “Well, are they going to be there for us when we get targeted? I don’t think so.”

How many of us have secretly, in our heart of hearts, asked that same question, “But will they be there for us?” How many of us have held back from supporting Palestinian rights all the way because we’ve thought, “But what have they done to be an ally to us?”

We Jews are a terrified people. We have experienced expulsions, genocide, abandonment. I don’t care how much activism or anti-racism work any one of us does, that gnawing question can be lurking there right under the surface, “But will they be there for us?” I cannot tell you the number of times Joyce has called me on [told me about] my racism, and if I’m honest I have to say that my first thought has often been a defensive one: “Well, I’ve done so much work on racism. What have you done lately, as an ally, about anti-Semitism?”

It is totally understandable to have these what-about-me-or-my-people reactions. And yet, they will sabotage us every time. So this morning I ask each of us to consider, in every relationship we have, when someone calls us on something we’ve done wrong and our first reaction is to say, “Yeah, well, let me tell you what you’ve done wrong to me,” that we stop and think, “What if I just listened? What if I decided to be an ally first, even if I cannot tell [see] that they are prepared to be my ally?” That is what we need to do to make a dent in racism.

4) And the fourth and final action I offer this morning—and maybe it’s the most challenging for the work on racism—is to refrain from putting people into two camps: “there are the racists, and then there are the rest of us.” It’s too easy to get divided from each other and declare in our minds who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

A few years ago I was at a meeting with about twenty anti-racism leaders from across the United States. Seventeen of them were people of color, and the other three were white. And all three of the white people were Jews. The meeting just happened to take place during the week that Donald Sterling, the owner of the Washington Clippers, was in the news. He had just been banned from the NBA [National Basketball Association] for life and fined 2.5 million dollars after private recordings of him making racist remarks were made public. On the second morning of our meeting, folks were schmoozing [chatting] about what they’d done for dinner the night before, and the other two Jews piped up [suddenly said], “Oh, we decided to un-Jew Sterling.” I froze. Un-Jew Sterling? I was terrified to speak up. I was terrified of getting attacked. But I knew I’d hate myself forever if I didn’t say anything.

So I jumped in and said, “I’ll take him. He’s still part of my people.” Donald Sterling is a raised-poor Jewish guy from Brooklyn (New York, USA). Were his comments vile? Yes. Does he need to be accountable? Yes. And yet, he was also secretly taped in a private conversation by someone who was out to get [deliberately hurt] him and humiliate him.

We want so much for there to be good guys and bad guys: “Those over there are the racists. And then there are the rest of us.” What if we could remember that every one of us is deeply good and yet every one of us growing up in this society has also been hurt by racist conditioning? What if we didn’t demonize people but instead fought hard against their bad policies?

On this Rosh Hashanah, as we start that once again joyous and heart-wrenching journey of turning ourselves around, I conclude by summarizing four actions for our work on racism:

1) Build one authentic in-the-kitchen relationship with a person targeted by racism and then make it safe enough for them to tell us the truth about how they experience racism every day.

2) Hold on with all our heart to the belief that human beings can change.

3) Put aside the defensive urge to think or say, “But what about me?” or “What about my people?” Instead, be the first one to be an ally.

4) Remember there are no bad guys. There are only hurting people who do and say painful, awful things.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I wish for all of us the courage to listen when it’s unbearable to listen, to move through our numbness and let our hearts break as we face the truth about racism. I believe, in the bottom of my heart, that we can and will end racism. And it’s the day-to-day concrete actions we take that will make the difference.

Le Shana Tova. [A good year.] I wish all of us a meaningful, healthy, working-to-end-racism New Year.

Cherie Brown

International Liberation Reference Person for Jewish People

Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of Jews

(Present Time 192, July 2018)

Last modified: 2018-07-29 12:16:14+00