By Shayna Herszage, President of Jewish Activism Club, and Gabe Gross, Board Member of Jewish Activism Club
This week, in the wake of protests concerning police brutality and racial profiling against Black people such as George Floyd, has been filled with conflict — whether concerning the debate of Black Lives Matter (a phrase which shows support for Black people in the face of racial profiling by civilians and law enforcement alike) versus Blue Lives Matter (a phrase which shows support for law enforcement) or the debate of whether or not to approve of the looting and destruction involved in some of the protests. For non-Black people, specifically non-Black Jewish people, some important questions remain unanswered: What is our role in this? Do we have a role in this fight at all?
As minorities ourselves, it is easy for a non-Black Jewish person to decide not to be involved in the marches, protests, and general anti-racist activism happening. It is easy to claim that we have our own problems to worry about, such as the antisemitism arising with the spread of COVID-19. It is easy to claim that a non-Black person has no obligation to help the Black community suffering and living in fear within the wider community. However, it is important to recognize that, regardless of any perceived differences, it is our duty as Jews and as people to help the world around us. At the same time, it is important to understand that our role is not the same as that of the Black activists. The roles of the non-Black Jews in this fight are to educate those around us, to be conscious of our own learned and internalized racism, and to stand behind — not ahead of — the Black community in support and solidarity.
Firstly, we must educate those around us on the issues. Many people, whether due to community, upbringing, generation, or other factors, may not recognize the importance of fighting for racial equality, not because they are inherently racist, but because issues, such as racial profiling, have never been taught to them. When someone on a Zoom call or at a dinner table makes a racist remark, do not be silent. Rather, stand up for your values and acknowledge what has been said and why it is racist or harmful to the Black community. Racism is a learned hatred, but, with proper education and effort, it can be unlearned as well.
Just as we must help those around us unlearn racism, we must help ourselves unlearn racism. This statement may invite a defensive response of, “But I’m not racist!” Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that some of our thoughts or behaviors come from internalizing racism in the world. For example, unconsciously labeling Black strangers or passers-by as criminal or “sketchy” is undoubtedly rooted in racist ideas. However, that does not mean the individual thinking said thought is necessarily a racist, only that some racism has been planted within them by those around them, and it is the individual’s responsibility to uproot the learned racism. Confront yourself and the initial thought, and ask yourself why this thought exists. Then, ask yourself how you can revise this thought and its associated racist implications. Working from within on addressing and unlearning our own learned racism is how we prevent teaching racism to the world around us and to the next generations.
Lastly, remember that while we must be involved in the fight for racial equality, it is not a fight which belongs to us. As such, it is imperative that non-Black Jewish people join the fight but ultimately look to Black activists as leaders. Non-Black Jewish people are in a unique position of being familiar with oppression, while also being on the outside of this particular oppressed group. If we steal the narrative from a group that is often silenced and marginalized, we are doing little to help — in fact, we are then harming the initiative. Rather than attempting to take charge, make sure to support the Black community in the writing of their own story. Share their stories, follow their lead in marches, and listen to what Black activists want rather than what you may deem powerful or beneficial.
Even though the fight against anti-Black racism is not one that belongs to non-Black Jewish people on a personal level, the fight nevertheless is one which we must join. As a nation which is not unfamiliar with oppression, it is the duty of every Jew, regardless of their race, to stand in support of the Black community in the fight against oppression. It is our duty to combat the racism in ourselves, combat the racism around us, and support the Black community in making their voices heard.