Courtesy of Be’chol Lashon
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Earlier this year, the Jewish overnight camp Eden Village garnered a great deal of attention for its “no body talk” policy, which camp leaders described as providing a “break from mentioning physical appearance, including clothing.”
The policy, which aims to lessen the stress children feel about appearance, certainly has merit. But now that students have returned to school, where social anxieties can fester, our experience at Camp Be’chol Lashon points to a much different way of approaching bodies and appearance.
At Be’chol Lashon, which provides a space for racially and ethnically diverse Jews, discussion about appearance is the norm. Instilling confidence and pride among our campers means doing exactly the opposite of the “no body talk” rule. We talk openly about shared external characteristics in the context of race and identity.
Refraining from any comments on appearance means, by default, that race will be ignored. There will be those who see this as a positive. It is common in seeking racial equality to claim not to see race, to be “colorblind.” To some it speaks to a vision of a world where the color of one’s skin does not matter. To our campers, it means that a critical component of who they are becomes irrelevant, even taboo.
It’s getting to the point where I can feel it in my posture. The inevitability of street harassment makes my shoulders tense up before I even leave my house. I don’t make eye contact on the street, ever, but especially with men. I wear headphones all the time anyway, but because of them, I probably don’t hear things that are said to me when I’m walking, for better or worse. None of these things stop street harassment, of course, but at least it makes it easier to get where I need to go.
Recently, photographer Hannah Price used her camera to document the faces of men who street harass, taking a picture of them in the moment immediately following their catcall. In an NPR interview Price remarked, “Just turning the photograph on them kind of gives them a feel of what it’s like to be in a vulnerable position…. It’s a different dynamic — but it’s just another way of dealing with the experience, of trying to understand it.”
I recently wrote an article in the Sisterhood entitled “Why I Check Both White and Jewish,” about white privilege, gentrification and my experience being marginalized as a Jew. My intention was to spark conversation amongst readers about privilege and racial identity in order to work towards dismantling racism both within the Jewish community and beyond, articulated quite succinctly in Sarah Seltzer’s response piece about acknowledging privilege and honoring the Jewish tradition of social justice.
But how my piece epitomized the very privilege I set out to highlight is something about which I was restless before the piece published. Readers’ responses challenged me even further. Through a live Twitter chat Sisterhood blog editor Abigail Jones and I organized using hashtag #MyJewishID, and several of my own private conversations with readers, I began to recognize that the tears I wrote about — the very ones that moved many readers in an empathetic and powerfully positive way— simultaneously left others highly triggered, unsettled and disturbed.
My “white guilt tears” were the result of a series of actions one Saturday morning in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where I live. In short, a local Latino neighbor perceived my actions of deliberately closing my apartment door in our predominantly Latino neighborhood as racist. As I walked down the street, I overheard him talk about my actions to the bodega clerk next door, came back, apologized, clarifying that my intentions were not racist, and ultimately ended up in tears myself — with him comforting me.
The moment and exchange became about my guilt. It returned to my power and privilege.
Join Caroline Rothstein on Twitter for a Tweet chat about this article tonight, Wednesday, July 31, from 7:00 to 7:30pm ET. Share your opinions with the hashtag #MyJewishID.
On a recent Saturday morning, I left my Bushwick apartment in yellow galoshes and a black raincoat, my red umbrella tucked under my elbow, my yoga mat swung over my shoulder. As I opened the door to exit my building, a middle-aged Latino man left the adjacent bodega with a fresh cup of coffee in hand.
He turned his body and prepared to sit on my building stoop. Instantaneously, upon walking outside, I pulled the front door behind me; I didn’t want it to slam into him. After all, I always close the door when someone is standing in the doorway.
As I turned right and headed down the block to catch the bus, I caught a glimpse of the man’s face. It looked as if decades of disappointment engulfed his gaze. I watched him leap back into the bodega, raising his voice: These white people moving into the neighborhood are racist.
I halted. Turned around. Walked back. Met the man, now sitting on my tiny stoop, eye-to-eye. Amidst his hurt words, I told him I had no intention of insulting him; closing the door had nothing to do with the color of his skin.
He stood up and said that us white people keep moving here, thinking everyone’s a criminal. I assured him I wouldn’t have moved here if I thought that. Assured him I’m working desperately hard to respect everyone who lives in this neighborhood, which is predominantly Latino/a. And then, coaxed by something far deeper and far more overwhelming than this specific interaction, my eyes welled up with tears.
Many little girls grow up on Disney princess cartoons. I grew up on Bollywood films, dancing to the Hindi music, the lyrics to which I had memorized by the time I was six. I was raised in the 1980s in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and Bollywood’s charming wholesomeness was imported in droves. I’d wager that it was Bollywood’s lack of anti-Communist messaging — rather than its family-friendly nature — that appealed most to the Soviet government.
Only as I got older did I realize that those Indian heroines I idolized were, and still are, stuck in a post-colonial culture that venerates Western ideals of beauty, markets harmful skin-lightening creams and even imports British actresses and Brazilian models to play the part of Indians. They can’t speak the language? It’s nothing a voiceover can’t fix.
In what is dubbed India’s “Snow White Syndrome,” whitening creams far outsell Coca–Cola, and sales are growing at a rate of 18% a year. Recently, the already fair-skinned reigning queen of Bollywood, Aishwarya Rai, was furious over an overly airbrushed Elle cover in which her skin was lightened several shades.
Women are not the only ones who face pressure. When my favorite Bollywood actor, Shahrukh Khan, began serving as a spokesperson for Fair and Handsome, a skin lightening cream for men, I was disgusted. The commercials for the cream always show a darker-skinned man who is mocked or unable to attract female attention until he lightens his skin.
Now, an Indian company has introduced an intimate wash meant to brighten a woman’s skin. The commercial for the wash alludes to a light-skinned couple’s marital woes — woes that apparently vanish when the private-parts wash comes into the picture.
Sarah Seltzer has written extensively on The Sisterhood about television’s resistance to developing characters of color.
She has wondered why all of the titular girls of HBO’s “Girls,” are white girls, and has challenged the idea that a more diverse cast would make the show any less “real.” “We live in an era in which homogeneity isn’t mandatory for authenticity,” she wrote last week.
And as “Mad Men” returned to the air last month after a 17-month hiatus, Sarah made the case for the hit AMC series to take its portrayals of black characters beyond the symbolic:
While I acknowledge that [“Mad Men” creator] Weiner’s past omission of significant black characters is a direct (and accurate) commentary on the segregated, isolated world his show depicts, after several seasons I grew frustrated with a lack of interiority when he did introduce the rare character of color. This wouldn’t have been impossible to do right. His Jewish characters who came in and out of the picture, for instance, such as Season One fan favorite Rachel Menken, were peripheral to the Sterling Cooper world. But they were crucially allowed to have their own scenes — witness Rachel talking on the phone with her sister, who (rightly) declares that Don is a no-goodnik.
Why not allow the Drapers’ former nanny and housekeeper, Carla, a phone call with her sister? Why not allow one of the few black love interests — Paul Kinsey’s girlfriend, Sheila, and Lane Pryce’s “chocolate bunny,” Toni — their own asides with colleagues or friends, their own chances to reflect on the action?
So it’s not surprising that when The New York Times was looking to host on its website a lively debate about race in primetime, they’d ask Sarah to participate.
A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the hype surrounding Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, “Girls,” I noted that there might be a forthcoming critique of the show’s “overwhelming whiteness.”
Now that the premiere has aired, the looming quibble has blown up to a full-blown controversy — and understandably so. One of the show’s writers, Lesley Arfin, responded to a piece of commentary on the show’s whiteness with an offensive tweet: “What really bothered me most about ‘Precious’ was that there was no representation of ME.” She apparently apologized and then deleted the apology and the tweet. Some web sleuthing revealed that Arfin has written and said some even worse things in the past. Meanwhile, digging into the show’s casting calls include a panoply of tired stereotypes.
Serious damage has been done to the show’s brand. These pieces by Dodai Stewart and Kendra James address “Girls” and these flaws with clear eyes and explain why we shouldn’t give it a pass just because it’s well-done and about women. Indeed, we can’t give it a pass: The failings of “Girls” come after the unmet promise of “2 Broke Girls,” which directly addressed class issues in a friendship, but whose minor characters are blatantly racist caricatures. (Notice a pattern here?)
I wonder, sometimes, if the embedded hierarchy is so intense in our culture that films and shows about women can’t get made unless they somehow reinforce other dominant power structures. I hope that’s not the case.
AMC’s “Mad Men,” which returned last night with a two-hour premiere, is a show with a relatively small audience, but a disproportionately active one. Sometimes it feels that 99% of that viewership consists of media professionals who look forward to writing their own recaps and tweets the next morning — not to mention designing animated .gifs of the funniest scenes of the previous night’s episode. Remix videographer Elisa Kreisinger has taken the playing to a new, thought-provoking level, creating detailed remixes of scenes from the show’s seasons, including this feminist musical rendering of the women of “Mad Men”:
“Mad Men” is tailor-made for the chattering classes because creator (and Member of the Tribe) Matthew Weiner uses enigmatic moments, historical events and symbolism to create buzz and speculation. Unlike other media-darling shows like “Friday Night Lights,” which is less polished, but whose characters feel like solid, lovable friends, “Mad Men” characters always feel as though they’re just millimeters beyond my grasp. I think I know what they’re up to but I’m uncertain enough that I have to check with my neighbors to confirm my reactions.