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.”
Shock. Anger. Sadness. Three emotions that I felt acutely this weekend, when a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. But those three emotions can’t begin to describe the heartache and sorrow I feel. I’ve had a heavy heart these past few days. So heavy that words seem inadequate; I haven’t been able to fully name the feelings that occupy my mind and fill my heart with a heaviness I’ve not experienced. As a black woman living in America, I’ve known since childhood that racism exists, but it seemed — at least I hoped — it was confined to the Civil Rights area or the south. This weekend and this verdict remind me that racism is not dead.
I have been thinking of my nephews, three black boys growing up in a world that, time and time again, tells them that no matter what they accomplish, no matter who they become, no matter how much love and support they receive from their family, they should — and will — be treated with suspicion. I’m thinking of my father, who is raising these boys, and how he probably didn’t expect to have to teach his grandsons the lessons that his father taught him in the 1960s: that they’ll have to be better, smarter and more educated than everyone else; that they should be aware of who they’re talking to and how they’ll be perceived; that they’ll need to watch their backs and “stay out of trouble.”
Like a lot of people, I was naïve. I thought that by electing a black man into the nation’s highest office we had, somehow, moved beyond an America that judges a person based on skin color, gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status or ability. I tricked myself into thinking that I lived in an America where the children I hope to bear will be able to walk down any street in any city and feel safe. I convinced myself that I wouldn’t be denied the same federal rights as straight citizens. I tried to believe that I lived in an America that allowed me, as a woman, to make choices about my own body. I tried to convince myself that we were moving towards a future and making changes that would fully live up to the dream of America that President Obama spoke about in his second inaugural address.
This week Yityish Aynaw, the first black Miss Israel will sit down with Barack Obama, the first black U.S. President. The former may be a beauty pageant winner and the latter the leader of the free world, but beyond the different job descriptions they have a lot in common. Their respective victories made them “firsts,” and by making the strides they have, they’ve also been subject to unfair and unwarranted vitriol, much of it downright racist.
Both Aynaw and President Obama have found success in nations that were founded on noble ideals about freedom from persecution, and proven that individuals can overcome discrimination. As Aynaw herself noted, “For me, [President Obama] is a role model who broke down barriers, a source of inspiration that proves that every person really can reach any height, regardless of their religion, race or gender.”
But unfortunately while success for minorities is possible in both countries, it remains far from probable due to entrenched oppression. In fact, both nations have won new measures of freedom for their own people too often and too intrinsically on the backs of the oppressed, whether second-class citizens at home or victims of occupation and foreign wars.
A few week ago I had two very different experiences having to do with my necklace. At a party a friend of a friend asked about the Chai around my neck and then asserted that there weren’t any black Jews. On the ride home another person, a stranger, noticed the Chai and then pulled out his gold Magen David. He shook my hand and, with a genuine smile, called me sister.
They were both white male thirty-something Jews, but the experiences were very different.
If I asked my Jewish friends – a mix of black Orthodox Jews by birth, black Jews by Choice, Hispanic Jews, and liberal-lefty Ashkenazi Jews – if Jews are racist, they would all answer yes. They would site the treatment of Arabs in Israel, and the current situation with undocumented Sudanese immigrants in the country. They would tell me personal stories of hearing nasty words said around them in synagogue, or they might share their experiences being the only black child in yeshiva. My Ashkenazi friends have told me about discussions around Shabbat tables, where, among friends, hateful comments about Arabs or blacks littered the conversation.
And then there are also the more subtle moments of racism in our community, when it’s not so black and white.
The “Shit Girls Say” videos, which The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss weighed in on here, have been an online phenomenon with spin-offs including “Shit Guys Say” and the most spot-on, “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls. “ (Nuggets include: “Jews were slaves, too; you don’t hear us complaining about it all the time” and “you guys can do so much with your hair” and “not to sound racist, but…”)
As I watched this video for the fourth time, I realized that someone should make a video called “Shit White Jews Say To Black Jews.” It would include statements like:
“Where should I put my dirty dish?”
“Are you someone’s nanny?”
I thought it was just me, but when I asked other Jews of Color, they told me they’ve heard things such as: