Reflections on Racism, Antisemitism, and Privilege
What’s happening in America is shameful, tragic, and appalling. Police brutality is widespread, and it is particularly insidious. Police officers, ostensibly tasked with protecting and serving communities, are too often provoking and taking part in community violence. We have seen so many cases of unacceptable behavior that it can be hard to keep count, fueling the unrest we now see spreading across the country and around the world.
Answering violence with violence is not a solution. It is heartbreaking to see. No human being should ever be treated the way George Floyd was treated. Counterviolence during an otherwise peaceful protest is never the answer either.
Peaceful protest is the only way to break this vicious, tragic cycle of pain. Yet when Colin Kaepernick protested peacefully, he was vilified, ostracized, and blackballed.
It’s difficult to have black-or-white solutions to problems that are various shades of gray. Yet our country is becoming increasingly polarized, and polarization is not conducive to finding compromise.
What we can all agree on is that more divisiveness and incendiary rhetoric are not solutions. There are already propaganda campaigns trying to leverage Americans’ pain into more hate and victim-blaming, such as white supremacists posing as activists in an attempt to agitate and sow disarray, as well as antisemitic conspiracy theories that claim that billionaire philanthropist George Soros is a Jewish boogeyman paying protesters and ordering counterviolence and rioting.
In the report linked above about the misinformation propaganda campaigns, the New York Times quotes Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, speaking about this current moment as being a sort of “perfect storm for disinformation.”
“The combination of evolving events, sustained attention, and most of all, deep existing divisions … All of it is toxic,” Brookie is quoted as saying. “[It makes] our very real challenges and divisions harder to address.”
From a very young age, my parents made sure that I knew to treat everyone equally, regardless of skin color, race, ethnicity, religion, you name it. I vividly remember being about four or five years old, coming home from school upset because a classmate had teased me for liking a boy–and saying that I “wasn’t allowed to like him, because he’s a brown boy.” My father, being a Ph.D. in psychology, asked me if he was a nice boy, to which I responded that he was, and he told me that that’s all that matters.
He then took out a box of crayons. He showed me the green crayon and said that he was a green crayon. He showed me a pink crayon and said that my mother was a pink crayon. He picked up an orange crayon and said that the boy at school that I liked was an orange crayon. And he said that we are all crayons and we all share the same box.
“Like a rainbow!” I said.
“Like a rainbow,” he smiled.
My parents have big hearts, but these lessons weren’t just because they were kind-hearted people. My parents escaped an oppressive, authoritarian communist regime in their homeland of Romania so that I could be born here as a first-generation American and know freedom. I see how the trauma of their lived experience affects them, and they would do anything to alleviate the suffering of people all over the world.
My parents would remind me that even though they had their own struggles and worked hard to give me a better life, they still benefit from privilege all the same. They have always been mindful that if they weren’t white refugees, it would have been a lot more challenging to achieve the American dream.
Having privilege is a systemic issue, as well as an individual one. Being mindful of one’s privilege doesn’t invalidate any of the hardships and oppression one may face, just as being a member of a privileged class is not a one-way ticket to prosperity. But it’s important to remember that, to use a baseball metaphor, being born on third base is not the same as hitting a triple.
I’ve always empathized with my friends of color, because like many of them, growing up as a first-generation American, it was not uncommon for people to assume that my parents don’t speak English, or that they are “not from here” because they have accents.
I grew up sort of between worlds, a Christian young woman with refugee parents, having a Christian mother and a Jewish father. I was always trying to fit in, trying to be “enough of” whatever part of me people would say I wasn’t enough of.
I’ve dealt with sexism, antisemitism, prejudice, and racism against me for my skin color too. But I don’t deal with it relentlessly, on a monthly, a weekly, a daily, an hourly, a minute-by-minute basis like others do.
I remember being on a family vacation in Italy when I was seven years old. A waiter noticed my parents’ accents, and he asked where in Europe they were from originally. I proudly and excitedly exclaimed that we were Romanian. I’ll never forget the scowl he responded with and the poor service we received. I later learned that the waiter had conflated Romanian with Romani, the nomadic tribe of people more commonly known as gypsies, who many Italians blame for petty thievery and other misdemeanors. There are Romani people of every skin color from all over the world, such as Irish Romani known as Irish Travelers who can be fair-skinned and blonde with blue eyes. However, many Romani are darker-skinned, and there does appear to be an element of racism involved in much of this anti-Romani sentiment. Whether this waiter knew of these nuances or not, the Romanian/Romani dynamic is often misunderstood due to the similar names, and it taught me a stern lesson about being mindful about how willing I should be to volunteer my Romanian heritage. Other people’s prejudices have led me to censor myself at times.
In certain situations, I have the privilege to disclose or not disclose my ethnic background or my Jewish roots. I could easily say that I am a white Christian woman and I can pass, rather than identifying as a half-Jewish Romanian-American. However, I choose to call myself a half-Jewish Romanian-American with pride. I will always be proud of who I am and where my roots come from, and I will never let anyone make me feel ashamed or lesser for it.
However, I’m not black or brown. I can go into a store and not be followed or be deemed suspicious. People don’t presume I’m plotting a crime when I wear my mask during the pandemic. I can go jogging anywhere, go to the gym, play music in the car, without being stopped by the police or worse.
Anti-black racism is so pervasive in our country, so deep-rooted in how America became America. And yet prejudice, racism, and bigotry affect so many other people as well. The more divided we are, the more the oppressors can leverage our relative isolation and keep us all down. It can’t be black vs. white, straight vs. gay, Christians vs. Muslims vs. Jews, etc., it has to be all of us together vs. the combined forces of racism, sexism, antisemitism, xenophobia, and anti-LGBTQ agendas. The more we stand together, the more effectively we can achieve serious lasting progress and change.
Throughout history, Jewish people and black people, in particular, have been strong allies, brothers and sisters in arms fighting the same battles against their oppressors. Henry Moskowitz, a Jewish Romanian-American, was one of the co-founders of the NAACP, and the organization has had several Jewish leaders and members throughout its history. Jewish activists marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery; the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history was in support of Dr. King. A recent feature in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailed the friendship between Dr. King and Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, and the impact their bond had on the civil rights movement.
When Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player in the major leagues, many Jewish fans in Brooklyn supported him when few others did. After an accidental collision on the field with Jewish Hall of Fame player Hank Greenberg, it was Greenberg who offered Robinson words of encouragement when many others around baseball were only offering contempt. In his autobiography, Robinson wrote about an incident in 1962, when he implored other black community leaders to speak out against antisemitism. He wrote: “How could we stand against anti-black prejudice if we were willing to practice or condone a similar intolerance?”
PBS recently aired a sobering documentary about the rise in antisemitism, which is reaching levels not seen since the 1930s, both here in America and around the world. In the documentary, Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations, they make the case that hate is akin to a virus, that it infects people and spreads the same way other infectious diseases do. Back in 2008, my father published a research paper that expressed a similar sentiment.
Recently, my boyfriend and I were on the street in front of our building where we live, getting some things out of his car. Someone asked whether this was our car because apparently there had been a slew of break-ins recently. We said that it was, and the doorman vouched for us and said that he recognized us as residents, and we all laughed about it and thanked them for keeping an eye out.
But when we got upstairs, my boyfriend and I both wondered the same thing. If we were a different color, would that interaction have gone the same way? Our privilege meant we’ll never know and never have to know.
I do not want the youngest among us to grow up believing that all this enduring hatred, bigotry, and prejudice are an inevitable part of life. Whether you are affected by it directly or not, it’s up to all of us to stand up together for justice, inclusivity, and love for one another. Nobody should have to feel like they are being forced to choose sides.
Kindness does not cost us a thing. We can and should listen to each other, learn from one another, and have meaningful dialogue. Shouting each other down, deflecting, and ignoring the plight of others are not solutions.
America is hurting, but we are resilient. Love can go viral, too, if we are brave enough to let it in and spread it all around us. We all bleed the same blood, and it’s long past due to stop spilling it. Together we can build a home to be proud of, with liberty and justice for all.