It was poignant coming out of Shavuot, the holiday that we celebrate the giving of the Torah, to find the world still so incredibly broken. The Torah as so much wisdom for living a moral life, yet we are mired in patterns of white supremacy. The United States has done little to acknowledge of legacy of slavery, lynchings, and discrimination that continues today.
Rabbi Alan Lew taught that in a recurring catastrophe, we ask how we are complicit and accountable. Systematic racism against people of color, aka white supremacy, is absolutely a recurring catastrophe. And now we are a country in crisis.
What is the mussar response? I was asked to address the murder of George Floyd before a previously scheduled Mussar teaching on Sunday morning. I declined, because to do so would have asked each of us to own our white privilege, and how we have contributed to bias against people of color. Why, because Mussar is a practice of personal transformation, guided by Jewish Wisdom. First and foremost, we have to own who we are, and our mistakes.
The next day, after watching the protests, I made a video owning my white privilege. It was scary, and I feel vulnerable putting it out there. But it is what I need to do to take accountability for where we are. But now that I have, I feel a bit better.
Owning My White Privilege covers a lot of ground
I explain that white privilege is as simple as having the privilege of not being afraid of being murdered by the police.
I also share a painful memory, of a time I was biased and hurtful to a black person. It came from a place of irrational fear. I did not call names or the police, but what I did was unacceptable, and I apologize.
And I offer three Mussar practices, following that soul trait of Silence, that we can do if we want to be part of the solution:
1. Own your white privilege if you are white presenting
2. Reach out to people of color to ask how they are. And be ok if they don’t want to answer. It is particularly important to recognize and see Jews of Color.
3. Speak out about your own bias. This could be telling a friend, or just writing in a journal, But we all can and must own our own complicity and hurtful actions in the past.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs taught that Jews cannot solve anti-semitism. We are the victims of anti-semitism. It needs to be solved by the perpetrators of anti-semitism. Similarly, people of color cannot solve white supremacy. It needs to be solved by people with white skin.
The first step is to admit that having white skin gives us a privilege, if only the privilege of not being killed by the police.
The soul trait of Silence governs when we should speak, and when we should not. To learn more, join us for this week’s Jewish Wisdom for Coping in a Pandemic. The free zoom gathering will focus on Silence.
Originally, this post had an image from Wikimedia commons, showing a postcard of the lynching of three black men in Duluth, MN on June 15th, 1920. It captures the horror I feel about what is happening to people of color in the United States.