I sometimes heard, as I was growing up, a common expression about bartering. If you wanted a lower price at a flea market or garage sale, you’d go to the seller and “chew them down.” You know — the metaphor about verbally bartering back and forth with them as if you were chewing on the price. I myself had probably used the phrase on occasion. It wasn’t until I was in grad school and listening to Jay Holstein, a professor at the University of Iowa, who also happened to be a rabbi, that I realized this was not what this phrase meant. In fact, I wasn’t even hearing it correctly. You see, in the phonetics of the Pennsylvania Dutch accent common to where I was raised (in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania), a “J” often came out sounding as a “Ch.” Imagine my horror when Dr. Holstein asked the class if they had ever heard someone talking about “Jewing someone down” to get a better price. It was like a lightening bold when I realized this phrase, which I had internalized as a young person, was actually a racial slur. This was the beginning of a journey of self-awareness about race that has continued even since.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I offer no new and profound words on systemic racism, new interpretations of race and American history, or even an authoritative take on current events. Rather, here are a few brief and personal “lessons learned” that come to mind. Perhaps at some future time, I’ll work up a longer and more polished summary of this journey. But this will have to suffice for now.
- Learn from people who have a greater awareness and experience of racism and discrimination than you do. This means a certain amount of discomfort and it requires humility and listening. Even if there is not agreement at every turn, there are lessons to be learned. There have been lots of people who have taught me hard lessons, both living and dead. One of the earliest for me was Malcolm X, whose autobiography served as an early lesson in structural racism.
- Coming to grips with issues of race is a journey not a one-time conversion experience. If you’re white like me, you will never be fully “woke,” but that’s a reality one can’t change. But keep moving forward. I went into academe with a strong sense of insecurity about my background and worked hard to convince myself that I was not a product of whatever racial insensitivities had been part of my cultural context growing up. But as I grappled more fully with issues of race, and my own whiteness, I realized I did indeed have a lot to learn. And not just that, but these lessons, as with most weighty lessons, were going to be learned over the long haul. Many years later, I realize the path of awareness will never be complete so here I am still learning.
- The past is not history. America has made strides, but it is not post-racial. This is a land of opportunity, but it has never been a meritocracy. Race is a social construct, but it is still a lived reality.
- Failure happens. There aren’t too many areas of personal failing that are as troubling to me than with matters of race. Yet for all my progress toward racial awareness, I have failed along the way. I have not always given my white students the opportunity to wrestle with the perspectives of marginalized populations in my classes. I have at times betrayed a lack of historical awareness that my black students have no doubt discerned. I have asked stupid questions to persons of color and leaned too hard on them to explain issues I should just research myself. And no doubt there are many more examples of which I am completely unaware. We should get used to the idea that we will make mistakes. But rather than let this paralyze us, we can and should move through these fears so we can make progress.
- At the risk of sounding trite, read, or listen to, books. Here are a few I’ve found helpful recently, especially for white readers:
- Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why it’s Hard for White People to Talk about Racism
- Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
- Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk about Race
- And of course the classic: The Autobiography of Malcolm X