“Despite my upbringing, my education, and my experience, I still have a lot to learn about racism in America. ... There is a great deal of listening and learning to be done.”
I grew up in a multiethnic, multiracial section of Brooklyn. My classmates at school and my playmates in the streets and playgrounds were descended from East European Jews; Italian, Irish, and Polish Catholics; Puerto Ricans; and enslaved Africans.
As kids, we were conscious of our differences and, at the same time, largely indifferent to them when it came to making friendships, forming teams, and having crushes. At home, I was schooled by my liberal parents in the evils of racism and the history of slavery. Jackie Robinson was a family hero—and not just because he was a great second baseman. I was encouraged to have Black friends, and my mother fought to have an African American woman elected president of the Parent-Teacher Association.
I remember being told about Emmett Till's murder when I was 9. I remember my parents explaining to Jewish friends why anti-Semitism is vastly different from discrimination against African Americans. I remember being told that Jews like us might be bullied or harassed, but in a subway or a shop, we’re seen as just white people—and that many Jews have blended in by changing their surnames, a luxury Black people don’t have.
In college, I read authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. I read, or saw on TV, speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I studied sociology with professors who taught about the impact of racial oppression and brought in people of color as guest speakers. I was active in the Civil Rights movement and spent time in rural Georgia helping to register Black voters in the face of resistance by white supremacists.
I say all this not to boast, but to humbly state: Despite my upbringing, my education, and my experience, I still have a lot to learn about racism in America.
I thought I knew all there was to know. I did not. I understood that African Americans—even those who are wealthier and better credentialed than I am—walked through life with disadvantages I did not have.
I knew a lot about the social and economic burdens of Blackness, but I never thought in terms of whiteness or of white privilege. I thought I could come close to knowing what it's like to navigate everyday life with dark skin, but I’ve learned there will always be a yawning gap in my comprehension. And if all that is true of someone with my background, how much more true is it for people who grew up in segregated environments and were saturated with stereotypes and racist tropes?
Our long overdue moment of reckoning is a spiritual challenge, not just a social or political one. We are called upon to stretch beyond our comfort zones, to introspect rigorously and self-assess honestly.
How do we measure up to our cherished values?
How close do we come to our noblest image of ourselves?
How consistently do we exercise in a racial context spiritual virtues such as humility, compassion, generosity, sincerity, empathy, and lovingkindness?
The simple process of listening and learning can bring into play many of those cherished attributes, and there is a great deal of listening and learning to be done.
The moment also calls for the spiritual exercise of enlarging our sense of who we are and whom we include in our circle of kinship. A narrow sense of self and kin restricts our range of care, reinforcing the tribalism that has caused so much misery. Each of us needs to enlarge that circle.
We also need to negotiate one of the trickier paradoxes of spiritual living: to apprehend both the vast diversity of Creation and the unity that underlies and permeates it. We need to celebrate the magnificent variety of human life, including the rainbow of races and ethnicities, and, at the same time, recognize our essential Oneness.
We need to accept our differences and study their implications, and simultaneously embrace the sacred unity of Spirit that transcends our usual forms of identity. Recognizing Oneness does not obliterate individual differences or deny socially constructed categories, but knowing we are all divine beings can help us deal with our historical baggage and create a different template for the future.
And that will take action, not just personal growth, dialogue, and good intentions. White people have to step up—whether that means fighting for effective public policies or writing a check or putting up a lawn sign or simply raising your kids to be anti-racist. With privilege comes responsibility ... or, if you prefer biblical language: “to whom much is given, much will be required.”
Want to learn more? Here are ideas for reading about race.