A Note From Noah

Resist the shush factor!

Cutting through a lot of the jargon and theoretical debates, this line was one of my big take aways from this weeks’ Parent Association Social Justice Panel, dedicated to “How do we talk to children about race?”  As the evening unfolded, it became clear to me that we had mis-titled the panel. We shouldn’t be limiting this conversation with our children to “race” – which the panelists described as the potentially simplistic-and-naïve sense of, “Some people have black skin, some people have white skin, and we’re all equal, and it’s beautiful” – but should instead be explicitly talking about “racism.”

Each of the four panelists – Bonnie Cushing from Border Crossers, Megan Madison from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Gab Sussman and Molly Raik from the SEED program and classroom teachers at Rodeph Sholom School – encouraged us to name race with our children, to teach children the word “stereotype”, to talk about our whiteness and our privilege, and to not shield our children from the ugly effects of racism in our world.

Bonnie Cushing shared with us the apt metaphor of the Sleeping Beauty story. An evil fairy curses newborn Princess Aurora, foretelling that before her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel with disastrous consequences. The King and Queen immediately decree that all spinning wheels in the kingdom be burned. On her 16th birthday, the fairy magically produces a spinning wheel, which Auora – having never seen one before – is fatally attracted to. She approaches the wheel and her curiosity leads her to prick her finger and fall into eternal slumber (until of course she is saved from her passive state by her aggressive male hero but I’ll let my last Note speak to that narrative element!).

Bonnie’s point is that race and racism are the same way. She encouraged us to “resist the shush factor” and instead dive head-first into this tough topic. Rather than offer my interpretation of how to do this, here are my notes from what each of our four panelists said:

-Name race. Talk about it. Label your ethnicity. “As a white mother/father/teacher, here’s what I think…”

-If we don’t explicitly combat racism, and instead rely on a general liberal environment (such as the JCC or the UWS) to teach our children values, our children will, simply and plainly, soak up the systemic racism inherent in American culture.

-Conduct a “racial biography” and an “inventory of bias.” What personal biases do you carry around, perhaps without even recognizing it? Where in your life does race matter? How does your skin color impact your daily experience? Explore white privilege: make a list of ten ways in which your life would be different if your skin color was different.

-Shift what you do, not only what you think. Children watch more then they listen.

-Young children are able to think about big ideas (you’ve heard me say that before!). Don’t let complexity be your enemy. Don’t be shy about things you don’t understand. Your child is likely already thinking about them. Not talking about them doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about them – it just means they’re lacking your guidance.

-Ask critical questions around media literacy. While watching TV or reading books, ask your child, Whose voice is included? Whose is excluded? How is beauty defined? Why are all the characters white? How would this book/show be different if the characters were black? Did the author/producer decide to make them all white?

-Grab a hold of the racist elements of society and include them in conversation. If you feel your child is old enough, when they ask about a homeless person of color, don’t only talk about, “That person doesn’t have enough money and so they are asking others for money to buy food for their family.” Include, “I notice that person’s skin is black, and I know that across our country, having black skin makes it harder to get a job and make money. That’s called racism, and it’s a big problem.”

- As Ruth Messinger succinctly put it, perhaps half-glibly and half-sincerely, “institutions that aren’t anti-racist, are racist.” Members of the panel shared that 20% of the American Jewish population are estimated to be racially and ethnically diverse. This is not reflected in our school body. What active, explicit, transparent measures can our own school do to combat racism and the homogeneity of our school? As one of our panelists (a Jew of color) put it, as she was looking for an UWS synagogue to join and didn’t see any Jews that look like her, it is a problem that “Jewish spaces” are also “white spaces”, and we can start by naming it.

Throughout the conversation, tears were shed and emotions were unstable. I am so proud of our parents who joined in the conversation, asked hard, thoughtful, pointed questions, and resisted the urge to hide from our privilege and instead expose it. Thank you to Meryl Brown and Jordana Kritzer for coordinating the evening, and to Betsy Goldin and Donna Sheynfeld for making our PA a space for this type of conversation. I am looking forward to continuing the conversation with our teachers, parents, and JCC staff.

Shabbat shalom,