Justice must be hard-won over and over again. In these chaotic times, our centuries-old dueling narratives are shaped by identity politics and intersectional disputes. The heart of each narrative is how we identify with our social groups – and the biases, assumptions, and expectations that hide within the cultural stories we inhabit.
There is both personal work and collective work to be done to establish that every single story bears seeds of truths, that no single story is The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth. To the degree that we fail to understand this, we will continue to duke it out, trying to make the world over in our small image of justice.
Here’s my cultural story
I’m an aging Jewish woman. That’s how I think of myself. “Aging” has to do with the seventy-three+ years I’ve been traveling around the sun in this body, which is both slowing down and holding up. “Jewish” has to do with my tribe and a world-view that feels like home. How I see myself: as a wanderer, question-asker, wrestler with God, inheritor/innovator of tradition, admired/envied/despised Other, repairer of breaches, restorer of justice, story-teller, lover of wordless melody, cycler through a liturgical year, devoted learner.
Please note, however, that both “aging” and “Jewish” are merely adjectives that modify my primary identity: “woman.” And my particular story about woman: strong, container, crafty survivor, undervalued, physically and economically vulnerable, home to mystery, darkness of all kinds, holder of the keys to life. My particular family lineage story about women also conveys an implicit story about men: not trustworthy, and mostly, not necessary, albeit they are in (undeserved) positions of power and authority.
If you ask for more, I’ll tell you I am “a post-war baby.” That’s World War II. Only from within the viewpoint of my generation is World War II understood. Otherwise it’s a natural question to ask, post-war? Post which war? My generational view elaborates on the aging self: we keep our troubles to ourselves. And underpins my Jewish self: highly assimilated, rising middle class, infected with a post-war surge of optimism that masked the extermination of six million Jews – a trauma so fresh it could not be talked about.
Rising middle class doesn’t get the explicit role in my story it deserves relative to its influence: the unearned gifts – and limitations – it has showered on my life. My 1950s neighborhood was well-segregated from despair, penury, and violence. I regularly rode the Rapid Transit downtown with my mother. And I regularly asked her about poor people as we traveled through trash-strewn gullies and neighborhoods of shabby, grey, tilted homes. I have yet to recall, or reconstruct, her answer.
If you are wondering about the limitations of my secure middle-class upbringing, here are I few I can speak to: the primacy of appearances, caution or paralysis in violating norms, condescension to the less fortunate, expectations of safety and happiness, reverence for the intellect, and low emotional intelligence.
Here’s how I haven’t consistently thought of myself until recently: white.
I have only selectively thought of myself as white – not as a key part of my identity. I noticed my whiteness and its significance as my working life opened up to include relationships with many black people. When I worked in Baltimore City for a mission-driven non-profit founded and fueled by black churches. When I came to head that non-profit and set out to make it look more like the city itself. When I then had to figure out how to address expectations, assumptions and biases about “professional behaviors,” and foster respect, cooperation, even friendship across employee racial divides. When we chose how to challenge public policies that enshrined institutional racism. Immersion in black culture was humbling. I stumbled. I had many patient guides and teachers.
Through those years, and others, when I team-taught diversity work to business, nonprofit and business leaders, I often took my work home with me. Still, I went home to my white neighborhood, prayed with my white progressive Jewish fellowship, and thoughtlessly enjoyed the comforts of being on the white side of privilege.
These days, I am uncomfortably white most of the time
I am pricked by my whiteness as I follow the daily news, pray for justice, sign petitions, join a march, read the black press or black-authored fiction, shake and wake myself and my white world, indulge in mourning either my lost innocence or my “guilt,” and go about my still-protected white-charmed life.
I still move freely through my days with vastly confirmed expectations that wherever and however I show up 1) I am not in immanent physical or psychological danger and 2) I feel I actually “belong.” It requires thought, effort, a willingness to be vulnerable. To choose to show up where I am in danger of being called out on my cultural story and ignorance. To stumble as the ideal ally I wish to be!
And that implicit family story about men that figures so prominently, the untrustworthy men in (undeserved) positions of power and authority? Those are white men. I am married to a white man, which affords me numerous comforts and protections beyond those of my own white skin. More discomfort, as close to home as you can get.
Yet, I am not uncomfortably Jewish enough.
Meaning I am aware of how much more attuned, and motivated I am, when it comes to racial justice than anti-semitism. The trauma of the Holocaust that could not be talked about in my childhood is much more difficult for me to be uncomfortable with, read about, wrestle with, than racism.
Anti-semitism is not something Jews will ever “solve.” It takes non-Jews, whether motivated as religious believers or secular moralists.
Just as it takes legions of white people to dismantle ways of doing business that perpetuate racism, to hold space for the personal and societal telling of stories, for reconciliation and healing, for policy and procedural changes, for changes of heart.
And I am still left with my own bias: it’s white women I depend on. White men are my “Other,” and late to the party. “They” have a lot to lose: “their” unchallenged narrative of reality, based on an individual’s hard work and unbridled capacity to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. That’s my cultural narrative speaking.
These are a few broad strokes of my cultural story, what’s yours?
Understanding that the biases and expectations I have expressed live in my cultural stories brings me to a vital and wakeful noticing, and changes how I see myself, and even how I see the white men I Other, including the one I am married to. I hope it helps me to be a more intelligent, self-questioning and awake ally.
If I am ever going to really live in this body, the only one I have, I have no choice but to continue my personal work here, that includes engaging with you in the collective work of dismantling barriers, reconciling hearts, and pursuing a just world.
Together we must both bend with and shape that arc of the moral universe whose end remains beyond our sight.
Banner photo taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Read Part 1: Stories to heal what ails me, what ails America