“Jews, Blacks, and the Politics of Identity” with Yavilah McCoy

Here we are, my name is Yavilah McCoy. Yavilah McCoy, right? The name itself connotes
some kind of story, right? How did you get to be McCoy? What’s this name Yavilah about? I’m an African-American Jewish woman. Yes? I hail from Brooklyn, New York. I was born Jewish to two
African American Jewish parents. I was raised in an orthodox
setting in New York. I attended yeshiva day schools and
received a very rigorous Jewish education, and I came through that education and decided to continue my work as
an activist, as an educator. As a person committed to making something
of the multiple identities that I bore through life, and struggle
throughout my entire journey to learn lessons from, and turn into activism. Now, I’m often invited to come to
places and to speak about my identity. People want to hear about being
African American and Jewish, because to some, that identity
itself sounds strange, right? It sounds like an oxymoron of sorts. How do you come to be African American and
Jewish? How are you Jewish? Is a question that I get often. But what I’m here to hold up for
you and what I’m going to talk about in the context of my lecture today is
the idea that hyphenated identity. Identities where people’s and
communities and cultural traditions merge
are a sign of work being done in communities to eliminate a system of
oppression that says that’s not possible. Now, this can happen on
a very personal level. It’s possible that a person can
be in a interracial relationship. A person can reach across a boundary
that’s created by oppression and form a very individualistic relation. Yes, that happens all the time. What I think becomes powerful
in the context of social justice is when those relationships that we form,
those experiences that we have, lead us to figure out where
we’re missing each other. Where there’s more work that can be done. Where there are things about our
self-perception, about our perception of others, that can change and
shift in these diverse relationships. So today, what I’m going to do is I’m going to
tell you a little bit of my story. But I’m also going to tell you about
some of the lessons that I’ve learned around what it means to hold together
without letting them come apart, African American and Jewish communities. Now, there have been historical
reasons why African American and Jews both came together and
separated over the course of time. And those reasons are real, but as a
person navigating those identities within, the question became,
how do I navigate those identities and still turn whatever knowledge comes
from the relationship of having them interrelate into activism,
into social movement building, into making something bigger than
just my personal edification. My personal and autonomous choice
to be a certain kind of person. So more than anything, I want you
to listen to what I have to say in the context of where can we
extrapolate from these stories and the things that I’ve journeyed through to
a bigger picture around social justice. So, the first thing I want to say is
that having grown up in Brooklyn, I grew up in a very intense
Jewish environment. And what I’m gonna do is I’m gonna situate
my comments in the interest of time, especially cuz I know some of
you will be coming and going, into those three stages in my life. The times when I grew up in an environment
that was intensively Jewish and intensively white. The times in college when I
entered into an evolutionary consciousness around my blackness, around
my being an African American woman and what I wanted that to mean. The times in my life when I had later in
life started organizing Jews of color. And trying to hold those identities
together as not a hyphen, but one fluid identity. African American Jewish woman. Yeah?
Okay. So what did I learn from
walking among Jews? As a young girl walking among Jews there
were many messages in my environment. One of the messages that I received
was that the most important part of my identity growing up as a young
African American woman, Jewish woman was that orthodoxy and
my relationship to the Torah. Does anyone know what the Torah is? So the Torah is the system of laws. The system of religion. So five books of Moses, yes. Orthodox Jews read the Torah not as an opportunity to
hypothesize about ethics but to existentially identify with those
ethics as part of your very identity. Yes? So when you wake up in the morning,
there’s a prayer that you say in acknowledgement of the fact that you
have life and the ability to do the Torah. In the afternoon,
there are more prayers that you say in acknowledgement of the fact
that a day has gone by. You’ve gone through your work and your
daily living and you still have energy in your body to continue to do
the commandments and the Torah. And when you go to bed at night there’s
another prayer that you say [LAUGH] and what does that prayer do? That prayer helps you acknowledge again
that your soul departs and returns and gives you another opportunity to
get up another day to do the Torah. Yes?
Okay. Very interesting existence for
me as an African American Jew, cuz what that did was
that put me in a context where my Jewishness was
primary as my identity, yes? What was most important that
I was a young Jew before God. And it happened systematically through
my education, through my observance of the holidays, through all
the different interactions that I had. It was reinforced for
me over and over again. That I was a young African, not African yet- a young Jewish
woman as my primary identity. Now here’s the catch. You can look at me, right? You see what I look like. You see I present in the world. It’s not necessarily true that when I left the Jewish community that I was
able to hold that identity intact. Because when I would be walking around
the community a young black girl with, let’s say,
maybe ten other white young girls. Cuz in the time of the orthodox community
that I grew up in, we were boys and girls did not mix in
the orthodox community, right? So I was walking out primarily with girls,
but with white Jewish girls primarily. And as I would walk around my
Crown Heights community in Brooklyn, I would get stares. From the time I was very young. People would look at me and
they would say, what is she doing? What is she doing with
all those white girls? And then the next thing,
the next question became, well, it must be obvious that she
wants to be white, yes? And the next came. She’s a class. That’s that la-di-da-di black Jewish girl. That was the term I got around
my Brooklyn neighborhood, la-di-da-di black Jewish girl. None of these things had anything
to do with the reality of my actual circumstances. But the identity that my family
was trying to give me around being an African American Jew. The truth is that my grandfather
was a huge civil rights proponent. The language and the rhythms of civil rights were a part of
my family from the time I was very young.>>My grandfather worked
from being a longshoreman. He used to load things on the docks. And then from there, he worked up from
being a longshoreman to an organizer to actually being the vice
president of UAW AFL-CIO, okay? Years working in civil rights and
labor union organizing. He organized security for Dr. King, yes? When I was young, I told the class
that I was with this morning. My mother, some people used to be
able to watch and I’m dating myself. They used to be able to watch
Warner Brothers and Tom and Jerry, and cartoons when we had free time. No, my parents, when we had free time,
we would sit us down and have us watch Eyes on the Prize.>>[LAUGH]
>>I don’t know if you know what Eyes on the Prize is, but Eyes on the Prize
is a PBS documentary that surveys the civil rights movement from
the early days of Houston and Brown versus Board of Education. All the way through to the civil
rights movement and the marching, and the voter registration drives, and
everything that happened in the 60s, and 70s to actually empower
communities around civil rights. Well, the whole,
I think it’s about what, five disks. Yes, then we had VHS. [LAUGH] Five long reels of information and I used to have to sit there in my
free time and get pounded in my black identity alongside my Jewish identity,
because my parents did not want me God forbid to leave
their doors not knowing who I was. Yes, so there’s an inner identity
that I’m navigating while I’m also navigating an external identity
which is that without a question, without any knowledge of who I am. I walk into the world and
what people would like to be first and foremost in their assessment of
me is the color of my skin, yes? First and foremost,
you are black in the Jewish environments. First and foremost, you are Jewish, yes? And in my own heart, a journey. Because what I’m gonna is say is that
it takes years, it takes years for anyone who is carrying multiple identities
to be able to coalesce those identities into something that’s authentic and
integritous. Is it true 100% that I would
navigate the world as a black woman in many contexts first? Absolutely, because no one’s gonna take
time to have me fill in an application before they enact my presence with
in a racist supremacist system. In a racist supremacist system,
there is a binary. They are white people and they are people
of color, and you don’t get a choice. That’s what racist does to society, does that mean that where
I sit in my own heart? Does that mean that all of that or
around my Jewish identity, around the various beautiful culture
that was going on in my home? Does that mean all of that
needs to be invisibalized and just totally not a part of the scenario? No, but do I need to know how to
operate in the racist binary that comes from a supremacist system? Absolutely, so I was going into a Yeshiva educational system with my mother
saying things to me like this. She would say you had better get an A. Why had I better get an A? Because you’re the only
black girl in that class. Yes, I’m now among Jews. You’re the only black girl in that
class and they are not gonna expect you to do well and I wanna make sure that
you show them what your capable of. So don’t come in here with
anything less than an A. Yes, interesting, no? We’re all Jews, but there’s also race. I’m walking down the streets with my
fellow Jewish young women as teenagers and our African American neighbors
come down the street, yes? And there’s a subtle shift to
start crossing the street, because an African American young
male is coming toward us and we don’t wanna be on the same
side of the street anymore, yes? But yet, I’m looking at a face
that looks just like mine. Why are we crossing the street? Yes, comes up in my consciousness. Why are we crossing the street? The fear that you have is
not the fear that I have. Yet, we’re all Jews. Yes, so navigating that consciousness of
the difference between the duality of message that comes from the outside
versus a message around your identity that can come from the inside was
a very significant part of my journey. And one of the things that I learned
early on was that it was important for me to self-identify an image that
had not yet been envisioned. I created the image of myself. When I was looking in Jewish books,
in Jewish literature, in all the different ways in which I was
educated, I saw no pictures of myself. Not just as a black woman, I saw no pictures of myself
as a black Jewish woman. There were no role models. There was no way for me to understand what
it might even look like for me to exist. Much less take leadership, much less be the most powerful person that
my mother and father insisted that I be. Where are the models? Yes, so I found myself thinking well,
it can’t be that there are no models. It must be that if I go to the Middle East
or it must be that if I go to a different country, there are gonna be some people
somewhere that look just like me who actually are powerful and empowered and
it’s just a matter of this temporary reality and
then I went to the Middle East, yes? And I found out that it wasn’t quite true. Racism has been exported from
America all over the world and I got into the desert with a bunch of
beautiful, brown skin Arab sisters and brothers and the first thing they
said to me was do you dance? [APPLAUSE] Dance, my girl, dance.>>[LAUGH]
>>And I said, what? What? I’m in the middle of a desert
in the Middle East and you think my name is Jenny Jackson? Really, why? Because their expectation of me as
a black woman had been exported from American stereotypes. American stereotypes for
what it means to be black. So once again, I’m bumping into this idea that who
you are has to be self-determined. Self-determined in a very unique and
intentional way. How did I get there? I looked in my life to be
able to find experiences that would be in contrast to my own,
in contrast. So whereas I became the president of
the NAACP while I was in college, and whereas I took on black identity
fiercely, because I knew that was a part of my heritage and I knew it was
a piece of how I needed to involved. I simultaneously also took
positions within Hillel. So what I did was, I started
trying to straddle two communities with my leadership,
moving from one to the other. I said it was a gift of God, but there came a point in my junior year
while I was in college as I was experiencing Songea Yetu and Arturo Madrid
and all the language of criticism. And all of the language of women’s studies
and Africana studies that said that yes, you have the ability to self-determine,
to bring in Afrocentric perspectives, to be able to take education and
form it into an empowerment strategy. That was all there in the books,
but in the context of my peers? Two things happened. Number one, Kwame Ture came to campus. I don’t know if you
know who Kwame Ture is. He’s Stokely Carmichael. Stokely Carmichael came
to campus my junior here. And meanwhile, Yavilah’s determining
her own identity, right? I’m a leader in this. I’m a leader in that. I’m a cosmopolitan
African American Black Jew. I’m the next President of the United
States just watch me roll Right? Yavilah is in her element, and then all of a sudden here comes
externally imposed identity. Kwame Ture comes to our campus and he
puts up a sign that says every Jew, a 22. Not every Jew,
every Zionist is a racist, yes? The only good Zionist is a dead Zionist. Yes. Lots of incendiary comments that did what? Incinerated flames on our campus. Okay? So whereas I had been happily
navigating the both black and Jewish community with no real issue. Now all of the sudden I would walk into
the lunchroom and all my Jewish friends were sitting sitting over here, and all
my black friends are sitting over here. Why? Because at this point, the Jewish community felt that they
had been targeted by an anti-Semite. Yes? The black community felt they had
every right to self determine this was a historic civil rights figure. Yes, he had some opinions about Jews. But why should the Jews be
in such an uproar, yes? And somewhere in between,
there was no conversation. In that lack of nuanced conversation,
there was also no place for me to sit. It got worse. In response to Kwame Ture
coming to campus and targeting Zionists as racists,
and Zionists as colonialism and all sorts of different things that
separated leadership communities. The Religious Zionist Alternative decided
to bring to campus the son of Meir Kahane. I don’t know if any of you know who
Meir Kahane is, but he is also an extreme radical in the context of
Jewish Zionist movement building and what he did was he said
every Jew deserves a .22. Every Jew should have a gun, yes? Jews have every right to defend their
right to the land of Israel, and anybody who essentially disagrees with that should
be faced with our guns in their faces. Yes. This is lovely to have go on in campus,
right? Okay. What happened is eventually, now you would think this is just
polite political discourse. What happened eventually on my campus
in Albany is that both the Jewish and the black factions of leadership
started to fight one another and go to the president’s office and try to get
each of them kicked off of campus, okay? Kicked off of campus. Because this person isn’t being
politically moderate, and that group is not being
politically moderate and what we’re hearing is actually
destroying our campus leadership. So let’s just kick both of
these groups off of campus and it was then that I realized
how important it was for me to have a grounded sense of my
identity from both communities that would not allow either community
to force me to have to choose. I went up as the president of the NAACP
into a loaded lecture center hall like this, maybe 300 students. And in front of those 300 students,
I felt something within me which was that, you know what, there aren’t enough Jews or
blacks on this predominately white campus. For us to feel like it really makes
a whole lot of sense to get two of the leaders of the smallest minorities
that we have here, kicked off campus. Why don’t we at least set up a meeting
to listen to each other’s perspectives? Rather than organize this huge ruckus for us to fight, are we each sure that
we’ve heard each other clearly? Are the positions of these leaders,
our positions? And if they are,
is there still no room for discourse? Saying this as a young college student. Pieces of the pie are too small. Our pieces of the pie probably
only equal this much. You have to realize that there are all
sorts of things that are happening on campus that affect both
of our communities. How can we afford to fight? Innocently. And I left that meeting and two days
later got promptly a letter from my board saying that they wanted to impeach
me as the president of the NAACP for having a conflict of interest in being
both black and Jewish simultaneously. Why? Because in both of my communities,
what I hadn’t succeeded in doing, which became the next stage of my life, is creating a discourse where people
could see me fully, fully as both. If I am your sister,
if I am your black sister struggling for liberation alongside you, and I happen
to be Jewish, it would be wrong for any black sister or
brother to ask me to forget the rest of my Jewish community in
standing with you toward liberation. For my white Jewish sisters and brothers,
to ask me to forget my association and my commitment to the liberation of
people’s of color in order to be a part of a Jewish community,
would be an absolutely wrong commitment. Now that’s nothing I’m saying
because I wanted to be another label I got
Miss Can’t We All Get Along. I don’t know if you remember
Rodney King’s statement at this time, but Rodney King after the big
thing that went on here, his biggest statement to
the media: Can’t we all get along? And it ran everywhere, right? Rodney King was Mr.
can’t we all get along? So Mrs. can’t we all get along? But what happened as a result
of me sticking with that stance, was that I did find allies. They were allies both
in the professors that taught me in my academic
studies department. They came and said, no we don’t. We are letting our kids get involved in
what’s happening here and this is wrong. Our kids should know better than
to try to lynch one of their own, that was literally what I was told and
in the Jewish community, I found there was a little bit more fear
and resistance but when I finally did get the professors and my fellow leaders
of color together in a room. We were on our own. I’m telling you guys,
this is very important. When you reach a situation of conflict, it’s not always the best thing to get
everybody in a room as I suggested and let them talk to each other
because emotions are high. The first thing that has to happen is for
people to feel validated, people to understand that you have listened and that
you understand where they’re coming from. The first move that my professor
suggested to me were to sit down with my own community,
my community of Jewish leaders of color. Not yet, my community of leaders of
color and to sit down with them and for us to hear each other. What is it that’s coming up here? What is it that we want? What is it that is ruffling our feathers
to the point of wanting to fight our Jewish brothers and sisters? And a lot of what came up were people
sitting in the student association and watching white Jewish students
vote against affirmative action, watching white Jewish students
not stand in alliance with black struggles that were
going on on our campus. Watching all sorts of things that happened
as a result of lack of relationship prior to Kwame Ture coming to campus. Not because he was in campus,
but that his coming to campus lit fires that were already existing
because of lack of nuanced relationship. When it came to the Jewish community and
we finally did get into conversation, what I found was I was dealing with
a community that was living in fear. People don’t always understand that, with the white privilege that’s been
conferred to many in the Jewish community, has not come an insusceptibility
to internalize oppression. Jews, as a community, have been
victimized for thousands of years. Do you understand this? That means that in the black community,
as we struggle to be able to release ourselves from the internalized oppression
that came from slavery and from being oppressed in this country, there are
practices that we act out upon each other as a black community that are entirely
unhelpful to ourselves and others. But that we can only work on in the safety
of communication with one another. Where we can talk to each other about what
it means to create hierarchies of value around light and dark skin. That in these closed communities where
we can talk about what is our xenophobic reaction to the GLBT community that
lives among us as people of color. Where we can talk about what happened
to us around issues of sexism and around issues of respecting and
holding on to ourselves as women and as fathers and as leadership figures. There are real things that are internal
conversations within the black community that occur all the time that
help us to be our best selves. But if you really know that,
it does not pay to know that in a silo. When we look next to ourselves to
the struggles of our Jewish community, realize that those same
conversations are going on. Those same conversations are happening
around internalized oppression, but under a different lens, and
yes, with white skinned privilege. I went to a Jewish women’s conference,
where the speaker asked in a room of almost 300 white Jewish women,
raise your hand if over the course of your life you have ever had
surgery to alter your body in any way. It astounded me to watch two-thirds
of the hands in the room go up. With woman admitting that
they have cut off their nose, with woman admitting that they have
done things to show shape their skin so also the body sizes their hips
from being to heavy to essentially graduate themselves toward
more white Eurocentric image. And in this women’s conference,
these white Jewish women cried over the consequences of internalized
oppression for that community. We need to understand that
internalized oppression sometimes looks like a desire to
oppress another group. But what it really is, is a shared
struggle to release ourselves from a system that has hurt all of us,
has hurt all of us. One of the most important things I
learned in that year when I was at SUNY, Albany was that there was something that
I could hold on to in respecting and valuing both of the communities
that I came from. There was something I could
hold onto in both of them that allowed them to see
their mutual humanity. If there’s nothing else that I would
tell you is important about embracing dual identity and multiple identities in
this country, is that in the places where we forget one another, people who
carry dual identities will remind you. In the places where we
are sure that what this is about is an opportunity to separate,
to hurt, they’ll remind you of our common
oppressor outside of both of us. Why, because just to be themselves, people who are carrying dual identities
have to constantly keep their ears and eyes open for
what is the real oppression at work here. What is the real oppression at work here? I want to talk a little bit about
what it’s been like to be able to navigate the community, both as a person of color among other
people of color and as a Jew of color. One of the things that as Jews of
color we tend to navigate, and I’m speaking in plural now
because I did spend some time organizing Jews of color
here in the United States. And one of the things that we’ve
encountered in the context of our relationship with the black community is
that at times because of our internalized oppression, just talked to you about
internalized oppression for Jews. I’m going to talk to you about
internalized oppression for blacks. In the black community, difference is
often seen as dangerous and suspect. Yes, not our fault. Just the way it’s come in. Why, because when it comes to the idea
that we had to fight in trouble for unity, we often took the need for homogeneity and
conformity as our strength. Meaning, the black church. The black church did battle for the African American community
over the course of time. It helped us keep our families together. It gave us a space to be
able to grow our leaders. It gave us values, ethics, understandings of ourselves that
helped us to graduate beyond oppression. Yes, but it also helped us to forget
that as a community of spiritualists. The people of color that constitute our
world are not in majority Christian. Think about that for a second. If I were to snap my fingers and bring every person of color that exists
in the world into this room with us, people of color would be more diverse
in our spirituality than that. So what right do we have to superimpose
upon every person of color, that the more Christian you are, the more you are involved in the black
church, the more black you are. Yes, the more African American
that you are. As a Jew of color I’ve learned to
notice that as a symptom of IO, internalized oppression. There’s also the issue
the fact that as of 1980 the demographics of the black
community changed rapidly. We’re no longer all descendants
of the African American history that lives in our country. We have people who are African,
people who are Caribbean, people who identify as people
of color who are Latino, people who identify as people of
color from all around the world. And a super imposition of how much
an irony about all of those people, about all of those cultures,
about all of those contributing factors to what it means to be black
under the binary, yes? It’s the binary that’s the problem. Black, white, yes? If you are Caribbean, black, white. If you are Jamaican, black, white. If you are Trinidadian, black, white. If you are from Nigeria,
black, white, yes? Such a stripping of the diverse culture
that exists among us as people of color, and when we collude with that by
saying this is not black enough, that is not black enough, that is not
black enough when it does not conform with an American standard for
blackness itself, we are losing out. Now, Jews of color get
caught in that trap. I told you about some of the little
epithets that I got running around my community in Brooklyn, right? It from a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding that,
number one, all Jews are white, and number two, that black people
couldn’t be anything beyond Christian. In the day of liberation for my black
community, I would like to see us have the opportunity to welcome the full
breadth of including the presence and the commitment to people
of color by Jews of color. The other piece is this,
in the context of struggles for liberation, there are markers, there are markers that help us to
share what we call a linked fate. A linked fate as people of color It
means that when we go out there and we see wrongs being done, we want to
be able to say I’m a part of the fate. I’m a part of the movement toward,
making all people of color in this country have a better ride, have a better road,
have a better opportunity, yes? It comes out of our history and
of our heritage. But the question is can you
still share in that linked faith if you also have some interest
beyond that community? What about black GLBTs? Yeah? What if your commitment to seeing
the GLBTQQI community be liberated, not just among people of color but
among all GLBT residents. Does that mean you’re no longer able to
have a sense of shared link faith with the liberation of black people? What if I happen to care about
the elimination of antisemitism? What if that’s big for me? Does that make me any less committed
to the proliferation of liberation for all people of color? Absolutely not. But yet, has our thinking in the black
community become nuanced enough to be able to accept such a proposition? Has it? All I can tell you is that the more
Jews of color that show themselves and that become present and that are
celebrated among the communities of color, will allow us to have that conversation. And that is something that I’m
reaching for, simultaneously, while I’m also reaching for an end to this proliferation of whiteness
as an assumed identity among the Jews. The third states that it’s so very important that I hope people
will begin to think about is that just like there is external work
there is always internal work yes? The internal work among Jews of color
is to even be able to be visible. To show up with some interest
that aren’t the ones that other people have donated to them. Both in black and Jewish communities,
I have found, use of color situated within other people’s agenda so
often, so people want to scream. People use, the minute they need. But when Farrakhan was in his element and
there were Jews that were decrying Farrakhan’s organizing
of the Million Man March and what they called antisemitic remarks that
he was putting forth in the country. The first thing people wanted to do,
and I found it happened to me and other Jews of color is [CLAP] well we’re
gonna get our Jews of color out there and we’re gonna have our Jews
of color talk to Farrakhan. Without a question there’s
a huge assumption in there, is it in any way in the interest of Jews
of color to have a conversation with Farrakhan about anything?>>[LAUGH]
>>That’s one, two, just because we shared
black skin color with Farrakhan, does that mean Farrakhan has any interest
in hearing from us in regard to his position and his stance on what
it means to be a black Muslim? Three. Why? Why? Why? That’s always the question. Before I go out and
my activity to do anything. First and foremost in my mind
is what is motivating you? For whom is this dialogue? For whom is this conversation? At the end of this dialogue
how is it gonna benefit me? Yes, okay, so in the Jewish community, Jews of color
have been used in so many different ways to be able to validate conversations
that really need to be had around race. But that people will use Jews of
color to hide behind not to have, that needs to end. In black communities,
when people want to say, let me tell you a story about
how racist you are white Jews. Let me go find my Jew of color. Come here, come here. Tell them about how
racist they were to you. So I can prove to these
people that they are racist, no, absolutely not. Because my agenda is not to have
either of you call each other anything that’s gonna relegate you to a
category, instead of your basic humanness. My agenda is to get you to
remember each other’s humanness, remember each other’s
histories of oppression. Remember the struggles where we
were able to stand together and what was the reasoning
by which we had to part. That’s what my agenda as a Jew of color
would be, not to be able to be positioned as something as a category of difference
that can be used as a target. So Jews of color need to have
conversations that are self-interested towards themselves. They also need to understand what
it means to get to move out of the status of passing,
and when i saw passing, it means that when we’re among people of
color we don’t talk about being Jewish and we’re among being Jews we
don’t talk about being black. Why? Because whatever tension exists
between the two communities, we don’t wanna have to put up with them. So you engage in passing. Yes? Wrong, because all that does is never
entered into discourse, the conversation of, well, about the fact that we can
be more, both as blacks and Jews. What about that conversation? If we don’t show ourselves,
that conversation never comes up. I say it most pointedly to my
Jewish counterparts by saying, until you acknowledge what the history is
of Jewish whiteness, you leave no room for me to have a conversation with you about
what it means for me to be a Jew of color. You can’t just call me a Jew of color. I got to be a Jew of color
because you were a white Jew and until we talk about that, there’s nothing
to discuss that’s in my interest. That’s me being situated in
your political theory, yeah? For Jews of color, the other thing that’s
so important, and that I manage to do through the activism that I did in my
organization was Jews of color need to look into other Jews of color’s faces and
notice that they are beautiful. They are not an objectification. They are not somebody else’s whatever. They are beautiful. In a room full of leaders of
color that organized, maybe 25, it was so poignant for me,
two moments, one moment. A gentleman who was the president
of his synagogue came in. He happened to be a gay, black, Jewish
man, and he started his introduction, everybody went around to
introduce themselves. He started his introduction by
saying this: well, it’s just so good to be here, it’s just so
good to be here. I mean, you don’t understand as a black,
gay, Jewish man it’s not often that I ever and then immediately
avoid that even get that string out of his mouth, another gay, Jewish man across. The way from the circle. Just raised his hand, he said, uh-uh, that
doesn’t make you special here, brother.>>[LAUGH]
>>And everyone laughed, why? Because what it said to those two gay, Jewish men of color is
something very significant. Which is that, there are times when what you’re holding
up as your battle can fall away and you get to experience yourself as just
yourself and that is a beautiful moment. Yes? That is a beautiful moment. So that was one. And then the second thing was,
two young multiracial girls kinda had, bushy Afro’s, curly Afro’s The first
days that they came to the conference they came downstairs to breakfast
with their hair straightened, yeah. And that’s how I had met them,
straight hair, and I didn’t realize that they were spending
hours upstairs with a blow dryer blowing that sucker out
until it was straight, yes. So cuz that was how they presented
themselves in the world, who choose. By the second or third day something
very significant had happened, and I could tell because both of these girls,
okay, had come downstairs with their hair
in full afro curly glory, yes. And when we sat down together and we started talking about
what are the challenges and what are the struggles of
the identity of being a Jew of color. I noticed these two women kind of fall on
each others shoulders and start to cry. It still makes me cry. Why? Because what, and
I asked them later what was going on and they said that when I came downstairs
I wasn’t sure how people were gonna react to me showing
up with my hair like that. I didn’t know if people were gonna
whisper or talk or do what and when I saw this other woman standing there with her
hair in the same way, it just made me cry. Cuz I had never been in a Jewish space
where I could be myself as a Jew of color and
not have to worry about being judged. These are spaces that can only be created
when people who have these differences, who are struggling with these challenges,
find each other and mirror for one another, you’re beautiful. You’re okay. You’re great just as you are. If we really want to
work towards liberation, in addition to working on our internal
issues, wherever we stand on the spectrum. We also should try to afford spaces for
others where they can have those moments where they just are,
and that’s okay, yeah. Okay, so I’m gonna pause now cuz
we have about five minutes and I wanna give you a chance to ask
me questions if you haven’t. But I thank you very much giving me the
opportunity to just hold up some prisms of life for you around what it
means to carry multiple identities. And to hope through those multiple
identities that our entire world will become better and
less oppressive and less full of oppressive practices that don’t just
hurt those people targeted by them, but that hurt us all and rob us of each other. So thank you very much.>>[APPLAUSE]
>>All right, any questions about what
I’ve just put forth?>>I know that you had mentioned that
you grew up in an Orthodox setting and I was wondering if you worked
with any observant temples or reformed settings and what have you,
your experiences with those?>>Yeah sure, when I got to college,
I told you, I was looking for opportunities to compare and
contrast my own identity to others. So, I actually did,
I did my degree in education. So I actually did practical teaching
in reforming conservative synagogues so I could learn what that was about and yes, liberal Jews did have more
of the trappings of what it meant to be welcoming
across racial differences. But I found that there were other
challenges around liberalism in that I was also working in the fluid communities
that were primarily white where there was an absence of relationship
with other people of color. So to study relationship of people of
color in the absence of relationship with people of color is problematic. [LAUGH] And it gets very problematic in
terms of what that interaction actually turns out to look like. So there were other challenges there
that I learned and how to integrate.>>Thank you.>>Any other questions? Yeah.>>Yeah, when I thought about
Jews of African American, I thought of adoption and of conversion
and then on hearing your situation where both your parents were of African
heritage and Jewish and Ethiopian. Can you talk about
a spectrum of black Jews?>>Yeah, you can arrive at
the status of being a Jew of color from various different entry points. But all Jews arrive at being Jewish from
various entry points, so it’s not so unique. But among Jews of color it can be
because you grew up in a country where people happen to have brown skin and
you live in a historic Jewish community. There are lots of communities like that. Ethiopia, there are communities in Africa, there are communities in Yemen and
in Djerba and Uzbekistan. And all these different places
where people have brown skin and they’ve being Jewish their entire lives
and that’s just the way it is and that’s one way to be a Jew of color. Another way to be a Jew of color
is through conversion, but that doesn’t limit the status of being
Jew of color only to conversion. Because once I happen have skin like
this and I have a couple of babies and they have a couple of babies,
there’s no guarantee that my grand babies are still not going to look just like me,
right. And those grand babies are not converts
[LAUGH] those are Jews according to Jewish heritage, yes. And then there’s transnational adoption
where there are many families that become multiracial by adopting children from
other countries that have brown skin. And there are ways to be able to become
a Jew of color just by virtue of the fact that you have married. Let’s say you’re not Jewish yourself but
you’ve married a Jew and you’re raising children who
happen to be Jews of color. There are various entry points to
what it means to be a Jew of color. The question, and
the thing that I think is important that I’ve learned from
navigating both communities, is to not make assumptions about
what identity as a Jew means. And that leaves room for all of these
different entry points to Judaism to actually reverberate and be celebrated. The biggest enemy to
understanding Jews of color, like I said,
is the assumption that Jews are all white, that’s just not been true historically and
it isn’t true presently. And the same way I said that there’s
religions diversity in the black community, if I snapped my fingers and
brought every Jew in the world into this room right now, Jews would look more
diverse than the United Nations, so. Does that answer your question?>>Yes.
>>Okay, good.>>Okay, you were pointing to above me so
I wasn’t sure. You were talking about the one moment
when you realized that you’re not just the black identity and
Jewish identity but you’re a person.>>Yes.
>>Okay, so how do then go and fight against the racism battle and
the anti-Semitic battle and all of that without losing yourself?>>Yeah, Audrey Lord says
forget that I am black and never forget that I am black, yes. She wants her allies to do this dual
consciousness thing with her where sometimes it matters and
sometimes it doesn’t. And I think the person has to know when
it matters and when it doesn’t and that was part of my evolutionary journey. There are times when it really does
matter that I carry this identity, that I carry an identity as a Jewish
woman, and I carry this as a black woman. And there are times when I’m navigating
that and I insist on that matter. And then there are times when
it really doesn’t matter and it’s being introduced kind of like as
a footnote in a way that objectifies me. And at those times when it’s really not
supposed to matter, I have to insist, no, it does matter. And it’s kind of a yin yang
that you learn as a result of developing a very heightened sense for
oppression. When is oppression at work and my identity is trying to be
situated within oppression, and when it’s not about oppression, it’s just
ignorance, it’s just a situation, yes.>>Just a comment really. I recently also been speaking
on this idea of beauty. So you’re comment, particularly
the hearts of these girls, was very, very powerful and I think some of the,
what was touching for me about just hearing that and
seeing how you reacted to that. There’s this inextricable link
between truth and beauty.>>Yeah.>>And
when we know truth because it’s beautiful. And just to be able to see
those girls as they are, and not as they have to pretend to be,
is very powerful. So that just helps me a lot in so many things that I’ve been
thinking about lately and I really appreciate that perspective. The way you embody that whole idea.>>Thank you.>>Thank you again, Yavilah.>>Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

Maurice Vega

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