If I ever get pulled over for “fitting the description,” the description will be “garden-variety middle-aged white lady.”
It’s been an accurate description for most of my life (with the exception of the age part, which is following the conventional trajectory and means that if I live long enough, I’ll be a garden-variety old white lady), except for one interval. I never felt more ethnic in my life than I did during three years residing in a city of 20,000 people in Central Flyover Country. I passed as white just as easily as you please. Until the second question.
The first question was “What is your name?”
The second was “Where do you go to church?”
The minute I said, “The synagogue 45 miles northwest of here (the closest one),” it was all over. I wasn’t black. But I wasn’t white anymore, either. There were about 30 Jews in Central Flyover Country. But as a reporter – and features editor – for the local paper, I was the first one many of the people I encountered had ever seen up close and personal.
Most of my experiences as a small town Jew were positive. People were curious, but also respectful. There were a couple of uncomfortable encounters, but I never felt unsafe.
This week, I learned what it feels like when no one needs to ask anything to know you’re different. All they have to do is look.
Supposedly six of the approximately 200 people who showed up to the auditorium at the Large Midwestern Technical College Where I Work to hear guest speaker and Philadelphia resident Dr. Umar Johnson’s talk “Black to the Future: The Return of Jim Crow Justice in the Age of Post Racialism” were white. I never saw the other five.
The first thing Johnson told us about himself was that he is a Pan-African Nationalist. I didn’t know anything about Pan-African Nationalism before his talk. Taki Raton, a local Pan-African Nationalist, spoke later in the week at a smaller gathering. I learned a bit more there. Between the talks, I attended a screening of “Dream Big Dreams,” a documentary about Vel Phillips. Among other things, she singlehandedly opened the doors to Open Housing laws in my city and nationally during the Civil Rights movement. The screening and talkback was organized by One MKE, a local group whose mission statement includes the phrase “foster and retain a diverse pipeline of talent and improve cultural competence.”
There was a lot to chew on in what Johnson & Raton said, and I’m still thinking about it, especially having just read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah.” Her protagonist, Ifemelu, moves from Nigeria to the US. Among other things, she starts a blog. It’s called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” As much as I want to talk about how much I loved this book and how highly I recommend it, I’m going to focus on Johnson’s talk.
Some of it had me jumping for joy, some of it left me cold. In the jumping for joy category was his recommendation to read Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 book, “The Miseducation of the Negro.”
Woodson’s thesis is as true today as it was when he wrote it. Education as it currently exists is a form of social control, designed to ensure perpetual second-class status for black Americans. To counteract that, black people need to discover and learn the truth about their ancestry and about African civilization.
I loved that Johnson was an authentically proud black man telling a group of mostly young black men them to stop looking for approval outside themselves. I loved him telling them to love themselves and each other and to care for each other, in part by building institutions to strengthen themselves and their communities. I loved that he urged them to not rely on anyone else to make that happen. I loved his message of community and of taking care of each other first.
In the “left me cold” category was his disdain for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He was referring to black boys being disproportionately misdiagnosed. I get that too many energetic kids, especially black boys, get labeled. But speaking as a white kid who spent my entire childhood undiagnosed (another story for another time), I can tell you that it’s real and it’s no fun to have it. So I get the overdiagnosis, but for the few kids who do have it, addressing it can be a game-changer. I speak from experience.
He also does not seem to believe in the theory of abundance. Maybe it’s the white privilege talking, but I’m kind of a “rising tide lifts all boats” type. If you have, I can, too, and more for you is not necessarily less for me.
His blanket portrayal of other communities as adversaries rather than allies competing for resources reminded me of a joke I heard when Governor Walker got elected in 2010. Walker promptly set to work bringing back the Middle Ages, complete with landed gentry, peasant and serf classes and minus the guilds. And not in a good way.
Here’s the joke: A union member, a Tea Party member and a 1 percenter are sitting at a table. There’s a plate on the table with a dozen cookies. The plutocrat takes 11 cookies and turns to the Tea Party member.
“I’d look out for that one,” he says, nodding in the direction of the union member. “I think he’s trying to take your cookie.”
It’s because I have a backstory to point to, to be proud of and to own that I am able to understand and clearly articulate exactly what it is about the idea of straight-up separatism that bothers me. It’s also the reason I can understand and clearly articulate the reason it’s so vitally important to be able to have a strong and separate group identity.
So here’s a shoutout and thanks to one of my ancestors – Rabbi Hillel, who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not, now, when?”