Rosh Hashanah Talk on Multiculturalism
When I first got chosen to speak at Rosh Hashanah I was a little bit skeptical and unsure about whether I was asked for the right reasons. I thought it seemed a little too obvious for me to be the speaker. I am the “picture perfect” multicultural Jewish girl. Also, I’ve noticed a trend developing in the choice of speakers for Rosh Hashanah. The young person is always a girl, usually someone from JYCA (Jewish Youth for Community Action) and many have been participants in the FAITHS Youth Leadership Initiative. Here I am, having just completed the FAITHS Initiative, a young black Jewish woman from JYCA! Everyone expected that I would speak. I felt I was being stereotyped, even though it was positive stereotype.
I thought about this dilemma and after having a long talk with my Mom I realized that I do have a lot to say about the subject of multiculturalism and Judaism. I shouldn’t let my discomfort or fear about being stereotyped stop me from using this opportunity to get the undivided attention of my community for seven whole minutes! PAUSE
I appreciate the honor of speaking at Rosh Hashanah. I am thankful to be part of a Jewish community that thinks that multiculturalism is so important and I am glad that Kehilla supports women and youth being up on the beema. But sometimes I think we try too hard to be “politically correct” and cover all the bases, so I feel that I’m expected to speak not only for youth and for women, but also for the “people of color” in our community. I think that often people take the visible things about me and only see what’s on the surface. Then, they act like they know me, but we’ve never actually formed a real relationship. They label me by what they may have heard -I’m a dancer, I’m a youth activist, I’m a Black Jew.
Even within JYCA, where I feel safe and completely loved, sometimes I am forced to be the representative of a group that I don’t feel I belong to. For example, on JYCA retreats sometimes we do different types of workshops. On one retreat TODOS Institute led a diversity training. We were divided into caucus groups of people who’ve been targets of oppression and oppressors. The goal was for the targeted people to speak about how they’ve been oppressed, to see how the other groups could ally with them. Some of the target groups were women, LGBTQ, youth and people of color. I felt forced to assume the identity of a “person of color” which is not actually how I identify myself. I felt I was being used as a token person so that the training could proceed, which is the opposite of what a diversity training should be. I felt artificially separated from my friends. I don’t especially feel oppressed as a Black person or as a bi-racial person – maybe more as a young person. Racism isn’t usually aimed at me so much as at people who have less money and opportunities than I do. There are many other factors that go into who is targeted, and this kind of approach oversimplifies the issue.
I don’t especially see myself as a Black Jew or even as Black and Jewish. In this country, people hear and see Black and think African American and fill in all the history of coming up from slavery in the United States. Culturally and ethnically that’s not what I am. It’s not that I am running away from that identity. If I pretended to be African American, I would be untrue to myself. When people ask me what I am, I say Trinidadian and Russian Jew, and that’s still a simplification of my background. My father is from Trinidad, the southernmost island in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela. Trinidad is an extremely multicultural place – including Africans, Indians, Chinese, South Americans, Europeans and Arab Jews. My father’s background is very mixed – my great-grandparents on his side include French, Irish, and Huarahu Indian from Venezuela, a Ghanaian trader and Africans brought as slaves to work on the sugarcane plantations. My mother’s family are all Jews from Russia, even though I suspect there’s more mixture in there than we know. My Bubbie’s mother had Asian eyes, high prominent cheekbones and jet-black hair. My great uncle Israel, when he became old and bald, could easily have been mistaken for Chinese. Were we mixed with Asian Jews coming up through Mongolia into Georgia? Were we partly the result of violence and pogroms? We’ll probably never know.
We need to ask ourselves how the Jewish people, in our migration from North Africa, have become the varied mixture of people we see today. How did a brown skinned Semitic tribe miraculously become “white” with European features? And what about all the other Jews around the world – the Arab, African and Asian Jews? Look around this room at the variety of features, hair textures and skin tones. We are all multicultural Jews. I challenge each of you to take the time to look deep into your own heritage and background- farther back than the last few hundred years. Where does your identity end?
I’ve often challenged my mother when she says someone “looks Jewish”. Usually she means someone who is from New York of Eastern European descent. I say, “Look at me, do I look Jewish?” and she usually says, “Yes! You have very Jewish features.” But the world doesn’t look at me that way. It is not often assumed that I’m Jewish, even though I frequently wear one of the many beautiful Jewish stars my godmother, Hedy, has given to me. At school, sometimes people will say, “I love your necklace – what is it, a flower?” When I reply, “No, actually it’s a Jewish star,” their response is usually, “Oh! You’re Jewish?, or “You don’t look Jewish,” or some other expression of surprise. And I feel like, here we go again, I have to explain myself all over again. Where do I start… how much should I reveal of myself… does this person really care? It’s not just about looking Jewish, it’s about all the racial categories. People are so quick to say, “What are you?” expecting a one word racial definition. That’s not the answer I want to give. Race can’t substitute for taking the time to get to know who people really are. We need to challenge the whole way we see the world through racial eyes.
It’s interesting to me to have traveled to places in the world where nearly everyone seems mixed. For instance, I just came back from Toronto, where there are so many different kinds of people it was hard to even guess a person’s ethnicity, and after a while you stopped caring. Or, in Cuba, where people all think of themselves as Cuban and they’re proud of that identity. People there aren’t always separating themselves by their history. In lots of other places I have visited in the world I feel more comfortable than I do in America. I was more of the norm, and even when I wasn’t, people didn’t trip off of it. I think part of the problem in America is that it’s hard to find a common culture to belong to except for consumerism. There’s the old myth about “the American dream” but that hardly applies to everyone, so people feel the need to identify themselves some other way. Everyone wants to belong to something. Maybe that’s why we’re so divided. People construct racial categories as a way of distinguishing themselves. And that makes it easier for those in power to divide and conquer us. I want to especially call attention to the Arabs who in this day and time are being scapegoated, harassed and threatened. As Jews, who have so often been the subject of mistreatment, we should be able to relate to this. In the face of a violent world we need to find a way to stand together and overcome our differences. Within the human family the Arabs are definitely our cousins. Besides, it’s scientifically proven that race doesn’t even exist. The Human Genome project has shown that 99.9% of human genetic material is the same in every one of us. Underneath it all, we are all one species and our differences should be recognized and cherished instead of being used to categorize us.
Within this society that is so confused about race, I’ve found an interesting way to determine my self-identity and to deal with the identity crisis I am “supposed to” experience. In fact, I don’t feel torn or forced to choose. I don’t consider myself as half Black and half white, or part Trinidadian and part Jewish, or even as bi-racial. I consider myself a whole something else. Because I’m from the Bay Area I’ve been able to find close friends with similar backgrounds to mine who I can share my experiences with. We ‘ve created our own culture.
We consider ourselves SKITTLES – we represent all different colors, all different shades and flavors. The name “SKITTLES” originated when I was at a concert with a mixed group of friends, we were all wearing bright colors – pink, red, orange and blue, and I made a joke that we looked like SKITTLES – the rainbow candy. Then we realized that it actually went deeper than that. Over time we’ve had different chances to explore this idea – through Destiny Arts Center and the Hapa Club at Berkeley High. We recognize each other as SKITTLES – it’s a spicy attitude and a pride in who we are without being defined by how others see us. The name SKITTLES is starting to travel beyond our little clique. It’s even gotten into the broader culture of Berkeley High, and was included in a student-made slang dictionary. Whether or not people understand it, I prefer to define myself as a SKITTLE.
I guess if I were trying to put this all into one pretty little package about multiculturalism I would say, “Get to know each person as an individual.” Even though you’ll probably first judge someone by looking at them, don’t let that impression make you categorize them and don’t let it substitute for getting a closer look. And if by chance you want to get to know me as an individual, don’t just see the JYCA member, Destiny dancer and activist Bashari. Those activities and interests don’t define me, as those kinds of interests don’t define anyone. If you want to know me, come up and start a conversation. But as a personal favor, please don’t tell me that I am inspiring; tell me what I inspire in you. Don’t tell me what your perception of me is. Tell me your opinions, your interests and your ideas. Help me get to know you, not for who you represent but as an individual.