By Dr. Elizabeth Soslau
My son started Hebrew school this past fall. On his first day, as we sat in the community meeting room waiting for class to start, the schools’ director began speaking. She welcomed us and taught us a new Hebrew word meaning “to stand.” She literally made us get to our feet, twice, while repeating the word aloud. As I internally eye-rolled at what I thought was a strange charade, her next words filled my heart. She said, “Being Jewish means knowing how, when and where to stand in the face of injustice.” Damn, I wanted to clap and holler out my agreement, but that felt weird, instead I leaned into the warm feeling spreading in my chest.
Scrolling through my social media platforms, I see people standing up all over the place. The apocalyptic combination of COVID reinforcing an increasingly screen-dependent society coupled with the undeniable video-based evidence of the murdering of Black people has created a shift. White people are finally joining movements started by centuries-old activists and abolitionists; mainly spearheaded by BIPOC women.
Some whites remain frozen in a semi-seated crouch, aching to stand, but not knowing how; subjected to fair-play screams of “white silence is violence.”
Here’s a helpful thing I learned. When we stand, we are going to get it wrong. A lot. Trying and failing is how we learn. We tell our children this all the time. Failing sucks. You feel stupid, incompetent, unkind and even shameful. Again, look to the lessons you teach your children. Good people make mistakes, you can be a good person that makes a mistake. The trick is what to do after a mistake. Lots of white people are trying to figure this out.
You can read the books (So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo is a great start), follow the work of women with intersectional identities (Bettina Love and Nylah Burton are brilliant), listen to podcasts (1619 for a historical understanding and Pod Save the People for current context), but don’t wait until you reach the impossible bar of knowing everything. If we know how to learn from our mistakes, we can stand now.
When I stand, my voice will tremble, my stomach will lurch and I will enter a state of panic that almost blanks out my ability to put my words together. My biggest fear is that my action will have a disastrous impact on the very message or persons I am trying to amplify. What gives me confidence is knowing how to make a mistake. Maya Angelo generously extended this grace; when we know better, we can do better.
As an academic, I am fortunate to be surrounded by people in my personal and professional life who know a lot more than me and are incredibly generous. When I stand up, speak out, write an article, develop a syllabus, or engage in professional learning, I am ready to be told that I got it wrong. There are many ways I have failed; I can’t afford the real estate in this commentary to list them all. What I can share is what I’ve learned about framing my unoriginal response to failure.
- “I’m sorry.” Start with acknowledgement and validation. Often the person has an intersectional identity that I do not. I work from the premise that if a person shares a way that I have offended, excluded, ignored, and/or mischaracterized something, then they are correct.
- “Thank you.” It is risky and labor intensive for someone to call you into a conversation about race. I am always struck with deep admiration for the person who risks our personal or professional relationship to tell me that I caused harm by missing the boat.
- “I will learn more.” Commit to self-education. I do not make it the person’s responsibility to educate me. It is kind and generous if they do. But it is not their job. The person has already been generous with their time, emotional labor, and intellectual engagement.
- “I am committed to doing better.” Reaffirm your commitment to do better. No follow up required. No need to chase down the person at a later date to prove that you are doing better. The person doesn’t have time for that, and your efforts should not be performative.
Often, we are told our intentions are irrelevant if we have hurt someone and contributed to upholding white supremacy. This is true. Also, it is not true. Our well-intended actions are irrelevant in the sense that our sheer existence as white people in America means that we have inherent racial bias, and we have benefited from 400 years of our country’s systemic and institutionalized racism and oppression of BIPOC people. However, our intent to take on an anti-racist stance is important. This intent doesn’t release us from culpability. Rather, this intent can motivate us to take on the validation-gratitude-learning-and-doing-better framing. If our authentic intent is to dismantle white supremacy, then our intent humbles us, makes us vulnerable, causes us pain and loss, and opens us to learning through action.
We know Jewish history. Non-Jews helped us fight our own erasure. If the function of freedom is to free someone else (thank you, Toni Morrison), what are you waiting for? Stand up. Make mistakes. Stand up again.
Dr. Elizabeth Soslau is an associate professor of education at the University of Delaware. She identifies as a Secular Jewish Humanist and is a parent in the Folkshul community.