By Ayelet Kaminer ‘21, Managing Opinion Editor
On Monday, September 21st, 334 members of the Heschel community left their book clubs and logged on to a conversation about race with Tre Johnson— a writer who three months prior wrote, “Book clubs, for instance, are comfortable gatherings of friends who are unlikely to nudge one another to the places of discomfort.” While Johnson did not renounce the existence of book clubs, he presented an issue that can make book clubs unconducive to anti racist action: they often become a passive, comforting echo chamber of privileged voices. This same hindrance to antiracism has too often been integral to Heschel’s antiracist programming.
This program was the most recent of Heschel’s programming pertaining to race. Since the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, the Heschel administration has openly committed to embracing anti-racisism. This commitment, however, has resulted only in sporadic classroom discussions. I will admit to you a fact that reflects our school’s collective failure to be anti-racist, a fact that should make every White parent, student, and faculty member at Heschel ashamed to their core: I, a White person who benefits from this nation’s systemic racism, have never felt un comfortable in a Heschel program about race. Both before and following the murder of George Floyd, Heschel’s programing around race has, with few exceptions, followed the same template. These programs, planned predominantly by non-Black faculty members, have frequently revolved around racism as a fundamental tenet of our nation, rather than a system that Heschel’s majority White student body contributes to and benefits from. These conversations are reassuring ones. They allow us to sleep at night, safe in the knowledge that we are the ‘good’ White people. For too long, we have maintained the communal fallacy that it is enough to read a book by a Black person every once in a while, to discuss racism in oblique terms that do not force us to acknowledge how, as a predominantly White community, we benefit from the violence perpetrated against Black people every single day.
It is likely that were it not for the murder of George Floyd and the national spotlight given subsequently to the Black Lives Matter movement, Tre Johnson would have never been invited to speak at Heschel. But systemic racism existed long before May of 2020, and will exist far after Black Lives Matter is a trending topic. The ‘anti-racism’ touted by Heschel’s administration is a reactionary one, sustained by Black suffering, and it wanes when said suffering is no longer in the public eye. The only way to ensure that anti-racism at Heschel is truly a commitment, rather than a platitude, is to take meaningful, tangible action beyond occasional assemblies. In his book How To Be An Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi writes, “Like fighting an addiction, being an anti-racist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” These three tenets of anti-racist action have consistently been underrepresented. Heschel’s commitments “All are responsible” and “Every deed counts” are deeply tied to action. Why, then, does our commitment to anti-racism so often center around conversation, rather than concretized action?
In an email in August, Head of School Ariela and Director of Hesed and Tzedek Rabbi Anne listed actions guided by Heschel’s “com \mitment to anti-racism,” including forming divisional faculty Anti-Racism Committees, meeting with alumni, and launching a book club. These actions are united that, as phrased by Johnson, they are all “comfortable gatherings of friends who are unlikely to nudge one another to the places of discomfort.” These steps, which supposedly reaffirm Heschel’s “commitment to anti-racism,” strongly align with Johnson’s characterization of programs that are not conducive to antiracist action. The steps will not force the school’s White students and faculty to acknowledge the manners in which they have benefited from racism. As long as Heschel’s antiracism revolves around these comforting gatherings, it will be passive, and, as stated by Johnson, “never enough.”
In his program, Johnson spoke to a vital nuance necessary in race programming, especially programming that takes place in predominantly White communities. Said programming too frequently devolves into a way for White people to feel comfortable during a time of reckoning for our nation in which no person who benefits from White privilege should feel com forted. This, Johnson notes, is not conducive to anti racist action. As he wrote in his Washington Post article, “The right acknowledgment of black justice, humanity, freedom and happiness won’t be found in your book clubs… It will be found in your earnest willingness to dismantle systems that stand in our way”
We cannot continue to delude ourselves into believing that occasional conversations take the place of true anti-racist action. I say this not out of pessimism or out of a lack of faith in Heschel’s abilities to take meaningful action against racism. Rather, out of a belief that Heschel — a school named after a man who spoke of praying with one’s feet, of social justice activism as a manifestation of faith — can and must move towards action, and past the comfort of conversations.