We Should All Be Uncomfortable

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.

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