Accidental racism in the Jewish world
Racism cuts across all communities
Earlier this year, my wife attended a program on Jewish education. The presenter made a seemingly harmless joke: “A couple stopped having children after their fourth, because they read a study that said that every fifth child born in America is Asian.”
There was no way for him to know that among the sea of white faces in the audience, one of them was married to me.
I contacted the presenter to inform him that his joke was racially insensitive (it implies that having an Asian child is a negative outcome to be avoided). His first reaction was not to apologize, but to explain.
“The joke is not about race.”
“It doesn’t really disparage Asians.”
“I ran it by some Asian friends!”
“I teach courses on cultural diversity, so I’m well-versed in hot button issues like racism.”
The irony of that last point eluded him.
I responded by quoting the cardinal rule of comedy: If you need to explain your joke, the joke isn’t funny. The lesser-known corollary: If you need to explain why your joke isn’t racist, the joke is racist.
He eventually did apologize. “I’m sorry if you misinterpreted my joke.” In other words, the fault lay with the person who found the joke offensive, not the teller. It was a stunning abdication of responsibility — from a professional educator, no less.
I do not believe the presenter is racist. By all accounts, he is an upstanding, civic-minded, Torah-abiding Jew — the opposite of a white supremacist brandishing tiki torches. He is not an agent of hate. And one joke in poor taste does not a racist make.
But racism exists on a spectrum. The hateful invective of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, and gun-wielding domestic terrorists occupies one extreme. The other encompasses a far subtler form of racism: the inborn, unconscious biases that shape the worldview of anyone raised in a predominantly white society.
It is not malicious. Most people are not even aware of it. It manifests most commonly as a blind spot to the perspectives of marginalized peoples and finds expression in comments and questions and jokes that seem harmless, but are actually hurtful. And it is distressingly common in the Jewish world.
My life as a convert has been charmed. In the 12 years since I joined the Jewish people, I’ve enjoyed the wholehearted embrace of countless families and individuals who have gone out of their way to make me feel like a vital thread in the broader tapestry of Judaism. They’ve shown me nothing but acceptance and friendship.
I have never experienced overt racism from fellow Jews. No taunts of “go home, Bruce Lee!” which I heard as a child in the suburbs, and even occasionally as an adult in the streets of Manhattan. Tolerance is a hallmark of Judaism, and I can attest to its truth.
However, I have heard children chant “ching chong, ching chong!” in my presence at Shabbos tables. I have heard adults quip that someone was so tired that their eyes “looked Asian.” I have been asked by the Jewish owner of a neighboring town’s kosher Chinese restaurant if I was a customer or one of the cooks. I have been complimented for speaking without an accent (never mind that I was born and raised in New York).
These “innocent” comments touch a raw nerve shared by every minority in America. They boil us down to physical traits, linguistic sounds, or vocations, reducing individuals to stereotypes. They make us feel different, “othered” and lesser. We are conditioned to think of ourselves as outsiders, and these comments reinforce that insecurity.
And the effects are amplified for children.
Our youngest son came home from playgroup one day and showed us a trick he learned from his friends: He lifted up the corners of his eyes — a universally recognized gesture to make fun of Asians. Thankfully, my son is still too young to know what it means.
I’ve refrained from speaking out in the past for fear of being labeled “hyper-sensitive” or “too PC.” I’ve heard some Jews suggest that political correctness is a tool used by liberals to stifle free speech. To which I respond: That’s easy for a white person to say.
Political correctness gives a voice to muted minorities who historically have been silenced. We live in a time when marginalized groups are finally feeling empowered to speak out. Shaming us for being “too PC” is an attempt to maintain the old status quo. It is stifling our free speech — not the other way around.
I’ve seen Jews roll their eyes when African Americans decry the use of blackface by white performers. I’ve heard Jews dismiss Native Americans who condemn the Cleveland Indians mascot as an offensive caricature. I wonder if those same Jews were as forgiving when a popular clothing retailer released a line of striped pajamas resembling concentration camp uniforms from the Holocaust.
I wonder if people who grumble about political correctness are really concerned that t he political correctness is forcing them to take a hard, uncomfortable look at their own biases and prejudices.
The Jewish world is becoming more and more diverse — and as a father of children who epitomize that diversity, I feel a responsibility to call out racial insensitivity when I see it. Not to cause trouble. But to educate. To inspire people to think before they speak.
Ultimately, the presenter relented. While he declined to abandon the joke entirely, he resolved to change it to make it less problematic for Asians. I am grateful — both for his willingness to do better, and for the lessons we all can take from this episode: Learn to take the feelings of others into account when we speak. Recognize our own biases and prejudices. Believe others when they express and share their pain.
Together, we can raise awareness of racial sensitivity within the Jewish community. We can break the cycle of ignorance and inaugurate the path to empathy and inclusion.
We just have to recognize that racism is no laughing matter. pjc
Aryeh Ho is an editor for an educational website and a published children’s book author. This piece was originally published on aish.com.