Fade to White

I skipped first grade and spent second grade in New York for my dad’s sabbatical year. Finally, in third grade, I was able to have a birthday party with my school friends. I grew up in a small town and while my experience in the public schools of that town was decidedly mixed, one aspect of it was a great blessing. I had friends of many races and cultures, and in the way of children, I didn’t even notice it as anything special. In early May in my third grade year, I excitedly invited about 20 kids to my house for the Sunday closest to my birthday. I couldn’t wait to play bean bag toss and fake horseshoes and run around my suburban Michigan backyard in my new party dress with my friends.

Then the day came, and all the white kids showed up. None of the Black ones did. I was sad and surprised but my parents weren’t. They didn’t explain it to me; they might not have had the words. It took me decades to understand that as much as my Black friends liked me, they might not have felt safe coming to my house on a Sunday afternoon. Their parents might not have felt safe bringing them to my neighborhood. All the cake and ice cream would have to be weighed against being around all those white people.

As I grew up, my world got whiter and whiter. The last time I had meaningful, everyday friendships with Black people was in graduate school at Michigan. And if I’m being truthful, it’s quite possible that those folks didn’t think of me as a friend as much as I thought of them that way. I probably exhausted them. But I loved them fiercely, as I love all my friends.

There’s real sadness for me about the narrowing of my world. A workshop I attended this week at school, part of a three-day seminar at Hebrew College on Racial Justice, brought up the question of why so many white people’s worlds have gotten whiter and whiter. What are the factors at play, factors that were previewed long ago on an impossibly sunny Sunday in May? 

I was touched by the invitation from activist Tamara Fish, who led that workshop, to rekindle the relationships we used to have when our worlds were more colorful. I’m connected with many of my friends — from childhood through graduate school — on social media. Occasionally we talk or message back and forth. What might it look like to deepen those relationships and to cultivate more such connections? My approach to the rabbinate — as to life — is relational. Why not here too? What might it feel like, post-pandemic, to invite people to my Shabbat table whom I don’t know well, people who aren’t just like me but in whom I’m genuinely interested? And how do I do that without it being A Project To Diversify My World?

How do I move beyond being just another well-intentioned white lady, with all the fragility that implies?

We learn B’shallach this week, the dramatic escape of the Israelites and the crossing at the Sea of Reeds. And I keep thinking about the (not quite) parallel slavery narratives. The miracle for the Israelites was making it through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, leaving the Egyptian oppressors to drown in their own violence and rapacity. When — when — will the miracle come for Black Americans, and what will happen to their oppressors? Which side are you on? Which side am I? 

When the sea opens up for Black liberation, will I cross again, alongside a beloved community I have helped to nurture, or will I drown in my own sins?

My childhood friend, the brilliant soprano Anita Johnson, recorded this moving video in response to the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris. Her song perfectly captures what I know is in my grasp. 

Let there be peace on earth.

Let it begin with me too, Anita.