On Fear, Anti-Semitism, Abolition and Imagining

When we first saw the Christians who we didn’t yet realize were Christians, our reaction was annoyance.

“Why are they standing outside?” my friend muttered to me as we approached.

“I know there was a singing thing before service, but I thought it was indoors,” I said.

“Ugh,” Eli continued. “It’s too cold to be out here.”

We were walking arm in arm down 50th Avenue in South Minneapolis, toward kabbalat Shabbat services at Shir Tikvah. It’s a ritual that has not been especially regular for either of us lately, but that day we’d both been part of text threads with fellow young, radical, mostly queer Jews about going. It was the first Shabbat after the Pittsburgh shooting, the first chance for many of us to be in Jewish space.

It wasn’t until we had (cautiously) stepped midway through the circle of people outside that I registered what was happening: that the white faces and warmly dressed, candle-wielding bodies didn’t look like me, or familiar, and weren’t headed in. “Oh,” I blurted, a little too loud: “they’re Christians!”

By the time we got inside, it was standing room only: the crowd leaked out from the sanctuary and into the oneg hall. We were wending our way toward the back when we spotted our people, arms waved high from their perch on the bema. Once there, I embraced my friend Abbie (a moment bizarrely captured by local media) and let loose the full store of layered, complicated, conflicting emotion that had been building all week. (“The Christians,” I kept stammering. “I can’t believe the Christians.”)

For the duration of the service, as we mourned recent deaths and celebrated a new marriage and a new life, our little pocket of close and loose friends (what one Rabbi termed a “human tangle”) leaned and snuggled against one another like weepy puppies, weary from the weight of last weeks and relieved to be, for some moments, together.

**

As you know if you follow me on social media, I’ve been organizing lately with a coalition of folks pressuring Minneapolis to divest from our (historically mega-funded) police departments and invest in (historically under-funded) resources like low-income housing and other, non-police-led safety strategies.

In the last years, like many who have looked to the Black Lives Matter movement for leadership, (and like many locally who’ve benefitted from the scholarship and resources of MPD150) I’ve become persuaded by the logic of abolition: once you recognize that police departments descend from slave patrols, that when they kill black people without accountability they are in fact operating exactly as intended, that the history of police departments here and elsewhere is scaffolded with failed attempts at reform and persistent PR campaigns, it becomes pretty difficult not to make the concession: we can’t reform ourselves out of an oppressive machinery. We must imagine another way.

As you also may have seen, I made the (personal) decision to not attend a vigil earlier last week in St. Paul, in part because of police presence. To be clear: while that presence indeed upset me, I don’t hold judgment toward those who chose it, or toward my many community mates who decided to stay in spite of it. I recognize that, while some communities (often poor and non-white) have created alternatives to policing for centuries, much work remains to envision and create viable alternatives.

So it was striking, and surely part of what triggered my emotional reaction Friday night, that the assembly of neighbors holding candles–awkward stares notwithstanding–triggered what I am sure it is not a stretch to describe as the opposite reaction I felt upon seeing police earlier that week: in contrast to feelings of anxiety, isolation and stress, I felt warmth, connection, overwhelming gratitude and love.

***

Growing up in Brooklyn, being Jewish didn’t come with feelings of otherness. White, Ashkenazi, neurotic Jews are a core archetype of New York’s dominant culture, and my experience of the city was segregated enough that I rarely occupied spaces in which I didn’t feel I belonged.

Like many Jewish and non-Jewish Americans: I considered anti-Semitism historical.

In recent years, living outside New York and delving deeper into anti-oppression education and activism, I’ve come to learn more about anti-Jewish oppression’s pernicious pattern: how it’s cyclical instead of constant, how it enables Jews to achieve a level of power and prosperity in order to scapegoat us when things, as they inevitably do under white supremacy and capitalism, get bad.

And still, as I cried that night during services, I felt shame: for my friends and neighbors who are black, seeing people killed for being who they are is nothing new. It is, in fact, routine. What right do I have to react upon seeing this happen to people like me for the first time in my country, in my lifetime? How many times have I failed to show up for terror enacted upon other communities–how could I expect or deserve any solidarity now?

Along with that shame, this coursed through me, too: a knowledge of the particular and ancient history of Jewish people being persecuted; how that memory lives not only in our conscious minds but in the fascia of our bodies, in the depths of our nervous systems. Memory that instances of anti-Semitic violence often trigger, and can manifest as intense, visceral fear.

Like many, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intensity of that fear, and about how we can hold and honor it without enacting more violence both within and outside our communities.

Without, in other words, replicating past and persistent patterns.

**

Looking around during services, I felt as though I could see our Jewish American community’s investment in whiteness and white supremacy on display.

In those of us stumbling through the longer, transliterated prayers, I could see the way in which our ancestors, in bargaining for entry into (the invented category of) whiteness, had assimilated: given up their traditions and practices so their children could be seen as American, not other.

In the fear writ on the (mostly white) faces, I could see the way in which that bargain’s promise–that we, white American Jews, would let our whiteness grant us not only a sense of inherent superiority, but of safety, of fundamental security and protection by the state–had been so powerfully ruptured.

**

Once, while teaching a writing class at the Stillwater public library, I implored a woman who was hesitant to share her work to do so. “It’s a safe space,” I told her. She looked at me like I had just assured her that ice cream would prevent cancer or cure colds. As I soon after realized, it was a preposterous thing to say. Who the heck am I to tell her, to tell anyone, that they feel safe?

Indeed, as I’ve now learned from POC scholars, the term “safe space” is particularly problematic in the context of racial dialogue: such spaces are never truly safe for POC, and the promise of safety for white people reinforces our learned entitlement to comfort—an entitlement that can translate to a forceful weapon of white supremacy. (Put another way: maintaining white people’s comfort means maintaining the status quo.)

Since then, when teaching or facilitating, I am careful not to invoke the term “safe space”: like many promises of safety, it is, in fact, misleading. Instead, I suggest that the extent to which each person will feel safe to share and be vulnerable will hinge on a combination of individual lived experiences and the degree to which we feel connected to one another.

This principle, of course, extends to the community at large: the more we feel connected to one another, the safer we are likely to feel, and to be.

It’s no coincidence, I don’t think, that racist capitalism perpetuates itself upon the activation of collective fear at the same time that it enables a culture of individualism in which we are taught to value self-sufficiency, not interdependence.

What was evident at Shir Tikvah that night is how deeply our bodies and hearts know better: how instinctively we, in fact, know that we are meant to live interdependently, that we are meant to lean on and support one another, that what fosters genuine safety is community.

And yet: “genuine safety” isn’t a thing. As Tara Brach reminded me the other day, some measure of fear is human and healthy; we can’t create an existence in which we don’t experience any danger or feel any fear.

Our challenge, then (as she also helped me remember), is to practice more mindfully and generously tolerating the uncomfortable, inevitable experience of fear. Our challenge is to hold our (sometimes rational, sometimes not) fear, to sit with it; not to avoid it by grasping for the false comforts we’re taught to seek: whiteness, isolation, police. 

Like many things, it is easier to tolerate discomfort in community. It’s also easier, and more joyful, to imagine radical possibilities with beloveds beside.

I don’t know any of the answers: I don’t know how we undo all the oppressions, what it will look like to find full liberation or how we will get there. I do know that for me, in this moment, amidst so much violence and injustice–the great majority from which I am safe, what sustains me is seeking communities committed to imagining other possibilities: whether they be alternatives to police, re-distributing resources in the community, or small ways to resist individualism and struggle toward interdependence.

It shouldn’t be a radical thing to say we need one another. But in many ways, in the face of the (increasingly menacing) dominant culture, leaning into that truth feels like the most radical thing we can do.

 

On Grasping, Contentedness, Whiteness and Being (Forever) “Half-Woke”

“What about you? Are you content?”

My friend E and I were taking a walk, catching up at the end of summer–most of which she had spent away.

E is one of my closest friends, and though we aren’t great at keeping up regular contact while apart, her question took me aback: shouldn’t she know whether I’m content?

Also: shouldn’t I know?

Am I content?

Do I–should I want to be?

“Um, I guess so,” I think I said, then. I mumbled something about how I was feeling overwhelmed, per usual; unstable, per usual; uncertain in assorted ways about teaching and writing and community–but also happy, in many moments, finding nourishment in relationships and art and work, whatever that all means.

*

For the last six Saturday mornings, and for four more to come, I have and will sit in a circle with a group of adults in a room at a church in north Minneapolis.

We gather there to discuss texts, watch videos, share personal stories: to work toward a deepened knowledge of this country’s racist history, and toward unlearning the racist conditioning we’ve all–all of us–received.

I’ve been appreciating that space. And feeling drained by it. Sometimes frustrated. Always thankful and humbled, often overwhelmed.

Our reflections and learnings often lead me to a similar dilemma: how to hold, at once, the vast magnitude of the problem (what bell hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”) alongside a belief that much of the most important work must take place on a small, intimate scale: settings like that church room.

(Yes, the change we need is systemic, but in order for folks–white folks, mainly–to work toward that change meaningfully, we’ve got a lot of internal work to do, too. I think.)

How, in other words, to know that no amount of resistance will ever feel like “enough,” while maintaining a commitment to resist as much as we can? Or: how to see that we are unlikely to witness the transformative, systemic change we believe necessary while continuing to take part in the work? 

Oh, right, and what is the work? Is it introducing my composition students to anti-racist concepts and texts that many of them won’t hear? Emailing my parents movie reviews that critique Hollywood’s romance with colonialism, then drinking bloody marys instead of attending an organizing meeting? Teaching poetry classes in prisons I’m not sure should exist, nodding while a guard tells me he respects the incarcerated men who he’ll deny water or bathroom privileges during class? Catching myself as I make racist assumptions about a young, Asian-American woman beside me in the sauna while I smugly read a chapter from The White Racial Frame? Talking about writing poems that address whiteness while finding every excuse to not actually write them?

*

Like most writers who teach (personal) essays, I often introduce my students to the roots of the word–from the French essayer: to tryAn essay, we’re told, is an attempt, an effort, a try at answering some question: what does it mean to feel joy? How to be a black man in America without getting swallowed by rage? What does it feel like to witness a bombing and manhunt on television while incarcerated? 

That they begin with questions doesn’t mean good essays arrive at clear answers; those aren’t really a thing in the world, and nor (us omniscient teachers say) should they be in print.

What we look for in essays, then, and what–I might assure myself–we look for in life, is the grasping: purposeful, thoughtful, reflective seeking.

This takes some pressure off: who needs to worry about clear answers (like what the hell “the work” means) when it’s the questions that matter?

The problem with this framework, as Leslie Jamison eloquently puts it in her introduction to this year’s Best American Essays, is that it lets us off the hook: “If anything counts as attempt,” she asks, “what could possibly count as failure?”

And of course, as she goes on to explain: “essays aren’t immune to failure. They can fail in a thousand ways–by failing to offer insight, by offering insights that feel too easy, too tidy, too shopworn. They can fail to enchant….They can fail to render their subjects with sufficient complexity. They can declare themselves done too soon.”

Similarly: if we know we won’t see something like “success” when it comes to the work of liberation and justice, then how will we know when we’ve failed?

In some ways, we won’t: it’s often (if not always) impossible to fully know the true, short or long term impacts of any kind of social justice work.

But it is certainly possible to fail by not doing what we can. Too easily, if I extend Jamison’s metaphor, I can applaud myself for asking hard questions while failing to take the pursuit–of insight, of knowledge, of the work itself–as far as I have capacity to do.

It is always easy, after all, to slip back into complacency: to shrug and shroud myself with the comfort that there isn’t any “right” way to resist or any measure of “enough” work. To slip back, in other words, into a notion of success (or of “content”) that isn’t mine.

Our culture–and most of our families–doesn’t teach us to prioritize working for radical change: most of us weren’t told to measure our success by how much we commit to uprooting toxic masculinity or abolishing the construct of whiteness. We were (mostly) taught, rather, to pursue our own passions, to create our own families, to seek fulfillment and comfort and happiness for ourselves.

That’s a teaching I’m trying to unlearn–but I’m not there yet.

Put another way: I still don’t know, for me, what it means to be “content”–so how can I claim something I don’t yet understand? 

*

At dinner with a pair of friends the other night, the term “woke” came up. I shared that I wasn’t sure it was okay (read: socially acceptable) to use the term as a white person, but struggled to put words around why.

Rob came to my aid: saying, in effect, that, as white folks, we’ll never really, fully, be “woke”; most of us have spent the bulk of our lives oblivious to the mere truth of our whiteness–the journey, as anti-racist folks often say, is lifelong, there will always be more learning, more unlearning to do.

Perhaps “half-woke,” he suggested, is a better term.

I thought of that the very next day–and how much it fits–when I found myself startled, naively surprised by some basic historical facts around American slavery presented in this podcast–one I’d just sent to some relatives, days earlier, because I thought it would be “accessible” for them (read: people I consider “less woke” then me).

*

There are multiple ways in which I could explain what prevented me from claiming the mantel of “content” that day: job insecurity (#adjunctlife), poetry rejections, relationship struggles (love is hard!), etc. And perhaps some combination of those was really what drove my response.

But maybe, too, it had to do with that idea of grasping: with the (relatively new) understanding of how half-conscious I am and always will be, with the awareness that I am trying to learn and internalize whole new understandings of what “success” and “work” and “content” really mean.

With the sense that, while I might be finding some insights along the way, I’ve got a very long way to go–and a destination that will always, in some ways, elude.