Cherie Brown on Fighting Racism

SEPTEMBER 21, 2017
It is an honor for me to be speaking today.  When David called me shortly after the events in Charlottesville and asked me to try and say something that could reach people’s hearts, connecting the Torah reading for today to the issue of racism, I was first humbled, and then I totally panicked.  The Torah reading is about Sarah telling Abraham to kick out Ishmael and Hagar and God telling Avram to listen to Sarah.  It’s about Hagar and Ishmael wandering in the desert, about to die from lack of water and their crying out to God.  The Torah reading is about racism; it’s about exile; it’s about nation building; it’s about starvation; and it’s about conflicting narratives.  It becomes quickly overwhelming.  And the growing list of issues we face today are just like that: they are overwhelming.   White supremacists shouting racist and anti Semitic chants.  Devastating floods in Texas, India, and Bangladesh.  Hurricanes in the Caribbean and Florida and Puerto Rico.  Not to mention all the contributing factors from  climate change.  A proliferation of nuclear weapons.  And that doesn’t even begin to address all of the horrific policies of our 45th President.  Where do we even begin?

Several years ago, I was about to give a keynote speech at the University of Texas in Denton.  Right before my talk, the international director of Amnesty International addressed the group.  He gave a hard hitting speech about all the horrific human rights violations taking place worldwide.  I happened to be in the women’s room right after his talk, and I overheard two young women commiserating with each other, “There are so many awful things going on in the world.  After that talk, we are totally depressed.  Nothing we do could possibly make a difference.  Let’s just go home.”

And yet, Rosh Hashanah is calling us, shouting to us to break through our numbness, to hear the sound of the Shofar–to dare to let our hearts break about what is happening all around us.  To not just go home.

So this morning, I want to try and break through the feelings of helplessness I know we all battle and to offer four specific actions or attitudes on the work on racism that we can each do now.

(1) The first: build one authentic, deeper-than-you-think-you-can-go, jumping-off-a-diving-board-into-the-deep-end relationship with a person targeted by racism who will then trust you enough to tell you the truth about what their lives are like.  There is no other way we will move forward.

Many years ago, I was leading a program in Birmingham, Alabama, in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where the bombing took place in 1963 that killed three Black girls.  Every religious leader in Birmingham was in the room.  At one point, a White woman who taught at the University of Birmingham raised her hand and said to me, “Cherie, help me.  I feel like the Black students in my classes let me into the living room but not into the kitchen.”  I never forgot her statement.  Living room relationships are polite.  They are formal.  They don’t challenge us to our core.  Kitchen relationships are messy.  They disrupt things.  They make us look at what we don’t want to look at.  The work on racism requires us to do one key thing: it requires us to build these authentic, in-the-kitchen relationships.

My friend and work partner, Joyce, identifies herself as a dark-skinned, Black, African-heritage woman and a descendant of kidnapped and enslaved Africans.  The Klan killed her grandfather on the front steps of their house while her mother watched.  For the past 30 years, Joyce has been one of those in-the-kitchen, pushing-me-off-the-diving-board-when-I’m-screaming-I-don’t- want-to jump close friends.
(a) There was the time a few years ago, when she was late for our meeting with a client in New York City because three taxi drivers picked up everyone around her but refused to pick her up.  There was the time she cried to me about someone sitting next to her on the airplane who leaned towards her and said, “I like your perfume.  I thought you people smelled.”  There was the time the dean of a major law school here in DC, where we were doing anti-racism work, called me to tell me that my organization, NCBI, should fire Joyce.  Why?  Because she had dared to encourage a participant in our training to look at their racism.  And then there was last week when she called to tell me that her beloved grandson, Kamal, had just turned 14, and she was terrified because she knew he had just crossed an invisible threshold.  He will now no longer be seen as a cute little Black child, and she’s terrified what will happen to him.  Can we dare to find the courage to hear these stories?

(b) My friend Larry, an African American man, born and raised in DC, whom I’ve known and loved for 30 years, let me know last year that after being stopped by police here in DC too many times, he started keeping his driver’s license in the dashboard of his car so he never has to put his hand in his pocket and risk being killed.

(c) And then there’s my friend Mona, who is a devout Muslim.  My husband, George, and I are called auntie and uncle by her four-year-old daughter, Layla.  After Trump announced a ban on all Muslims coming into the U.S. from certain countries, Mona opened up to me that she hadn’t told anyone, even her husband, but she’d been spit on getting on to the Metro here in DC.  She was brokenhearted because she was considering whether she should take off her hijab before getting on the Metro to go to work.  Mona, who would never take off her hijab anywhere in public, was terrified that in DC something would happen to her.  And then what would her daughter do without a mother?

Could we each dare this next year to take one relationship we have, or could contemplate having, with a person targeted by racism and turn that relationship into an honest, no-holds-barred, personal friendship, where that person trusts you enough to tell you the truth?  To tell you what racism is really like in their lives day to day.  Take a moment now and think.  Who is that person for you?   And if you can’t think of someone now, come back to it in your quiet meditations over the next eight days before Yom Kippur.   If each of us in this room could build one new relationship this year where we became a solid ally to a person targeted by racism, it would transform us, and it would transform our community.  There is just no way we can make a sustained commitment to take action against racism without having these personal relationships that propel us towards action.

This kind of one-on-one relationship building is often dismissed as not doing enough of the real work needed to end systemic racism.   But actually, it is the most reliable way we can each begin to do the work to confront racism–our own and everyone else’s.  I believe strongly that it is because of sexism that relationship work is so devalued.  It gets seen as soft, touchy feely, and therefore, women’s work.  And the truth is, we women know a whole lot about what is needed to change the world.  After all, it was Sarah who had the biggest vision of what was needed for her son, Isaac, and ultimately the Jewish people.


(2) The second action.  Rosh Hashanah calls each of us to believe in the bottom of our hearts that despite all appearances to the contrary, change is possible.  That human beings can change.  That we can look deep enough inside of ourselves today and throughout the Yamim Noraim, the days of awe, and find those places that need repair, and then offer teshuvah and begin to change.  We need to believe that human beings can change, or we will never be able to sustain the kind of activism needed to end racism.

I worked with ex-Nazis and children of ex-Nazis and Jews together at a concentration camp in Germany.  I once did a training for a group of skinheads referred to me by the courts after they had painted swastikas on their school playground.  And I saw them change.  With the skinheads, I actually asked them to leap in the air and shout, “It’s great to be a white male skinhead!”  And afterwards, I  listened to each of their stories of how they’d experienced mistreatment and what the white supremacist group meant to them.  And after listening to them, slowly, one by one, without any prompting from me, they began to tell me that they hated what they’d done, but they had been afraid to back down and possibly lose friends.  But that honesty and that teshuvah only came after I was first willing to offer them a space to be listened to and to be proud of their self-proclaimed identity.  When we rob people of pride and dignity, they cannot change, no matter how much we want them to.

(3) The third action step I offer for each of us to consider.  A few weeks ago, at a Friday night Shabbat dinner in my neighborhood, someone had asked me if I’d be willing to talk about what we can each do after Charlottesville.  I started to share the story about my friend, Azi, a Muslim woman who had grown up in Iran, who had reached out to me and a few of her other Jewish friends after Trump had announced last fall his plan to set up a Muslim registry in the U.S.  And we had immediately all written back to her–as I’m sure you would have, too–“Azi, if there is a Muslim registry in this country, be assured we will all be first in line to sign up as Muslims.”  I had hardly finished my story when the woman sitting next to me at the Shabbat table blurted out, “Well, are they going to be there for us when we get targeted?  I don’t think so,” she said.

How many of us have thought secretly in our heart of hearts that same question?  But will they be there for us?  How many of us have held back from supporting Palestinian rights all the way because we thought, “But what have they done to be an ally to us?”  We Jews are a terrified people.  We have experienced expulsions, genocide, abandonment.  I don’t care how much activism or anti-racism work any one of us does, that gnawing question can be lurking there right under the surface of our activism.  But will they be there for us?  I cannot tell you the number of times Joyce has called me on my racism, and if I’m honest, my first thought to myself has often been a defensive one, “Well, I’ve done so much work on racism.  What have you done lately as an ally about anti-Semitism?”  It is totally understandable to have these what-about-me-or-my-people reactions.  And yet, they will sabotage us every time.  So this morning, I ask each of us to consider in every relationship we have, when someone calls us on something we’ve done wrong, and our first reaction is to say, “Yeah, well, let me tell you what you’ve done wrong to me,” that we stop.  And consider.  What if I just listened?  What if I decided to be an ally first, even if I cannot tell they are prepared to be my ally?  That is what we need to do to make a dent in ending racism.

(4)  And the fourth and final action I offer this morning–and maybe the most challenging one for the work on racism–is to refrain from putting people into two camps: there are the racists, and then there’s the rest of us.  It’s too easy to get divided from each other and to declare in our minds who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

A few years ago, I was at a meeting with about 20 anti-racism leaders from across the U.S.  Seventeen of the leaders were People of Color.  And the other three were White.  And all three White people were Jews.  The meeting just happened to take place the week that Donald Sterling, the owner of the Washington Clippers, was in the news.  He had just been banned from the NBA for life and fined 2.5 million dollars after private recordings of him making racist remarks were made public.  On the second morning of our meeting, folks were shmoozing about what they’d done for dinner the night before, and the other two Jews piped up, “Oh, we decided to un-Jew Sterling.”  I froze.  Un-Jew Sterling?   I was terrified to speak up.  I was terrified of getting attacked, but I knew I’d hate myself forever if I didn’t say anything.

So I jumped in and said, “I’ll take him.  He’s still part of my people.”  Donald Sterling is a raised-poor, Jewish guy from Brooklyn.  Were his comments vile?  Yes.  Does he need to be accountable?  Yes.  And yet, he was also secretly taped in a private conversation by someone who was out to get him and humiliate him.  We want so much for there to be good guys and bad guys.  Those over there are the racists.  And then there’s the rest of us.  What if we could remember that every one of us is deeply, deeply good.  And yet every one of us growing up in this society has also been hurt by racist conditioning.  What if we didn’t demonize people but instead fought hard against their bad policies?

So on this Rosh Hashanah, as we start that once again joyous and heart wrenching journey of turning ourselves around, I conclude by summarizing four actions for our work on racism:

(1) Build one authentic, in-the-kitchen relationship with a person targeted by racism and then make it safe enough for them to tell you the truth about how they experience racism every day.

(2) Hold on with all your heart to the belief that human beings can change.
(3) Put aside the defensive urge to think or say, “But what about me?” or “What about my people?”  Instead, offer to be the first one to be an ally.

(4) Remember.  There are no good guys and bad guys.  There are only hurting people who do and say painful, awful things.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I wish for all of us the courage to listen when it’s unbearable to listen, to move through our own numbness and to let our hearts break as we face the truth about racism.  I believe in the bottom of my heart that we can and will end racism. And it’s the day-to-day, concrete actions that we can take that will make the difference.


Le Shana Tova.  I wish all of us a meaningful, healthy, working-to-end-racism New Year.


Comments are closed.