A Guide to Talking to Your White Jewish Family About Anti-Black Racism

Here are tips for having hard and difficult conversations, with suggested talking points and resources about antiracism and Black Lives Matter.

White Jews: America is not well. It never was. And we have a responsibility as white people to talk to our relatives and communities who are white, especially older folks, even if they’re liberal, to invite them into this imperative work. Racism is embedded into our society, including within the Jewish community. We’re tired of white Jews, ourselves included, failing to take action to support Black lives and build an antiracist world because of white Jewish assimilation — which is itself a result of white supremacy. Liberation is a core tenet of who we are.

We are two white Jewish sisters who grew up in a mostly white, affluent suburb of Chicago. Our parents are liberal, by all accounts, but we came into our progressive antiracist politics by a combination of factors throughout the years. Yes, our parents taught us about egalitarianism from an early age, but we’ve also done a lot of work to learn about whiteness, white privilege, and white supremacy beginning in high school and college, through coursework, readings, trainings, difficult conversations, and educational resources. We continue to do this work in our current roles: Caroline is a Brooklyn-based writer, poet, performer, and educator, and Natalie is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Chicago, as well as an educator and consultant.

We are best friends, and we find ourselves in solidarity for this life-long process to unpack our white privilege and support Black, Indigenous, and other people of color by helping to create an antiracist world. We have hard conversations with our family, all of whom are white. Talking about racism is complicated, and people will naturally get defensive. But being able to have these conversations with our families and friends who have and haven’t been educated and informed about the underlying issues of systemic oppression is vital. When we instill our families and communities with an antiracist lens and stance, that builds solidarity and supports Black lives.

We want to acknowledge and name that we are very intentionally white Jews with an entirely white family talking to other white Jews so that you can speak to the white members of your families and communities because it is on us, as white people, to do the work to abolish white supremacy and dismantle systemic oppression. And still, we must always base our work in the Jewish community around Black Jews and Jews of Color, which is why antiracism and supporting Black lives is non-negotiable. And in addition to how racism from white Jews impacts the world at large, we have a problem within the Jewish community of both individuals and entire Jewish institutions ignoring, silencing, and harming Jews of Color. As Yavilah McCoy said in her keynote address at Bend the Arc’s Pursuing Justice 2016, “The voices and experiences of Jews of Color must be brought to the center of our movement if we are ever to get a glimpse of the power, relevance, and significance of what it has meant to embrace and understand Jewish identity on American soil.”

We are not experts. We are still learning. We mess up. This is lifelong work. We continue to navigate having critical conversations with our families and communities about antiracism. Being part of a liberal family and mostly liberal communities, our loved ones are in all different types of places in terms of their education and lens around racism. Our multigenerational conversations with both our mother and father, who are amicably divorced, have been important and sometimes turbulent as we break down language and valuable frameworks to inform discussions and approaches to dismantling white supremacy.

Below, we have laid out recommendations in two categories: tips for having hard and difficult conversations, and suggested talking points and resources about antiracism. We suggest being realistic with your expectations for your family and community dialogues. It’s important to not expect a single conversation to get through to someone fully. It’s ongoing work. And it’s part of our work as antiracist changemakers to keep going.

Lastly, this list is by no means complete. There are incredible activists, organizations, artists, and educators in the Jewish community and beyond, who have long been doing this work for decades. We are indebted to them.

Tips for Having Hard & Difficult Conversations

Set group guidelines. When we each facilitate workshops, on any topic, we set group agreements and terms for a safer space. There is no such thing as a safe space, because something can be safe for one person and unsafe for another, especially while having hard conversations. Here are some guidelines that we use. Feel free to borrow or add:

  • Use “I” statements (i.e. share from a place of personal experience)
  • Privacy (i.e. honor that the content of the conversation will be private so people can be vulnerable)
  • Ask clarifying questions (i.e. there are no stupid questions, only silly reasons for being afraid to ask)
  • Meet risk with risk (i.e. if someone shares something vulnerable, listen with an open heart — take the risk to hold space for them without judgement or pause)
  • It’s okay to be messy (i.e. we all mess up! It’s okay if things feel messy!)
  • Assume best intent (i.e. assume someone’s heartfelt intent when sharing, while also recognizing the impact that our words, thoughts, and actions have on other people)
  • Self-regulate & self-care (i.e. it’s okay to step away or take a break)

Compassion and Empathy. It can be infuriating to have a conversation about something that is so important when someone isn’t hearing you. We have found that listening and going to a place of compassion and empathy for people when we aren’t feeling heard in a conversation about important topics can be critical to maintaining connection and understanding for people’s limitations. It’s also okay to feel angry.

Patience. In conversations about ending racism, we want people to understand the message immediately because lives are at stake. Yet, these conversations may take time to evolve as people push through discomfort and learn to listen and shift their thinking to a place of self-awareness and being more informed about the complexity of the history of oppression for people of color and how that requires white people to show up. The conversation (unfortunately) may take time to evolve and although that may not feel okay, it may be the most effective route.

Transparency and vulnerability. It’s incredibly helpful to offer your own experiences of being uncomfortable around whiteness and validate that that’s natural. Vulnerably sharing your own process to interrogate your privilege and that you too continue to feel uncomfortable in your own work around antiracism can help give others permission to do the same.

Take ownership of your shortcomings. As a white person, it is impossible that you haven’t had moments when you weren’t aware of your privilege or you acted from a place of implicit bias and in alignment with systemic oppression. That is the way the United States was built and it requires recognition and interrogation of privilege to be an active changemaker. Similar to vulnerably sharing your process to unpack your privilege, it can be equally helpful to candidly offer your own moments of perpetuating racism. That lets your family members know you aren’t perfect. That you’re still learning. That you’re doing this work together.

Have a dialect. The jargon and language for best practices around antiracist work, and anti-oppression work at large, constantly change. For example, Caroline stopped using the word “ally” in the past few years in service of “accomplice,” which focuses more on dismantling the structures that uphold racism, rather than — what she feels — is potentially passive work for merely calling yourself an “ally.” Then there are words like “abolish” or “dismantle” and the list goes on. Learn the language that works best for you, and consider that ultimately, our own lived experiences and stories are a productive way to utilize words to help interrogate white privilege. Additionally, it’s important to define language and terms or simplify language to help the listener better understand.

Prepare for challenges and disagreements. We want to help you feel prepared to navigate the different types of responses you may get in having these conversations and also that it may not be authentic to read off of a script. One common pushback is, “But Black Lives Matter is anti-Israel/supports BDS.” Here’s an informative article about that. Or “Why can’t the protestors be peaceful? Why are they looting?” Here’s an informative video about that. Which is to say, a great way to be prepared to have these conversations, is to keep educating yourself by engaging with resources about whiteness and antiracism. We’ve included many resources below that can help you start to approach conversations in informed ways. When you get a response back that’s upsetting or defensive, refer back to the list of tips above.

Share different types of resources. We’ve both had the opportunity to engage with all different types of resources, including and not limited to videos, articles, books, movies, and shows. It can be extremely helpful for different learning styles to interact with a variety of resources to help break down complex concepts. Amplify Black voices. Elevate the work of Black LGBTQ+ artists and organizers. Let’s stop asking Black, Indigenous, and other people of color to teach us.

Talking Points & Resources for Conversations About Antiracism

Empower yourself with knowledge. We recommend that you’ve read or are willing to read alongside and interact with whatever resources you share so that you can have thoughtful and informed conversations with your families and communities.

Black Lives Matter. In the United States, a country founded by means of genocide, white supremacy, slavery, and sexual terrorism on stolen land, we have not healed or repaired these injustices. The repercussions of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation continue. They are the bedrock of mass incarceration, police brutality, food insecurity, wealth inequality, and the daily injustices that threaten Black lives. Saying “Black Lives Matter” does not mean other lives don’t matter. It acknowledges that in order for liberation to happen for anyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexuality, socio-economic class, ability, or identity in any way, we have to orient our anti-oppression work around the original infractions in America. That’s where we start.

Police brutality. This is both complex and essential for conversations about racism and white supremacy in the United States. Regardless of your personal thoughts or beliefs about law enforcement, it remains a devastating fact that there is a racist history within the criminal justice system that disproportionality kills, assaults, and incarcerates Black people and people of color in ways that further perpetuate the institutionalized racism that is a result of slavery and Jim Crow. If you receive push back as you broach these dire truths, we recommend finding statistics that help provide the vivid and terrifying reality that has long been underway.

White privilege. We believe that work around antiracism requires starting with recognizing and interrogating our white privilege. In order to have informed conversations, it’s important to be aware of the ways in which privilege and systemic oppression play a role, in addition to the variety and intersecting identities we each have (check out the term “intersectionality” coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw). This is a process that you, the reader, may have already started or been doing for a long time and will take patience in introducing that conversation to family and community members. We’ve included resources below that can be a helpful start in examining the massive role privilege plays.

Anti-Semitism and assimilation. When we talked to our mother about writing this article, she suggested we keep in mind the multigenerational challenges we face around this conversation as white Jews. As someone of her generation (she was born in the early 1950s), she said, “Anti-Semitism is the framework from which most older white Jews are coming from when they look at racism.” She’s noticed that her parents’ generation, when talking about racism, often go immediately to their Jewish experience, especially with regards to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. On top of this being reductive by comparing anti-Semitism to racism, or ignoring the experiences of Black Jews and Jews of color, this also overlooks that anti-Semitism is also part of white supremacy. In order to actually support Black lives, we have to be willing to understand our whiteness and white privilege as part of the operating system of white supremacy that kills Black people.

Merissa Nathan Gerson, an adjunct Tulane University professor of Modern Jewish Civilization, suggests responding to these comments with something along the lines of, “What is the difference between your grandmother’s racial status in 1940 Germany and your grandmother’s racial status in 2020 United States? While she remains Jewish, how the government views her has changed exponentially. That’s the conversation.”

Pikuach nefesh. Pikuach nefesh, which essentially means “saving a life,” is a Jewish value and law. It tells us that saving a life is priority above all else. In fact, it tells us that saving a life takes precedence over any other religious commandments or laws, including Shabbat. That means — dayenu — one life is enough. Not the buildings. Not the looting. One murdered Black person means we’ve already failed our call to action to save a life. Our job is to save a life before someone is dead. That means that supporting Black lives and building an antiracist world is a commandment for Jews.

Tikkun olam. The Passover story, our redemption from slavery in Egypt, is our central story as an entire people. Every year, we devote a holiday to justice and liberation for all. Equally, the term “tikkun olam,” which means “repairing the world,” has come to operate as a foundational Jewish value, especially in social justice circles. We are taught about tzedakah (charitable giving), and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness), all of which are part of our collective ethos.

While we are aligned in values and commitment to antiracism, we continually find ourselves having different approaches to how we do this work. Some of that is based on our various communities and professions, some is based on the fact that we are — despite being siblings and best friends — different people. Even while writing this piece, we found ourselves approaching things differently. And we’ve probably made mistakes even in this piece. For instance, there are so many topics within the overarching theme of antiracism that we undoubtedly didn’t cover. We did our best to provide an initial start as it is impossible to appropriately capture everything that’s important to talk about in one guide.

What remains unwavering for us is that we are committed to this work as a family, and we hold each other and ourselves accountable. We share resources. We strive to do better. We make choices that we know are individually and collectively committed to antiracism and liberation for all.

Resources

Here is a list of some resources and links we’ve found helpful. It is by no means complete. The learning is infinite. We encourage you to deep dive and find and share your own tools, too.

Organizations:

Books:  

Here’s this list on Bookshop.

Articles & Zines & Resource Guides:

Poems:

Videos, Films, & Multimedia:

Header Image via Tera Vector/iStock/Getty Images.

Caroline Rothstein and Natalie Rothstein

Caroline Rothstein is internationally touring writer, poet, performer, and educator. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, BuzzFeed, NYLON, Narratively, The Guardian, The Forward, Hey Alma, Kveller, and elsewhere. Natalie Rothstein is a Chicago-based psychotherapist, educator, and mental health consultant. Natalie has a private practice in downtown Chicago, Natalie Rothstein Psychotherapy, and does educational work and advocacy in different spaces around mental health.

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