Episode 43: Black Lives Matter (Transcript)

Episode 43: Black Lives Matter

[Theme music plays]

Nahanni Rous: Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. I’m Nahanni Rous.

[Protesters chanting "Hands up, don’t shoot"]

Nahanni: A wave of protests is sweeping the country, following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

[Protesters chanting "Black Lives Matter"]

Nahanni: At a recent march in Atlanta, Georgia, organizer Tarece Johnson led chants and spoke to a crowd of 3,000.

[Applause]

Tarece Johnson: We carried the chains in Egypt and around our necks, we held the shackles in Africa before our long journey and over the rough seas. Our lands were looted, our belongings stolen, and our sacred spaces were burned. We toiled in the fields and labored to build this country you call great. For centuries we have worked...

Tarece organized the march with Alliance for Black Lives, which she co-founded, and with her synagogue, Temple Sinai.

Tarece: We have a history of working together, um, Black people and Black Jews and other multicultural, multiracial Jews, working together to drive change. We also know that a core responsibility as Jewish people and living our Jewish value is seeking justice.

Nahanni: In this episode, we talk with Tarece Johnson about working for racial justice as a Black Jewish woman and about the work white Jews need to do to confront racism inside the Jewish community. First, a snapshot from the front lines in Minneapolis where the protests began. I spoke with Sara Greenhalgh, a Jewish Korean American activist. She’s a social worker who has lived in Minneapolis her whole life. She joined demonstrations starting on the day George Floyd was killed.

Sara Greenhalgh: As we started marching, something that became apparent was all along 38th, we saw everybody holding signs down the entire street and it kept going. I mean, we were walking for miles, and there was everybody out and already on the streets. So there were not only marchers, and protesters, but there were people out on their lawns, people showing up on the side of the street. And what I later heard was that it went miles in all directions, in all four directions of the streets. When we're all getting tear gassed, everybody will come together, and like four or five people will run over to you and make sure that you have milk to clear out your eyes, and make sure that you have water. There are people handing out meals. Make sure that you're eating, staying hydrated. The community is taking care of each other in really beautiful ways and not just cleaning up the next morning, but also in the most violent times.

Nahanni: What brought you out that day?

Sara: Grief, and a lot of range, and not being able to sit in my own body when injustice is happening. And needing to show solidarity and hold space and hold... show up for others, and show up for specifically Black bodies and the Black community in Minneapolis. They Asian community, and specifically the East Asian community, has a history of complicity with anti-Blackness. Um, the model minority myth was specifically created by white people to further anti-Blackness. Um, and that's something that I work really hard to call out in our community. And the more that we as Asians give in to that is the more that we are giving in to white supremacy, um, and needing to show up for Black people in all aspects of solidarity, and work to end that complicity and anti-Blackness and Black violence is paramount to ending white supremacy.

Nahanni: And how does your Jewish identity come into play when you're in that space?

Sara: When I left the first night, the entire time that I was walking back home, the only thing that was going through my head was that... the one sentence was, "Protest is holy. Protest is a holy, holy thing." That was the only thing that was going through my head. And the only feeling that I was feeling is that it was a moment of grace and complete fulfillment and holiness within our community in such horrific tragedy. When it comes to Judaism and racial justice... Judaism and social justice are so intrinsically tied to itself. Judaism and racial justice for Jews of color are intrinsically tied to our bodies. And intrinsically tied to our souls. We don't get a choice of experiencing antisemitism and racism. We don't get a choice of fighting, and if we want to sit one out. And so for the Jews of color that do want to lead, let them. Because we don't get a decision in how this is affecting our mind, our body, our spirits. And sometimes the only place that we can turn to for solace is our Judaism, but sometimes our Judaism and our Jewish communities haven't always turned back into us, but we're still there.

[Music plays]

Nahanni: That was Sara Greenhalgh speaking from Minneapolis. Now we turn to Tarece Johnson in Atlanta. Tarece is an educator, activist, and writer. She speaks out regularly about racial justice issues, but she’s increased her activism in recent days. She was the lead organizer of a march in suburban Atlanta with the Alliance for Blacks Lives, an organization she co-founded, her synagogue, Temple Sinai, together with many other Jewish, Muslim, African, and Asian community partners. We spoke on Friday, a couple of days before Sunday’s march. We started by talking about what it’s like as a Black Jew to partner with white Jewish allies in working for racial justice and to confront racism in the Jewish community.

Tarece: And so it has been really a learning experience for me. Right. And for them as well, engaging with one another to drive change, they've participated with me on the front lines, marching. They are helping me with the March we're planning on, on Sunday. Um, they've been leaders around the, the Black Jewish solidarity events and movement that we've been doing, uh, around those the city. Um, so, so I can name those people. And, and it's, it's sad that I can't name more. Mmm. But we have a lot of people who are very nice, kind-hearted people who are very comfortable, and because of the ingrained relationships we have in this community, there’s no call outs. There is no holding accountable people when they see them do something wrong. Um, And it perpetuates the racism that is here, right.

Nahanni: When you say like longstanding relationships, that people are, you know, reluctant to ruffle each other's feathers. Are you talking about within the Jewish community or are you saying that the Jewish community sort of, or the white Jewish community doesn't want to jeopardize their place in the larger society?

Tarece: Both. So in the white Jewish community, um, they're very close, familiar relationships. So people hire who they know. They, uh, operate in a level of comfort in this bubble of protecting what they have and who they know. And it is a very tight-knit community where if someone does something that is wrong, that is racist, and if you mention it, they ask you, well, how well, why, well, how do you know? And you get gaslighted. You get, you know, the, you know, you, you endure the microaggressions because they can't believe their nice friend is racist. They don't held one another accountable to change because they don't want to lose their position. They don't want to be ostracized. They don't want to lose their friendships with people. And because of that, Racism is perpetuated. And what we have to understand is if we really are people who are fighting for change, and if we want to really be anti-racist, that comes with sacrifices, it comes with losing friends, right? But we have to be respectful as we change, right, as we try to navigate that, of course. But in love and peace in community, you call in, you call out you, you do what you can and you be committed to change because no one's perfect. We will make mistakes. I will make mistakes as well, but as we make mistakes, we, we hold one another accountable in love and we help them, right? And we don't make excuses and reasons for why we're not being racist or, or, or. You know why we did something. Um, but instead we focus on doing the work and being our Jewish values, living our Jewish values and these tight relationships is really hindering progress for, uh, for ending racism in our community, because everyone's afraid of losing position. They're afraid of losing power. They are afraid of losing their friends. They want to stay in their comfortable position and anti-racism work is uncomfortable. 

Nahanni: Can you talk about why Black Jewish solidarity is so important in this moment?

Tarece: We have a history of working together, um, Black people, and Black Jews and other multicultural multiracial Jews, working together to drive change. We also know that a core responsibility as Jewish people and living our Jewish values is seeking justice. And it is, uh, you know, working for the human rights of all people. That's a value as a Jewish person. So we stand by communities. We stand by people, we stand by our fellow humans in pursuit of justice. So the unity that we have is really a core value that's not about being a savior or not about being superior, but more about a core religious and spiritual value around human kindness, and justice. And so partnering with the Black community that has constantly been victimized and constantly endured injustices over centuries is not even a question about should we do it. It's just part of what we do. And so as a Black Jewish person, um, we experience, or I experience, um, antisemitism and racism. Right? And so, um, the Black Jewish community is at this really unique position where, you know, we're, we're suffering on many different levels, um, as Black people and as Jews, we endure racism in our Jewish community, right? Anti-Blackness is very real. And we experience that.

Nahanni: And that's for you personally, as well?

Tarece: That is for me personally, as well, but many of us do, if you hear the stories across the nation, you'll hear and you'll see Jews talking about their own personal experiences in our Jewish community around anti-Blackness around systemic racism. I mean, I've been in Atlanta for fourteen years. I've actively been looking for work in the Jewish community for about five, six years, about five years. Um, and no one will hire me.

Nahanni: And you think that's because... why?

Tarece: Um, I think some of it, I mean, with all of my degrees and all of my experience and all of that, you know, I think it is, I am different. I am Black, and I'm Jewish and the positions I've been applying for all leadership positions. I just, they don't hire Black people in these positions. I mean, like it's all about the connections. It's all about who, you know, in this community. And they hire and protect other white Jews, and Black Jews are typically on the outskirts of that, of those connections. If you go and research the Jewish organizations in our community, look at the leadership. When you ever, you see an organization and the leadership is predominantly white, um, then there is a problem. There is a structural racism problem. When you only have Black people cleaning your floors, working in the cafeteria, um, answering your phones, doing your security guard work, being a gym coach or a basketball coach, a track coach. There is a structural racist problem in your organization. Even now you look on the board of directors for many of our organizations, there's not one Black person. And there is really no excuse. But you know how racism works, systemic and structural racism. It operates in a system and it thrives where there are always policies and procedures and rules around, “this is why you weren't hired.” There'll always be excuses. We have to honestly kind of take a look at our organizations and say, okay, the honest reality is we don't have Black leadership and we failed our we've failed. How can we do better? I have a hope that our organizations in and outside of our Jewish community could have more representation. This movement we're in today is an opportunity for us to be honest about where we are and then be committed to being an anti-racist person, individual, because it starts with each and every one of us individually doing the work to be anti-racist, doing the work individually to read, to study, to understand micro-aggressions, to understand how systemic racism works and how we play our part in it. Once we understand that as an individual, we all make up this system, we all are part of this giant, um, factory of running the wheel of racism. And if we can start individually to do our own part to end it, then the factory will be different. The wheel will run differently. And, um, yeah, so I just, I have hope that, you know, many of our organizations can do better and I hope they will do better. And I hope, especially now this could be a reckoning for them to, to, to, to really want to do change, want to make change.

Nahanni: Thank you so much for your time.

Tarece: Thank you, you too. Be safe and be well. And Shabbat Shalom.

Nahanni: Shabbat Shalom.

Nahanni: Tarece Johnson is an educator, writer and activist based in Atlanta. She’s also the newly-elected school board representative for Gwinett County, Georgia. Let’s end with an intention brought to us by April Baskin. April has been on Can We Talk? before. She is the Principal Life Coach and Consultant of Joyous Justice, and the Racial Justice Director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. She wrote this piece for the website Modern Ritual.

April Baskin: A Protest Prayer.

Beloved siblings striving for justice,

Shema!

Listen. Closely. At all times.

My prayer for you

is that you remember protest

is a sacred act.

Just as the Mourner’s Kaddish

helps souls ascend to God,

May our cries soothe those

whose lives were prematurely extinguished.

And rattle the bones and stones

of leaders and institutions.

Leaving no question about the fact

that things are never going back, only forward.

For more of us are clear

that “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

We affirm we are a multiracial people,

We will stand strong, humble, and proud

as we follow and work in partnership

with Black leaders, taking steady strides

in the direction of collective liberation.

[Theme Music]

Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Thanks also to Sara Greenhalgh, Tarece Johnson, and April Baskin. Sarah Ventre edited this episode. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us. If you’d like to help us produce more episodes of Can We Talk?, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time.

[Music fades]

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 43: Black Lives Matter (Transcript)." (Viewed on January 19, 2021) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-43-black-lives-matter/transcript>.

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