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Time to Rethink the American Jewish Community’s Treatment of Black Jews

Black Jews are individuals with a broad range of experiences, not tokens of ‘black-Jewish relations’

Shawn C. Harris
June 21, 2019

A funny thing happens as soon as someone publicly says, “I’m Black and Jewish”: They become Negro Whisperers whether they want to or not.

Coined by political commentator Yvette Carnell, Negro Whisperer is a riff on horse whisperer or dog whisperer. Just as an animal whisperer interprets and explains animal behavior to humans, a Negro Whisperer is a Black person who explains Black people, Black culture and Black issues to non-Black audiences.

The mainstream American Jewish community can’t seem to get enough of Negro Whisperers. Remember Melissa Harris-Perry? Now it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Unlike the rabid Black masses in thrall to antisemitic demagogues, Negro Whisperers are praised for being educated, articulate, well-spoken and other condescending “compliments,” all of which suggest that the person giving them is surprised that a black person could speak and write in standard American English.

Under the auspices of “we need your voice” or “your perspective is so vital,” these ambassadors of Blackness get invited to make speeches about Jewish diversity, participate in diversity panels hosted by Jewish institutions, and write about diversity for Jewish publications.

But this comes at a price.

From the moment a Black Jew is slotted into the role of a Negro Whisperer, that’s all they get to be. Their unofficial job title is pro bono diversity consultant, and their specialty can be summed up as, “Black things.” Their videos and articles make the rounds among progressive Jews on social media. Their names are brought up as people it’s important for allies to follow and listen to.

Oddly enough, the effect can be dehumanizing, reducing a human being to a resource on “woke” politics. People approach them about the latest incident of police brutality but not about their dvar Torah. People ask them about the recently formed Black-Jewish caucus, but not their kugel recipe. People want to hear their opinions about Marc Lamont Hill, but not hear them sing in Yiddish. This is the antithesis of forging genuine relationships that are necessary to combat the rising tide of white nationalism.

Unfortunately, the authority extended to Black Jews to address issues around race rarely translates into their being selected for positions of authority, influence and leadership in mainstream Jewish institutions. In many physical Jewish spaces, the only significant Black presence comes from the custodial and catering staff. Black Jews have value as symbols of a diverse, inclusive Jewish organization, not for what they have to offer the Jewish people as Jews. Thus, what began as an opportunity to be seen and heard as both Black and Jewish becomes another constricting expectation.

Yet, there are limits to what Black Jews can openly discuss. The moment a Black Jew criticizes the attitudes and behaviors they encounter within the broader American Jewish community, the same people whose voices and perspectives were so important suddenly don’t know what they’re talking about.

If they speak too bluntly about how Black Jews are treated in Jewish spaces, as Yehudah Webster described in his encounter with a mob of Hasidim, they can expect denial and defensiveness. If they express wariness about police or armed security at synagogues, as Bentley Addison did shortly after the Pittsburgh shooting, they’re jumping at shadows. If they roll their eyes at hearing, yet again, that Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., they’re ungrateful. Question the amount and intensity of attention that Louis Farrakhan gets, or fail to denounce him often and loudly enough, then they’re in league with him or the Nation of Islam, even if all they have in common with Farrakhan is being Black.

When a Black Jew speaks honestly about the experience of being Black in Jewish spaces, the same diversity that is supposedly a strength of Jewish and American culture transforms into deliberate attempts to sow discord. Dissenting opinions, once considered de rigeur because arguing is what Jews do, are reframed as attacks on Jewish people. Pointing out the ways that individuals and institutions fall short in their treatment of Black people, rather than a continuation of the Jewish tradition of pursuing justice and speaking truth to power, becomes a hateful effort to portray Jews in a bad light.

The backlash against the writer Nylah Burton is an illustrative example of this. For some time, Burton wrote pieces for the Forward and elsewhere that were critical of the Jewish community’s response to issues around race, which garnered a certain amount of controversy among readers. Objections to the arguments made by Burton and others who shared her views could have been addressed on their merits at the level of ideas. Instead, they were needlessly personalized, focusing on Burton’s Jewish credentials in a way that alienated many Black Jews and Jews of color, some of whom might not even have agreed with Burton, but saw the intense focus on her Jewishness as an implicit attack on their own identities.

This almost never happens to Jews of a lighter hue whose connection to the Jewish people may in fact be far more tenuous. The mainstream Jewish community will play along and pretend that Black Jews are really Jews as long as these people do their part by not saying anything too critical or too honest about what they experience. Within the mainstream Jewish community, “two Jews, three opinions” is both a joke and a point of pride. But only, it seems, for the right kind (and color) of Jews.

While the dynamics of social media can explain the intensity of the backlash, they also reveal real attitudes people carry with them which they may not hide as well as they think. Many Black Jews have stories about going into a Jewish space and having a stranger target them with invasive questions, being mistaken for nannies of their own children, people assuming they’re employees, and being treated as a security threat.

On her YouTube channel, activist Kat Blaque explains that because she’s an openly trans Black woman: “I become this avatar. I become this thing for people to project onto. […] One of the things that has been very, very, very, very aggravating for me is how frequently my narrative is taken, twisted, recentered and become the truth. And very hard for me not to notice that when I don’t quite see the same thing happening to my white counterparts.”

The same thing can be said about broader Jewish community’s treatment of Black Jews. In many ways, to publicly talk about what it means to be Black and Jewish is to have one’s identity, life experience and perspective distorted beyond recognition. It’s as though the mainstream American Jewish community doesn’t seem to recognize Black Jews as individuals with a range of experiences and perspectives and a multitude of other identities. Instead, they are treated as symbols of “Black-Jewish relations” that the broader Jewish community can project its hopes, anxieties, fears, disappointments and even hatreds onto.

In light of that dynamic, it’s not surprising that some Black Jews decide that it’s not worth the trouble and remain hidden and silent. Others take it further and disconnect from the Jewish community altogether. This cuts Black Jews out of vital conversations that need to be happening about race within the Jewish community. As a result, those invested in Jewish diversity and inclusion are robbed of the range of perspectives required to honor the complexities of issues facing Black people within and adjacent to the Jewish community. Even worse, it deprives Black Jews of their rightful place within the Jewish community and the Jewish community of piece of its richness and vitality.

Shawn C. Harris is a Black Jewish author and playwright who designs interactive Jewish learning activities.