Thinking About Boats and Life Preservers

This weekend, I was pointed toward an essay called “Detour-Spotting,” about the ways white people can start to unlearn negative reactions to race and racism.  It may not be the most beautifully-written essay (I found myself mentally editing bits of it) but there were a lot of sharp pointy bits I found myself getting poked with.  Which was uncomfortable, but good – I was there to get poked.

And while I was able to look at some of the things discussed and nod and say “yeah, weeded that out, working on that,” there was a section that stopped me cold and forced me to take a long walk with it.  And that was the discussion of the hierarchy of oppression.  Or rather, the lack of hierarchy, and how that can tangle our responses.

As a Jewish person, I understand the weight of oppression.  I’ve felt it on my own back more than once,  plus the ever-present ghost of antisemitic history shadowing me.  So my first reaction is and always has been, “yeah, I understand, we are on the same side/in the same boat.”

But the truth is that I can’t understand, not entirely.  My skin shades olive, not black or brown.  My features are Eastern European.  I not only can pass, I do, unless I make a visual or vocal point of who I am.  When I’m out on the street, American cops see a white woman, not a Jew.  And none of that takes away from the very real risks I face from antisemites, but it means – to continue the earlier metaphor -  that I’m in a different boat than my darker-skinned friends and neighbors, both Gentile and Jews of Color; one perhaps equally precarious, but equipped with (literal) life preservers.

And it’s not a life preserver I can easily toss to them.

In that knowledge, there’s both frustration, and guilt. And that’s what I’m walking with, now – not the feelings themselves, but the knowledge that these feelings are actively damaging to my ability to be a good ally, because those feelings focus on me, rather than them.  There is no hierarchy of oppression, the dangers my people face are no less real than what Black people face – but it has a significant difference.  I have that life preserver already to-hand, and I can’t ever let myself forget that others do not.


These are thoughts, not conclusions.  The process, and processing, continues.


With thanks to the friends who “foot-proofed” this, and the understanding that any remaining foot-in-mouth is entirely my own failure.



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