5 Years Since Clark University’s Racial Forum

Since the tragic murder of George Floyd, there have not only been mass protests all over the world, but also significant political activism to take the next step in racial justice. I am proud to be participating in this cause. I have donated to organizations like the Black Lives Matters movement and The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). I have created posters, Facebook statuses, and videos urging people to join the fight for racial justice. I also recently read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander to further understand how there is still systematic racism against Black Americans within our society.

However, I was not always this proactive in racial justice. In fact, about 5 years ago, I was apathetic, at best, to this cause. I felt it would, therefore, be important to reflect on my journey the past few years and explain how I became motivated to join this global movement.

My journey began nearly 5 years ago on the night of November 18, 2015. I was a senior at Clark University (Worcester, Massachusetts) and it was holding a racial forum where students of color were given the opportunity to go up and speak in front of other students, faculty, and top members of the administration about their experiences and needs for their communities on campus. I attended the session out of curiosity, but I came away with ambivalent feelings as an American Jewish student.

To my memory, the event was originally intended for Black students to talk about their experiences on campus, but, as the evening played out, the conversation broadened where students belonging to other racial and religious minorities went up to speak about their experiences and needs as well. However, I felt that the only minority group that was excluded from the conversation were Jewish students; that only a Jewish student could not go up to the microphone and talk about their experiences as a minority on campus. I also felt there was a clear pro-Palestine bias whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came up and, as a pro-Israel student, that made me feel even more excluded from the conversation.

It was because I felt excluded from the racial forum as a Jewish student that I sometimes instinctively and blindly referred to the event as evidence of anti-Semitism on campus when discussing about it with my peers. I would then – rightfully – be ridiculed by many of my peers for saying so. (I still believe that some of the emotions that night – though certainly not all – may have been related to anti-Semitism, but that is a discussion for another article).

When I spoke about it with one of my social psychology professors, she explained that it may have been because we (American Jews) may be perceived as a privileged White minority and it would therefore not be the time and place to talk about Jewish victimhood during a session that was for people of color.

Initially, I struggled to accept the notion that we, as American Jews, are a privileged White community for a couple of reasons. One reason was more personal. I am an American Jew, but I am also of Iranian descent so I am not always able benefit from White privilege when it is well suited for me, such as when going through airline security.

Another reason I struggled to acknowledge my privilege as an American Jew, though, was because I felt it would undermine my community’s hard work. I was always aware and grateful of the accommodations we had on campus as Jewish students, such as having a Hillel and a kosher section in our cafeteria, but I also believed our community worked hard for those privileges. I felt that if I acknowledged our privilege in the way some people during the racial forum seemed to be suggesting, I would be minimizing the hard work we did to earn our status.

However, something I have realized the past few years is that acknowledging your privilege and having humility does not necessarily undermine your hard work. Rather, acknowledging your privilege and having humility may, in fact, be a natural result of your hard work.

About a year after I graduated from Clark, I was accepted into Boston College’s School of Social Work program. When I made a Facebook status announcing my achievement, the first thing I wrote was, “I am humbled to announce that I have been accepted into Boston College’s School of Social Work.” Indeed, I felt humbled to have been accepted into Boston College’s program, but I also knew how hard I worked to have earned it. This helped me realize that having humility and acknowledging your fortunate does not necessarily undermine your hard work, but is, in fact, the result of your hard work. When you work hard to earn something, you naturally feel humbled. That is how I began to also openly acknowledge my privilege as a Jew in America today, because I realized that it does not necessarily undermine my community’s hard work, but is a natural of our hard work.

The second part of my journey was when and how I decided to further understand the narrative of Black Americans.

When I reminisced about the racial forum at Clark, I often thought to myself, if only the people in the forum understood why I felt excluded. If only they knew about my community’s stories, then they would understand why I feel the way I do. Yet, it was during one of those moments when I told myself that, if I believe they would understand my perspective by hearing my community’s stories, I would probably come to a similar realization if I tried to better understand their perspective as well.

I therefore took an initiative to more deeply comprehend the struggles and perspectives of Black people in America when I started my program at Boston College. I took a couple of race and diversity centered electives and, in our clinical courses, we talked about how race might play a role in our clients’ trauma and treatment. My field placements also took place within primarily African-American neighborhoods in Mattapan and Roxbury, Massachusetts where many of my clients were Black and I was able to see how race played a role within their communities, trauma, and treatment in practice.

Although I learned many things about race during my time at Boston College, one of the main conclusions I came away with was that racism is not just about tangible issues, such as income inequality, but also about intangible issues, such as what we defined as “racial trauma.” Obviously, we talked a lot about trauma in our clinical courses, but when discussing about the role of race we realized that there may be something unique about “racial trauma.” During one of our discussions, we considered that, because racism is institutionalized, racial trauma may not just come from a specific traumatic experience with a police officer, for example. Rather, racial trauma may be the result of the constant and ongoing distress Black Americans feel from institutionalized racism 24/7. For instance, Black people, of any socioeconomic background, may still be sub-consciously perceived as less innocent than even a poor White man, and knowing that may cause constant and ongoing emotional distress and internalized racism.

I also heard stories from my Black clients about how they have always felt the distress of being perceived as less innocent and needing to overcome internalized racism within their communities, and it was by hearing those stories that I began to further empathize with African-Americans and became more motivated to join the global cause for racial justice.

As an American Jew, I acknowledge both my community’s hard work and its privilege, and it is precisely because we have a unique minority status that I believe we should join the fight for racial justice. I now want to stand with African-American not just to help them achieve socioeconomic equality, but also to promote change in the environment where the average Black person is both consciously and sub-consciously perceived to be just as innocent as the average White person within our society.

About the Author
Jonah Naghi is a Boston-based writer and the Partnership Chair of Israel Policy Forum's IPF Atid Steering Committee in the city of Boston. A frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, Jonah has spent extensive time in the region and received his Masters in Social Work at Boston College (2020) and LICSW (2023). All the views expressed are his own.
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