Growing up in suburban New Jersey in a solidly white, solidly middle class town, where most of the families had two parents, most of the dads went to work, and most of the moms stayed home, there was a comforting homogeneity for those who fit in, a discomforting sameness for those who didn’t. It was a place where remnants of restrictive covenants that kept out Jews and Catholics and Blacks perdured, a time long before diversity became a byword, when difference was neither acknowledged nor celebrated, when those who went to another house of worship, whose skin was another color, who loved someone who was the same sex, hid or discounted their dissimilarity.
For me, as a little girl, that meant evasive responses to where my family would go to Midnight Mass or what I would be wearing for Easter. It meant no sandwiches on crusty Jewish rye for lunch, but safe PB and J on squishy Wonder Bread. It meant a sometimes crushing misery. But I was white. I could pass. I could get by.
I realize now that there was no going along to get along, no place to hide, for the handful of Black students in my class. Their race was as visible as the pigment of their skin, and the difference ran as deep. Yet I was oblivious to the white privilege I enjoyed, and they were denied, the underlying prejudice that stalked them each day in the halls or at the lunch table or on the ball field, the ironic invisibility that was thrust upon them, their self worth, not to mention opportunity, diminished by race.
So the brouhaha over the Academy Awards this year got me, the #Oscarssowhite campaign, bringing back all those years growing up, the striving to suppress who I was, and the cluelessness of the yawning racial divide and its deeply hurtful consequences for my class mates of color. How far we have come, yet how far we have to go. And the need to assure that we continue to move forward to close that gap.
As the stars strut down the red carpet, as their glamorous images flash on our screens, as the golden statuettes are handed out, as the speeches run on, the disparity is there, right in our faces. Who we see colors our perceptions of the world, and in a world that is becoming ever more brown, or yellow, or red or black, the need to truly see others as part of our world is critical to our future. And who we see on the silver screen, who is recognized in the film industry, and is a part of constructing that vision of reality, or unreality.
Our sages teach that he who is wise learns from every person.
So true, but first, we must see them.