Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

Project Understanding

Members of the Gen X cohort of the American Jewish Community's Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition's Project Understanding retreat 2022. (courtesy)

“What internalized fear do you hold while moving through the world?”

This was one of a number of questions posed to participants during lunch at the American Jewish Community’s Atlanta Black/Jewish Coalition‘s  impactful Project Understanding’s inaugural Gen X retreat this past weekend.

While our table seemed to focus more on the first “Lunch Table Question” on the list, “What wasn’t said yesterday that should have been said? What is something you wanted to share that you didn’t have a chance to?,” the idea of perpetually moving through the world holding tightly onto feelings in our belly gave me pause.

Internalized fear is very personal. It is something we carry around with us no matter where we go and is a product of our myriad experiences no matter where we’ve been. At the same time, the very environment we encounter around us impacts our lives and who we are.

There is a socio-ecological framework that I learned about in grad school in both my public administration and integrated global communications classes, and I was reminded of them at lunch. This kind of framework is often used to explain what impacts people when it comes to their health behaviors and decisions. But it can also be used to explain more. How micro- and macro-aggressions can come at people from so many directions, for instance. Whether it is unfair laws, institutionalized discrimination, inauthentic diversity and inclusion efforts from employers or bias from colleagues, each of these contribute to how we react to the world.

Commonly recognized socio-ecological framework often used to help shape health behaviors vis-a-vis policy, these can also drive our understanding of the ways bias affects people

Some of the retreat’s sessions seemed specifically geared towards enabling participants – Black, Jewish or both – to share the similar emotions shaped by our individually different experiences as non-majority populations. This helps us understand each other more. For while details, circumstances and severity may differ, the emotions of fear or anger or frustration are universally understandable. These experiences and subsequent emotions undoubtedly shape how we see ourselves, others and the actual infrastructures that control aspects of our lives.

Our individuality is clear to each of us. But not always to others.

Jews know we are diverse. Spread to all four corners of the earth, even if there weren’t Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Kaifeng, Cochin, Mountain, Sephardi, Ethiopian and so many other varieties of Jews, we also know that our observance levels, politics, ideologies and worldview give credence to that saying about two Jews and three opinions. So what is common for us as a people, what do we all claim as ours, what unites us? As “People of the Book,” we can start with that, with holidays, Hebrew, Torah and a shared history rooting back to our origins.

Just as Jews are not monolithic, nor are Black people. As I listened this weekend, perhaps what should’ve already been obvious to me, when said aloud struck me as important to digest: That the one unifying factor among all Black people in the United States, no matter where he or she has grown up, gone to school, works or lives, does not stem from a singular origin. No. What each of them shares no matter where their families come from historically still rings in my ears: “What unites all of us is we’ve experienced racism.”

What binds is not a positive like an origin story and shared rites, but something so negative as to permeate each level of the socioecological framework that shapes every person’s thoughts and behaviors. How can that be truly understood by anyone who is not Black?

Putting oneself in another’s shoes is essential to developing understanding and to cultivating empathy. I’ve written about this before and at length in Empathy: getting past the labels that separate us from others.

What is essential to understand, whether we are talking about race, religion or even political affiliation, is that none of us are flat two-dimensional beings; no one label defines us. As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently explains about stereotypes in her 2009 TEDTalk, The danger of a single story, the problem “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” This is especially so when identity is derived from multiple places where bias is felt. People are not always this or that; they are sometimes this and that. Moreover, those who fall into this even narrower category have unique perspectives and voices which must be listened to.

When I think about Jews who are also Black or otherwise not visibly white, I know something must be done to acknowledge and correct the bias they face within institutional and other spaces which are supposed to be considered where they belong. Safe.

And so I was happy to see fellow participant Victoria Raggs, co-founder and executive director of Atlanta Jews of Color Council and co-chair of the AJC’s Atlanta Black/Jewish Coalition, at the retreat. She and I have known each other for some time and I’d even been fortunate enough attend AJOCC’s first Social Justice Summit panel this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Among other things, her organization works with Jewish institutions to correct biases. This weekend I also saw how the waters Jews of Color navigate are not easy in any direction when she was asked, not be someone Jewish, but by a Black person, how she came to be Jewish.

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Opportunities to come together, to really come together and engage in eye-opening and bonding experiences, don’t come frequently, at least not as long as each of us stay on our familiar daily track. So when they do, we need to not only see these moments as gifts, but to figure out how to leverage these new insights and new relationships in ways that will help us help others.

We ended our Project Understanding retreat by brainstorming ways of continuing our connections. And, I hope, of deepening them.

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture. Since returning to the U.S. in 2003; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta. An Ashkenazi mom to Mizrahi sons born in Israel and the US, MIL to a DIL born in France and a step mom to sons born in the South, she celebrates trying to see from multiple perspectives and hope this comes out in her blogs. Wendy recently completed two master's degrees in public administration and integrated goblal communication, while also splitting her time between her research position at the Center for Israel Education, taking a grad school class on conflict management, digging deep into genealogy while bringing distant family together and spending too much time on Facebook. All of this is to say, Wendy's life has brought her to the widened framemwork she uses for her blogs: there are many ways to see and understand.
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