White mentor, black students: Confronting my white privilege 

Demonstrators kneel in a moment of silence outside the Long Beach Police Department on Sunday, May 31, 2020,   (AP Photo/Ashley Landis via Jewish News)
Demonstrators kneel in a moment of silence outside the Long Beach Police Department on Sunday, May 31, 2020, (AP Photo/Ashley Landis via Jewish News)

Despite working with and mentoring hundreds of young black women in my school in West London, I’ve skirted the issues of racism for a while. Perhaps it was too uncomfortable for me. I felt too separate from their experience. I love my amazing black students yet; I’d never acknowledged how my white privilege meant I was actively benefitting from the oppression of people of colour. I wasn’t ready to come to terms with my privilege and feel those feelings of guilt and shame. I wasn’t yet ready to learn to unlearn.

I only have a few weeks of maternity leave left and am looking forward to return to the girls and support their mental health and wellbeing as we all reel in the aftermath of Covid-19. It was last week, on a peaceful evening that I opened Snapchat (yes, really) and stopped at an article which contained a video showing excessive police force in the US. I sat and I watched a black man be held down by a white police officer’s knee. I watched as the people in the video shouted at the officers to check that the handcuffed man was alright after he called out ‘I can’t breathe’. 7 minutes later, he passed out and died. On my screen. In my hands. In my kitchen.

I couldn’t just look away from George Floyd’s body to the next article. I physically couldn’t stop staring at the screen. I didn’t know what to do next. I messaged some of my friends trying to reach out. They’d seen it. All of them were heartbroken. And feeling helpless like me. Something felt different. I couldn’t identify what the change was. Because this isn’t new news. I have heard of the excessive force against the black community in the US before. So what changed that I suddenly sat up and took notice with my heart? Why did this suddenly galvanise me to action? I spent the rest of the evening researching and hearing from black writers on social media and trying to educate myself. Why was it only now that I took notice of my role in the systemic racism which exists at every level of society? 

I realised right then and there, I had to unpack my white privilege. That’s what it was. I had to learn to speak out openly about racism and in doing so be anti-racist. The definition of anti-racist is the “commitment to fighting racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.” (Ijeoma Oluo, American writer, author of ‘So You Want To Talk About Race’). My first action after watching that harrowing video was to write. 

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Over this past week, I posted my helplessness on my social media about the racist systems which allowed the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officers to happen. I wasn’t met with much of a reply. Considering my Insta has around 100 close friends and family who are mostly Jewish, the response was very quiet. But a recent picture of my daughter’s toes gained many more likes and replies and emojis. I began wondering, where is the noise of my community? There are some phenomenal advocates and change makers and Jewish people of colour and rabbinical authority figures who are talking, but why is there a silent majority? Why weren’t more of my Jewish friends and family members engaging whole-heartedly in this conversation? So I’m committing to hold myself and my Jewish community accountable for enacting justice. I have to speak up. Even it feels awkward. To open conversations about privilege and race and ally-ship. We know trauma. Oppression has been our story. So why have I and so many of us spent so long looking the other way? I’m learning to unpack my privilege and listen. On my return to my school, I commit to sensitively and appropriately asking my black students how I can be an ally. Their ally. I will pledge to the words of one of our great sages Hillel, who stated in the Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

I hope that this article may raise awareness amongst our Jewish community to educate ourselves to check and unpack our privilege and in doing so, search for ways in which we can all stand up and be counted. This isn’t onerous and here are some ways to connect with and begin advocating for the black community:

– FOLLOW: We can follow Rachel Cargle, Mona Chalabi, Layla F Saad and Munroe Bergdorf 

– READ: We can read ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge and ‘Me and White Supremacy’ by Layla F Saad

– DONATE: We can donate to the George Floyd Memorial Fund and the ‘Campaign Zero’ organisation which utilises research-based policy solutions to end police brutality in America. 

– PROTEST: We can show up as the Jewish Community online or socially distant in person at the June 5th ‘Kneel’ at 12pm in Trafalgar Square #letusbreathe #blacklivesmatter


About the Author
Sophia Ziff is an English Teacher and Well-being Practitioner and works at an all girls Catholic school in Harlesden, West london. She trained with ‘Teach First’ and has worked in schools in Watford and Harlesden for 8 years. In her capacity as whole school Wellbeing Coordinator, she has set up mentoring support programmes for her students including 1-1 mental health support and ‘social media and self esteem’, ‘anger management’ and ‘our behaviour and the future’ group programmes. She is currently on maternity leave and returns to work at the end of June. She lives with her young daughter and husband in north west London.
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