What I Didn’t Want To Share, Or: If This White (Jewish) Woman Went To Confession, This Is What She’d Say

7 Nov

I actually did go to confession when I was in the fifth grade. I grew up as a Reform Jew, and wanted to know what all my Catholic classmates did in confession so I had a few of my friends take me to the grand, Immaculate Conception Church in our downtown. They prepped me on what to do and say when I got in the confession booth, and told me how to go to the altar and kneel and count to sixty instead of saying the Hail Mary. I felt certain the priest would know through the screened booth that I was Jewish. I felt guilty because I lied to him about the sins I made up about fighting with my sisters and lying to my parents, and that it was five weeks since my last confession. I felt guilty for kneeling at the altar because Jews aren’t supposed to kneel. But it made me feel like I knew something more about my friends, and what they experienced as Catholics. Left in our school’s classroom every Monday with the two other Jewish students, and the one Muslim student, while the rest of the class went to Catechism class, I had crossed a bridge into their world, and felt better off for doing so.

Speaking of guilt, I know my writing has been more sporadic as of late, but do you remember that bit of advice I gave at the end of Some Of Us White People ? Yes, the one about not letting our white people guilt, or shame, keep us focusing on ourselves, keep us stuck and inert and unable to act. You may not remember, because I wrote that piece in June–over four months ago!

Well, I didn’t listen to my own advice. I let myself get sucked into, let myself wallow in feelings of unworthiness, guilt, and wondered with self-importance if I, as a white woman, had the “right” to write about race–that maybe I could, maybe I should, just be quiet for a while.

I started a draft of this post back then, but kept putting off finishing  and publishing it because it didn’t say all that I thought I needed to say, and because I worried about sharing my vulnerability, and being called out for my own self-centering, self-absorbed “white freakin’ fragility” nonsense. As I sit to finally come back to this writing, it is November 5th, two days post-election, and we all sit waiting for all the ballots to be counted, and for the news of who will be our next President.

To be honest, this conflict about writing is something I’ve grappled with at times during the ten years I’ve been blogging about race, racism, and cross-racial connection. The sentences run through my brain…should I write about Black popular culture? about anti-Black racism?…Am I going to offend Black people with what I write? …Are white people going to think I am an extremist and make everything about race?I have no place wanting to write up the stories of the Queen of the Maroon peoples of Jamaica, Ga’ama “Mama G”, or more formally, Ga’ama Gloria Simms. Ga’ama Mama G is a great woman leader, who I was honored to meet in Jamaica, and be able to befriend through my friend, Professor Diana Fox, Chair of the Anthropology Department at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. I tell myself, shouldn’t it be a Jamaican woman who is representative of, and knows, the Jamaican culture? And, when I hear Black people say we should center and amplify the voices of Black people, of Black woman, I of course, fully agree.

As a white woman, I am grateful for the diversity of this blog’s followers and with every one’s engagement and feedback. As a writer, I also often hear the phrase, we should know who our audience is. I have to admit, I think I am someone who has lived her life in many areas in an unintentional, but perhaps, intuitive way, and I know I definitely wasn’t fully conscious of, or strategic, about who I was writing for when I started blogging. As time has gone on, I realize it is my intention, and my hope that sharing what I’ve experienced and learned through reading the works of Black scholars and writers, and while in conversation with Black people, and other white people, and through this reflective writing,  that white readers here will absorb at least some of it, and begin to question and change the way they see matters of race and racism, and us white people’s complicity in it. It is my hope that we all, no longer being able to unsee the racist foundation upon which this country was built and maintained, that we white people will want to change our ways of moving and behaving in this world, and more strongly, will do the work to break down racism in every facet of our lives. I know that it is also my hope that I continue to engage more deeply in conversations about race with Black people, and to learn more about their lived experiences, and to be open to receiving their feedback and questions, and to grow with that, and to not become defensive, or to let my guilt take over, like the very guilt and shame that had me hedging about writing and sharing this piece in the first place.

When I do express this inner conflict about writing to friends, Black, and white, I challenge myself to listen to their feedback with an open mind and heart. I was recently reminded of something I know, but also, at times, forget. Professor Julia Jordan Zachery, Chair of the Africana Studies Department at University of North Carolina, said, “you have a race..white people forget or don’t think they have a race. You have a race, and you’re writing about race through your white lens.” Diana, who I mentioned above, and who introduced me to Ga’ama Mama G., has shared her perspective of noting the many identities we hold, acknowledging intersectionality and the power and privilege that comes with those identities, and on broadening our views to one of a global interconnectedness. While acknowledging the need for affinity spaces, she also believes in the need for people of all backgrounds to come together for bridge-building work, and to bring about change in this world.

I have also recently gotten feedback from some Black people, suggesting, especially at this point in time, that instead of my writing on matters pertaining to the Black community, that I should center the voices of Black people in the telling of their own communities. What’s probably missing for me, is more feedback and interaction from other white people, especially the feedback I don’t get from white people who don’t like, or don’t believe in what I have to say. They seem to stay silent, and I’m left to ponder their missing feedback.

In the more distant past, I know I have looked for the feedback that told me I was still a “good white person,” and wanted to avoid hearing words that challenged my people-pleasing, good white person self. I got defensive and did that white person thing, of saying to myself and to friends, that whoever questioned what I wrote, didn’t know me, or my true intentions.

After ten years of writing, I definitely still can feel wounded at times when I take in commentary about white people and whiteness. I can personalize a “not all white people” statement, and then immediately afterward know I shouldn’t. And then take it to the place of knowing, but it is all white people, and embrace it. The constructs of race does not allow us to escape our whiteness. There is a dichotomy that sits inside of me that I continue to work on. The voice that says, I feel bad about myself, and the one that says, I am here to hear everything that needs to be heard about racism, whiteness, and white supremacy and white people’s complicity in it because it’s far more important to break down white supremacist systems than it is to worry about my good white person status. The latter is stupid and useless and dangerous.

As I get mad at myself for still, after all this time, having these feelings of guilt pop up, and work to overcome them, I wonder if these feelings of guilt and shame are more recently heightened because of this moment in time, and are a necessary thing for me, and other white people to not overcome, but to work through, in the process of undoing our whiteness, and of decolonizing our racialized minds and ways of moving in the world. It has to get uncomfortable, at least I know that is true especially for someone like me, to truly get myself further along on the journey of changing myself, and growing my ability to be a part of the change of the systems of white supremacy I find myself surrounded by. I know it is far more important to be able to hear the statements of truth about where we are at, at this very moment in this country. White people have the dire need to reckon with the white supremacist notions and racial violence that this country was founded on, and has maintained over the past 400 years, and as this election reflects, shows that half the country is desperately trying to hold on to. I will never “arrive” at being done with the work of dismantling the whiteness that resides within me and the world around me. None of us will. It is a lifelong journey, and will continue to be for those that come after us. I will work on seeing this moment as necessary for me to grow, instead of one that gets me stuck.

Something that is helping me tremendously to reckon with my current white woman junkpile of whiteness, is the podcast, Eyes on Whiteness. The podcast is co-hosted by Maureen Benson, who identifies as a white woman and whose work focuses on racial justice and intersectional leadership in the areas of education and social impact organizations, and Diedre Barber, who identifies as a Black, Puerto Rican gay women, and is the founder and CEO of Filament Consulting Group, where she coaches others—youth, educators, and corporations–to bring about systemic change through the use of authenticity, compassion, transparency and high expectations.

In the words of the founders, “Eyes On Whiteness is a podcast that illuminates the insidious and ignorant ways of whiteness, regardless of intent. Our guests are invited to talk about the ways white supremacy and patriarchy are pervasive and ever-present.  Our conversations are rooted in a commitment to normalizing the “how, not if” lens for looking at the ways it’s present for all of us.”

Eyes On Whiteness and the conversations that Maureen, and Diedre, who Maureen notes in her introduction, shows up when she feels like it, as is her right as a Black woman taking care of herself and setting boundaries for her own emotional labor, are deep, and eye, and heart opening. These two women truly reflect their values of authenticity, transparency, compassion and accountability, whether it is the two of them reflecting on how they feel on this Election Day, or in conversation with their guests who have included, poet/educator, Roger Bonair-Agard, educator, facilitator and healer, Leidene King, E3: Education, Excellence & Equity founder, Dr. JuanCarlos Arauz, and the episode I listened to twice for all of its gems: the conversation with poet, activist, leader and author of The Body Is Not An Apology, Sonya Renee Taylor.

Eyes On Whiteness is making me, instead of always looking outward to analyze anti-Black racism, look inward in a way that helps bring awareness to the ways whiteness shows up in me, and how it permeates all of us, and all the spaces we move in. It is challenging me to work through this current bout of white guilt I have been letting overtake me. It is helping me to sustain my will to always show up and be present in this lifelong work of what, I believe Diedre has named, as transmuting white supremacy. They say transmuting instead of dismantling because it is their belief that we will never break down white supremacy completely, but we can transform it, and change our ways of being together and living and working together—replace the ways of white supremacy with a new, non-hierarchal, equitable way of relating to, and caring for one another—to make a new way, and a new world together.

I thank you for sharing in my confession. Maybe mine will help you share yours. Because it’s okay to not be perfect, to slip up, to be self-aware, so we can know what we need to work on on ourselves. I give thanks to Maureen and Diedre, for all they have given to me over these past few weeks. I will now go count for 60 seconds, and clear out those guilt cobwebs, and begin again, looking for the next bridge to cross.

2 Responses to “What I Didn’t Want To Share, Or: If This White (Jewish) Woman Went To Confession, This Is What She’d Say”

  1. Miriam M Diaz-Gilbert November 7, 2020 at 7:30 pm #

    The things we do when we are young and curious how the world different from our own works. I remember going to confession at Immaculate Conception on Saturday before going to mass on Sunday.

    I’m curious…did you say at the start of your “confession” “bless me Father for I have sinned.” Did you bless yourself after your “confession”? You say you felt guilty because as a Jew, you’re not supposed to kneel. Did you feel guilty misrepresenting yourself as a 5th grader pretending to be Catholic? I suspect the priest knew all along but he welcomed you. lol! Did you ever invite your Catholic or non-Jewish friends to JCC, for example?

    Your memory triggered a few of my own with respect to Catholic/Jewish and race. I remember going with Sarah to a JCC or somewhere where she was compelled to sign me in as Miriam Diastein. That was the first time I had been stripped of my identity. She removed the ‘z’ in diaz and replaced with ‘stein’. I thought this is very odd. Just like that she stripped me of my Puerto Rican Catholic identity.

    In college, a guy I dated took me and his roommate (who is biracial) to JCC in Asbury Park to play basketball. Mind you, my boyfriend was raised Reform on his mother’s side. His dad was Serbian Christian. Anyway, he instructed us to sneak in the backdoor, not the front door, to the gym. We waited for him to open the door and let us inside. We felt like law breakers. And when the fun was over, we had to exit out the door. I couldn’t even use the bathroom. I thought why? I’m your girlfriend and he’s your roommate. But his roommate and I knew why – we were not Jewish.

    And in college again, my good friend Jon Sureck took me and his sister to YMHA to play tennis. I had to give him $5. He told the person at the desk that I was his cousin visiting. This was news to me. And then he proceeded to sign me in as Miriam Sureck. Once again I was stripped of my identity with out my consent or explanation.

    I thought wow! I would never strip any of my friend’s identity and lie about who they are if I took them to my church or events, unless they wanted me told with their consent.

    I’ve never forgotten these encounters. Funny thing is…every Jewish boy in college wanted to date me. Seriously! They all thought I was Jewish. Two of them told me, “I want to go with you but I can’t take you to meet my mother because you’re not Jewish.”

    And then I met Jon, who also thought I was Jewish. And when I told him I’m Puerto Rican, he was so happy! I told him I’m Catholic and when we get married, we are raising our children Catholic and Jewish in the home. Totally cool with Jon.

    I’ve got some more “But I thought you were Jewish…But look Jewish…”stories.

    Then there is the story of my name….

    I’m curious…are you, or have you been attracted to Jewish men, Puerto Rican men?

    • Wendy Jane November 12, 2020 at 4:54 pm #

      Hi Miriam,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read the piece, and to reflect and ask your questions here, and to share how you were several times stripped of your Puerto Rican Catholic identity.

      Answering your questions first, I did feel guilty about misrepresenting my identity, too, and yes, I did say to the priest, forgive me father for I have sinned, and at my friends’ prompting, said that it had been two weeks since my last confession. So, that was my first lie, right there, and yes, I felt guilty about that, too, and sure he would knew I was lying–another sin!:)

      Would you ask Sarah now why she wrote your name as a Jewish name that day? It would be interesting to hear her reason why. I know that in high school, I brought at least one of my friends there, and did not need to or think to say she was Jewish. So, your stories about going to JCC in Asbury, and then the Y, are troubling to me. Growing up we belonged to a pool club in Prospect, and when I caught on as a kid that we were all Jews, and asked my Dad about it, he said it was because Jews weren’t allowed into the Catholic or Protestant pool clubs.

      I remember you telling me how everyone in college used to think you were Jewish. I’m glad at Jon’s response.

      I have hardly ever dated Jewish boys growing up or men, as an adult. I did have a crush on a Jewish boy in 8th grade and we dated for a bit, but as I grew up, my Jewish friends all ended up going to private schools and I did not have a circle of Jewish friends. I find Puerto Rican men attractive–I went to prom with Tuti,as a friend, but always thought he was cute. I did date, I think, at least two men who were Puerto Rican. I like men of all cultures, ethnicities, races. Like you say, connecting with people and worlds different from our own is what makes life rich.

      Thank you again for your thoughtfulness, and openness in sharing about your experiences, and in asking more about mine.

      Much love,
      Wendy

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