I see a lot of different things when I’m working.
I have three separate jobs, so this is to be expected. I work full-time as a social worker, providing case management and counseling services to families who have children with mental health and behavior problems. I also have two part-time jobs at my local synagogue, teaching religious school classes to middle school students and leading junior congregation services a few times each month.
The things I see fall into a fairly broad spectrum. On a given day, I could conceivably set foot in a really nice apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, see a fight going on outside a public housing complex in Harlem and notice the odors that emanate from the bedroom of the patient1 who is a hoarder in Washington Heights. Then, if I’m teaching that night, I’ll hear stories about prejudice in schools as I lead conversations about identity, prejudice and the Holocaust to seventh graders.
The fact that I meet so many different people can be tiring, to be sure; it’s a lot of information to keep track of, a lot of relationships to monitor, a lot of family dynamics to navigate. But it keeps things interesting, which keeps me engaged.
The most interesting things for me are the different perspectives each person has. Everyone has their own take on the circumstances that led them to their current situation and what kinds of help they need. The social work tenet that people are the experts on their own lives has certainly held true in my work. I’ve listened to a black mother speak about her disappointment with the behavior of other people in her predominantly black community; a Latina woman relate her story of self sufficiency because of her family’s refusal to assist her based on her choices; and Jewish middle school students describing their experiences of being singled out because of their religion. My success in developing a rapport with each of these people varies2 but I always strive to be respectful of their opinions and experiences, especially because they are different than my own.
I’ve been surprised, though, by the fact that I’ve probably had more difficulty maintaining that respect when interacting with people from backgrounds similar to mine. The people I’ve known who have come from white, middle-to-upper class, Jewish families have consistently made comments that have ranged from mildly derogatory to outright racist. I went to Jewish private schools from nursery school through my high school graduation and some of my close friends, while they were a lot of fun to be around and came from observant Jewish families, also told some of the most racist jokes that I’ve ever heard. I’ll readily admit having laughed at and retold a lot of the jokes as well, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve started wondering why it was so easy for me to join in the laughter.3 What gave me the right to make fun of people whose skin color was different than mine and whose families represented much of the lower economic classes of America? What made me better than them?
The curriculum for the Holocaust class that I teach starts by having students define what it means to be “the other” and then transitions into the ways people make those definitions to begin with. We focus primarily on the propaganda put out by the Nazi party in the 1930s but also look at examples from the students’ lives, as well. As we go through these discussions, we ask the same question I mentioned above: why do people act this way? There are a number of different reasons, of course, but the most significant reason is ignorance. People are uncomfortable with things that are unfamiliar to them. For me, I didn’t know anyone who belonged to those other groups of people, so it was easier for me to ridicule them. When I was a teenager, I saw anyone who wasn’t white or Jewish as “the other” because I never interacted with anyone who wasn’t like me. I went to a Jewish private school and on the weekends I was involved with a Jewish synagogue youth group. I knew what racism was because I learned about it in school, but I never thought of myself as a racist because I never saw the harm in just telling a joke. And in my head, telling some jokes was all it was.4
I’ve heard arguments that claim that there isn’t anything wrong with being able to laugh about racism and that if we get too politically correct, we’ll never be able to say anything at all. I don’t buy it. Telling racist jokes implies that racism is acceptable. Humor is a tool that can be used in many ways, including demeaning and dehumanizing people of color. During a recent Junior Congregation session, one of the children asked if she could tell a joke. I allowed her to do so, and she told a joke that made fun of sound of the Chinese language. I told her – and all of the other children in the room – that I did not find the joke funny and I explained how that kind of a joke could be hurtful to people who speak Chinese. Her response to me was, “But I heard it from my teacher!”
And that brings us to the bottom line: racism and hatred are taught. Our children learn how to think about people from other backgrounds by watching – and listening to – the adults in their lives. It’s up to us to make sure that we’re setting the right examples about respecting other people by watching the words we use. Any parent who has ever asked the question, “Where did you learn that word?” will attest that children are sponges, absorbing every movement we exhibit and phrase we utter. We just have to make sure we’re sending the right messages.
Post-script: I realize that this post does not place Jews in a particularly favorable light. I would caution people against associating my experiences with Jewish people as a whole. The people I have known throughout my life have largely been open-minded and more apt to celebrate other cultures than to demean them. Also, especially since this was written as part of the Dads Round Table tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., it should also be noted that many influential Jewish figures, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, were close allies of King’s in promoting the civil rights movement. I simply meant to point out that whenever I’ve heard racist language being used, it’s happened to have been from Jewish people.
1. The choice to use the word “patient” instead of other alternatives commonly used in the social work field, like “client” or “consumer,” is intentional. I work in a hospital based program that uses the medical model as its approach. If you broke your arm and needed a doctor’s help, you’d have no problem being referred to as a patient; the view is that the people we serve need help, so they’re our patients. Also, my supervisor told me that whenever she hears the word “client,” she thinks of lawyers and prostitutes. So patients they are.↩
2. You should see the look I get from teenagers of color when they see my white face telling them that I can help make things better for them.↩
3. Social work school had a lot to do with this re-evaluation.↩