Enzi Tanner makes a very important distinction in how he identifies. Sometimes he’s OK with being identified more broadly as a Jew of Color. But right now, he prefers to reference himself as a black Jew.
“Oftentimes you’re talking about Jews of Color, and for me, when we’re talking in a broad sense, that’s important,” he said. “But when we’re talking specifics, as of right now, in this moment when we’re talking about anti-blackness and attacks on the black community. In this moment, we’re talking about violence against black bodies. When we make a big broad umbrella, it actually is erasing black folks, the very voice that needs to be centered.”
For black Jews – or Jews of Color – living their lives means sitting at the intersection of two (or more) often-marginalized groups. According to GlobalJews.com, an estimated 20 percent of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, although there is no estimate available on what that looks like in the Twin Cities.
For black Jews especially, the 16 days since George Floyd was killed on the corner of 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis, has been one of hurt. Jessi Kingston wrote “A Letter To My Friends” on her Facebook page as a way to express what she is feeling.
“I want people to really try and stay grounded through all of this,” she said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us. This is nothing new. Black people have been dealing with this for hundreds of years, and no matter what black people have done in protest, it doesn’t change.
“White people need to understand that breathing is a privilege. And they need to hear that and take a stand and take action.”
Where does that start? And how? Long time Washington, D.C., news anchor Leon Harris said on a podcast Monday “It’s not up to the oppressed to fix the oppressors, or fix the oppression.” So how can white or white-presenting Jews support, be helpful, welcoming the black Jews and Jews of Color? Tanner says it’s not that hard – you do it the same way you would help anyone else.
“For some reason – and I don’t know why this is the case with black folks in this country – has always been perceived as different or as not quite enough,” he said. “And so part of it is white-skinned Jews should be reaching into themselves and actually wrestling with themselves around their own racism. It is really hard. No one likes to be called a racist. So I think that maybe as a community, reaching in and saying ‘what are the areas that I need to work on?’
“The deep divide between racism didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not gonna go away overnight. But we’re a community, right? I like to think about being Jewish is that we are a family. A dysfunctional family just like any other family. And it’s a part of who we are.”
Why is it now different? Floyd’s death is the third very-high profile death of a black man at the hands of police in Minnesota – following Jamar Clark in Minneapolis in 2015 and Philando Castile in St. Anthony in 2016.
“The incident of another black person dying at hands of police officers isn’t different, but I’m not surprised at what has happened here this time,” Kingston said. “It has been growing. Jamar, Philando. We’ve seen protest after protest gaining momentum in terms of support as black and brown bodies have been murdered by law enforcement. This was inevitable. We were a ticking time bomb waiting to happen.
“The murder of Philando Castile was a huge wake-up call to a lot of people in different ways. Now you have people in the middle of a pandemic who have been self-quarantining, trying to prevent the spread of COVID, and emotions are raw. They are scared, and now see that no one is truly safe and it can happen to you.”
The protests in Minneapolis and around the country are happening during coronavirus – a disease that is disproportionally affecting the black community. Tanner argued that this is the perfect time to protest.
“I have been arguing since the beginning, that [COVID] has nothing to do with underlying conditions, that it has everything to do with racism. And if those underlying conditions are there because of racism, so be it,” he said. “But the dying is not even about the underlying conditions; it is the same cause that killed George Floyd. When we go to the doctors and say ‘I’m in pain,’ ‘I cannot breathe,’ whatever it is, we are not believed. And I think that’s due to the myth that for some reason, black folks are superhuman. Like Mike Brown had to have become the superhero for the Darren Wilson story to make sense. I think it subconsciously happens.”
“Certain folks are seen as more believable than others. White men are seen as more believable than the others. And so I say, you might not feel like you have skin in the game. But I say we need your skin in the game. We need your bodies in the game. And also knowing the difference between having your skin in the game and your body in the game and then taking up all the space in your game. We need people’s actual bodies because our bodies are already on the line.”
Kingston said that she found Jews of Color connecting more locally, regionally and nationally.
“It’s not about white Jews coming into Jews of Color spaces. Jews of Color need space to come together, celebrate and process what it means to be a non-white, especially in this time that our community is under attack,” she said. “I don’t need a white Jew in that space. I’m not here to teach and educate in that time. How does the broader community embrace diversity of some Jews and not other Jews that don’t fit a certain stereotype?”
Kingston knows of Jews of Color who weren’t welcomed to join synagogues in the Twin Cities, or are looked as an outsider at lifecycle events or at services. “The community has to sit there and say when they see a person of color that they should belong,” she said. “But it’s not anything that doesn’t happen outside of the Jewish community, either.”
Tanner thinks that one of the ways we can overcome much of this is to start building lasting relationships.
“Many people don’t have relationships with folks of color or any black folks,” he said. “I know many black folks this week have been like, ‘Wow, I’m getting a lot of really weird texts, and Facebook messages from white people this week.’
“Sometimes it’s great, right? Some of it is, folks are really saying, ‘Y’all, we got you. What do you need?’ I need you to ask me. Did you eat dinner? Did you eat breakfast? Those small things because we are all embodying trauma. And those small things make a difference.”