Sunday, February 01, 2009

The view from Orlando -- the struggle to preserve identity in the age of Obama

Barack Obama may have been many miles away, but his presence was very much felt at the Racial Ethnic Multicultural network (REM) meeting of chaplains in Orlando over the last couple of days. Obama's election has certainly given much hope to African-Americans and other ethnic minorities. But it has also posed challenges -- if an African-American can rise to the highest office in the land, does that mean America is past racism, and that therefore there is no longer a need to discuss racial discrimination and how it can be corrected? Have we become a color-blind society?

The conference's keynote speaker -- Stacey Floyd-Thomas, an African-American college professor and feminist whose passion reminds me a bit of my hero bell hooks -- addressed this "color blind" issue. "I don't want to get past race; I want to get past racism," she said. "My race isn't the problem, your problem with it is."

This was my second REM conference, and it was again a prviledge to be a part of it. Although I am most certainly a member of a minority group myself as a Jewish person in the world of interfaith chaplaincy, REM has a predominantly African-American feel to it, and so I feel a bit more like a guest than a participant (I especially felt like a non-participant when the keynote speaker began her morning talk with a prayer in the name of Jesus!).

But I am most happy to be a guest here. The incredible passion and thirst for justice that can come from Amerca's black preachers -- the passion that once all of America knew in the presence of the great Martin Luthur King -- is something that I almost never have a chance to see in my current life. Here at REM, however, I got to see some of it still burning bright. Floyd-Thomas' expression of deep pride in being a black woman was just one part of that.

There is another side, however. At one workshop for people, like myself, who are training for certification as chaplaincy supervisors, the issue of privilege came up. What happens when I start to become one of the priviledged, one of the particpants, asked. Am I going to no longer be recognized as "belonging here," she continued.

In reaction, another participant shared a story about coming to the neighborhood where he grew up and where his mother still lived. He overheard a conversation between two workers in a passing garbage truck. They were questioning what he was doing in the neighborhood because he didn't look like he belonged there.

I certainly do not think racism in America is over, but these accounts tell an important story -- many African Americans, like Barack Obama, have managed to lift the worst of the chains of racism off of themselves. They have become more privileged than oppressed.

For Jews, this transition to become more privileged than oppressed has brought great challenges along with its blessing. Oppression -- for all its evils, none of which I would wish back -- guaranteed that a Jewish person could never forget for a moment that he or she was a Jew. It guaranteed that Jews would continue to identify as Jews. And it guaranteed that Jews would create and maintain their own distinct and unique culture amid the American melting pot.

With the lifting of the worst of the oppression, Jews who are interested in the survival of a Jewish culture and identity in this country have had to work hard to find new ways of preserving that precious identity.

REM reminded me once again that African-Americans -- especially in the traditions of their churches -- have their own great, distinct and unique identity. It is my prayer that they will find new ways to maintain it, just as they find new ways to reach for the rungs of opportunity that have been appearing before them.

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