Keren David

To be an ally against racism, first learn to listen

'I recognised my own ignorance about anti-Black racism, and have been reading, and listening and learning.'

August 07, 2020 11:09

Maybe it was when my friend posted a picture on Facebook, showing Ruth Smeeth going into the Labour Party hearing which eventually expelled Marc Wadsworth after his confrontation with her at the launch of the Party’s antisemitism report.

I saw it as a picture displaying courage and solidarity — a Jewish woman, flanked by friends, walking past baying protesters, some dressed as witches, to challenge a man who had acted in a despicably racist fashion.

But my friend, who is Black, wasn’t posting in support of Smeeth, not at all. She was expressing anger and disappointment at Smeeth and her supporters — for being white women acting against a Black anti-racism campaigner.

Or maybe it was when I read Candice Carty-
Williams’s widely acclaimed debut novel Queenie, which was named Book of the Year at the British Book Awards a few weeks ago. Queenie is about a young Black woman in London, and the way that racist tropes constantly affect almost every aspect of her life. “A novel of our time, filled with wit, wisdom and urgency,” according to Stig Abell, until recently editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and a Book of the Year judge.

He may be correct, I can’t say for sure. I got only half way through the book, until I gave up, sickened by the trope-filled portrayal of Queenie’s friend Cassandra, who is Jewish and — you guessed it — rich and spoiled, who offers to lend Queenie money the first time we meet her, and can’t understand why her friend doesn’t have multiple sources of income ( “When you run out of money, why don’t you just take from your other money?”) and whose family — of course — live in a massive house and put on lavish parties.

Interestingly, I found no reference to this caricature in the gushing reviews in the mainstream press. “I have never read a novel that shows the experience of everyday, low-level racism so vividly, or so convincingly,” said the reviewer in The Times. Hmm, yes, and I have rarely read one that made me feel so thoughtlessly stereotyped.

So, maybe it was those two things which made me acutely aware that not everyone in the Black community saw the connection between antisemitism and other forms of racism the way I did, as aligned concerns, twin evils.

Instead, talking and, more importantly, listening to Black people, I realised that there was quite some resentment that we ‘white’ Jews were taking up space talking about the prejudice against us, when racism against Black people was hardly discussed at all.

And I listened. Although I thought that my friend was wrong about Ruth Smeeth, I heard her pain and she acknowledged mine. Carty-Williams’ editors might have challenged her portrayal of Cassandra, but why was she so unaware? As the election loomed, I listened harder.

While many from my community dreaded the election of Jeremy Corbyn and a party infected by the virus of antisemitism, many of the Black community saw the Tory party in exactly the same way — worse, in fact, because in power the Tories had embraced a “hostile environment” policy which saw families torn apart, people refused life-saving treatment on the NHS, and others detained and even deported, a truly appalling injustice.

What’s more, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a history of using words and phrases insulting to Black people, and British society continues to be dominated by a ruling class which is overwhelmingly white and privileged — a class which it seems easier to join nowadays if you are Jewish than Black, although wealth is the deciding factor and class differences are the often-neglected key element of identity politics in the UK.

I couldn’t bring myself to vote for Johnson or Corbyn, which left me feeling disenfranchised and shocked at the state of our politics.

The killing of George Floyd in the US sparked an outcry all over the world. I, like many Jewish people, find it difficult to fit my own experience into the portfolio term “white privilege” and, as a “Keren”, feel uncomfortable about the coining of the word “Karen” as its personification.

But I recognised my own ignorance about anti-Black racism, and have been reading, and listening and learning. I highly recommend Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, recently Booker longlisted, which is everything that Queenie might have been. And I am being enlightened page by page by David Olusoga’s Black and British, A Forgotten History.

My children had Black friends when they were at school. But often those friends didn’t socialise in the evenings. Their parents were too scared to let them out at night. That wasn't a fear I shared. That was my privilege. 

If we truly believe that antisemitism is a form of racism, then we must learn from the Black community, educate ourselves about their history and current situation, and speak out in their support. Sometimes we need to see beyond our own hurt feelings. We should be allies, just as we were in the days when Jews fought with the Civil Rights movement in the US.


August 07, 2020 11:09

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