Why I Am Atoning For Racism

I am confessing racism because I benefit from it.
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The following post is a shortened version of a Yom Kippur talk given at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, OH.

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is a challenging holiday. Jews are commanded to fast and to own their sins so they can atone for them.

On this day of introspection and deliberate discomfort, I, a white American, am asking myself the following uncomfortable question: Should I include racism in my confessions?

It pains me to say so, but I believe the answer is yes.

I am confessing racism because I benefit from it.

The old me thought of racism only as an individual’s intentional hatred and bigotry towards people of color. Today, I understand racism also to be a deeply-rooted system in our country that disadvantages and devalues people of color as a group and advantages and empowers white people as a group, regardless of whether white individuals wish to be advantaged or empowered in this way.

One key benefit of understanding racism from this perspective is that I can hate racism and own my role in it without necessarily hating myself.

In order to grasp that racism is ingrained in our country’s DNA, I have had to better understand our country’s past and present. Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a succinct historical description:

Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy.

There are countless findings documenting our country’s pervasive racism today, such as that black male teenagers’ have 21 times the likelihood of being shot and killed by police as their white counterparts.

As a white person, I benefit directly from racism based solely on the color of my skin. I consider this unearned advantage to be my white privilege.

“I can hate racism and own my role in it without necessarily hating myself.”

Here are some examples. When I am looking for a house, I am more likely to be shown more homes than an equally qualified black homebuyer. When I apply for a job, I am more likely to be seriously considered than a person with a “black-sounding” name. My teenagers are more likely to be thought of by white teachers as better students than their peers of color based solely on the color of their skin.

Although I have not been aware of my white privilege in any of these cases, I still benefit from these injustices.

I am also confessing racism because I perpetuate it.

Educator Jane Elliott asks white audiences the following question:

If you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society - please stand! … Nobody is standing here. … [Y]ou know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.

I am that white person not standing and not, until recently, acting to bring awareness to the problem. My inaction has perpetuated racism.

“I]n a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible,” said Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish theologian and philosopher.

Or, as the Black Lives Matter movement puts it, “white silence is violence.”

Today, I, a white American, atone for my racism.

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