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Casual Fridays? Good. Casual Racism? Bad.

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When I got an email suggesting I write about the whole Donald Sterling controversy, I was a little hesitant. First, I had only vague ideas about the story; basketball and racist Jews generally do not appear on my “must-read list.” (Especially when there are truly important things happening in the world, like George Clooney getting engaged and “Community” getting canceled.) So it meant actually reading about what happened and becoming well-informed, instead of just making stuff up off the top of my head like I usually do.
The part of the story that struck me—more than the diatribe, the backlash, the fine and ban, the 80-year old married man with his 20-year-old girlfriend (I mean, whaaa?)—was the casual racism. Sterling demonstrated a type of entrenched prejudice, the kind where it’s not even a second thought. It’s just a way of life. When the aforementioned girlfriend asked if black Jews are “less than” white Jews, Sterling’s opinion on this was quick and clear. He didn’t need to ponder the question. “A hundred percent, fifty, a hundred percent … It isn’t a question—we don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong, we live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.” According to Mr. Sterling, it’s not even about being racist, see, it’s just that some people are less than others. This is our culture; there’s nothing we can do about it.
In discussing this with a friend, she mentioned how she once shared an office with a highly educated colleague. A person with a high-level job, years of education, who had met with people from all over the world. This colleague was on the phone one day, unhappy with the price of something. After he bargained the seller down, he came over to my friend and said, proudly, “I really Jewed him, huh?” Not only did he use a phrase that embodies the harmful, Jews-as-greedy-money-hoarders stereotype, but he thought my friend would be proud! (“This is how your people do it, right?”) She was appalled and sat him down, explaining how inappropriate that phrase is. Afterward, she commented that what hurt more was not that he used the phrase, but had no understanding about why it was offensive and upsetting. There it was again, that underlying, pervasive racism lurking just beneath the surface. It comes up for air every once in a while, revealing deep truths about the mindset of our society, even of people we consider our friends.
In a way, worse than the hate-filled, vitriolic white supremacist types is this sort of unassuming stereotyping and prejudice. Jews love money; that’s just a fact. Black people are not as good as white people; it’s just how our society is. Its subtlety, its inconspicuousness, its way of hiding in plain sight makes it so dangerous and frightening. The Donald Sterlings and My Friend’s Colleagues of the world don’t attend neo-Nazi rallies. They just go about their lives, doing their jobs, even hanging out and forming friendships with those who they consider, in many ways, to be “less.”
In Israel, the topic chosen as the theme for the current school year this was “Ha’acher Hu Ani/The Other Is Me.” The goal of the campaign is to promote sensitivity to anyone who is different, whether the differences are due to family customs, ancestors, abilities, appearances or family makeup. This modern-sounding sensibility (“We are all one! Kumbaya!”) has its roots in the rather ancient Torah. God commands us to have extra sympathy and sensitivity to the “gerim/converts,” because we know how they feel—we, too, were once strangers in a strange land. We are commanded to treat “gerim”—foreigners, converts, strangers, people who are different, people who are “other”—with the utmost level of caring and kindness. The Torah, it seems, was warning us about the dangers of casual racism.
Words are powerful. Articulating something offensive, even to yourself or a close friend, has an impact. Because verbalizing those hurtful thoughts affects how you and those around you understand the world and treat those in it. We need to be mindful when we talk about other citizens of the planet, whether we are speaking to our spouse, children, friends or even ourselves. It is our responsibility to cultivate a culture of sensitivity and kindness, through the simple act of the words we choose to speak.

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