I grew up in an upper middle-class home in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1980s and ’90s. My parents were well educated; my dad owns his own business and I was taught that I could be and should be anything I want. Unlike many other Black children, my parents did not have “the talk” with me. My mother, a white Ashkenazi Jew from New York, and my father, a half-Black and half-Chinese man from Trinidad, thought their love proved the world was now colorblind.
We were the only Black family on our block. We received bomb threats, were denied admittance to a Jewish day school, lived through the Crown Heights race riots between Chasidic Jews and Black Caribbean immigrants in the late ’80s, and yet, we still never talked about it.
I am an extremely confident, strong, empowered and optimistic person. I generally see people as good and trust them until they prove to me otherwise. My husband, a dark-skinned man from Ghana, had a different experience. Told at the age of 8 that he had to work twice as hard to get half as far in America, and seeing this born out in reality, he’s more guarded and feels he can’t fully trust people until they earn his trust.
How are we going to raise our daughters? A combination of both approaches. We will, no doubt, have a “talk” but we will also ensure our daughters are full of confidence, self-love and belief in their own destiny. My parents’ way was definitely not the right way because I was not prepared emotionally and did not have the right language to deal with the many microaggressions I’ve experienced. My husband’s lesson could have backfired, and he could have used that message as an excuse for failure.
The current moment is forcing me to speak in a way I never have before. It’s uncomfortable and I feel naked. When I first saw the George Floyd video, I couldn’t watch it. Truthfully, I have not watched more than a few seconds. It takes my breath away.
The protests and actions now include many, many, many white people. There seems to be an awakening and active desire by them to be part of the solution.
We’ve been overwhelmed and somewhat confused but also heartened by the outpouring of texts, emails and calls from friends just checking in to see how we are doing. We are the Black friends that everyone — especially Jewish friends — wants to check on right now. Will it last? Will they be checking on us or continuing their protests in two weeks, two months or two years? I don’t know. But this is where my parents’ rosy view of the world kicks in. I am optimistic.
My husband, on the other hand, was angry, demanding, “Why is this any different than every other incident of police brutality? Where was the outrage and protests for every other murder? Why has it taken so long for white people to understand and believe this has been going on?”
It’s true. There were protests (and riots) against the Rodney King decision in L.A. in 1992, after the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, and a few others around the nation. But these protests were mostly held by people of color.
The protests and actions now include many, many, many white people. There seems to be an awakening and active desire by them to be part of the solution. These allies are crucial to keeping this momentum going.
Ironically, although I have big-picture optimism, I personally feel helpless, restless and nervous. I’m trying to figure out my role in this movement. I’m treated like a spokesperson but I feel like kind of a fraud. I’m not a Black man. I’m light-skinned. I grew up with every advantage in life. I have an advanced degree. And yet, I live in skin that causes most Jews to look at me funny and question my right to belong every time I walk into a synagogue. Fortunately, I’m better equipped and more comfortable now to deal with these questions and quizzical looks than I was when I was a child. My family was the only Black family in our synagogue, and I didn’t have adult Jews of Color to look up to. I’m a mom now to two adorable girls who are too young to really understand what’s going on. But one day they will understand. And one day they may also feel like they don’t fit in.
I guess that’s my role. I speak, I write, I advocate and I help normalize the Jews of Color experience. Everything I do is for my children, and other Jewish children of Color.
A former lawyer, Marissa Tiamfook Gee owns a corporate wellness and personal training company and is on the board of IKAR.