Guest Infact: A Meditation on Race, Privilege, and Reggae.
My sister sent this to me, about her lifelong journey on understanding race and privilege. Now, married to an African-American and having two children who face challenges growing up that she didn’t, that perspective continues to evolve. We have different memories of our childhoods, but I’m always glad to gain from my little sister’s wisdom. She approaches the world very differently from the way I do, but we usually arrive at similar destinations, morally.
At about 13yo I found my best spiritual teacher, reggae music. The first song I heard was Bob Marley’s Kaya. I didn’t know kaya was herb, I didn’t smoke it yet, either….I assumed from the context of the song that kaya meant Faith. And I loved it…in my bones. Faith was the thing missing in my religion (or so I felt then).
It was playing in Uncle David’s fun shop in Occidental California (don’t even remember what I was doing in california, too much Kaya in the days since…)I was so visibly moved that the shop owner, uncle David himself, gave me the tape.
I had read about reggae in relation to Rastafarianism…but the first time I heard it was…no, there aren’t words for what it was… Its not just music…it’s a history lesson and a moral code and something holy…all set to a beat that struck my soul instantly. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know a single Jamaican or rastafarian, it felt a little inauthentic, but I couldn’t deny its influence on me….Then maybe a year or so later I heard the Melodians singing Rivers of Babylon for the first time….that’s about MY People My ancestors…the Jews were the ones stolen from Zion to work as slaves in Babylon….the line “let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, oh Lord” that’s a Jewish prayer…I felt it as an invitation to learn and grow through reggae… authentically, as me, a white Jewish girl.
It was the first time I really felt or thought of Judaism as a religion rather than just a culture. Being Jewish is not straightforward, it’s a religion, but you don’t have to believe anything to be a member…. it isn’t typically deeply spiritual..unless you’re Hasidic or study kaballah. Reform Judaism is sort of more political and cultural than spiritual or religious…..I was raised culturally Jewish, as a secular Jew.
But we worshipped education, not God. In my family, being a good Jew had more to do with going to a good university than it did with going to synagogue. My mom graduated from Columbia University at 19, is “all but dissertation” in one discipline and has a PhD in another. Just getting a PhD is for stupid people. I rebelled against an ivy league education the way lots of little Christians rebel against Jesus. I got expelled from high school 3 times…(boarding school, because I got expelled from home first) I ruined my shot at Columbia, where damn near everyone in my family went to school. A poor choice in retrospect, clearly. I’m even stupider than the folks with a single doctorate.
I was raised to believe that “religion” is an easy way out…that the meaningful path to god is the one you create, that a “bright and morally sound man doesn’t need religion any more than a man with two good legs needs crutches”..I don’t personally believe that…I love religion….all of them…I can’t think of a “wrong” one…I’ve always been thirsty for God in the way that preschoolers are thirsty to learn to read….they know it’s a code…they just can’t crack it…..but they are fully aware that it will open up the whole world when they do….
My mom encouraged me to learn as much as I could about as many religions as I could….and to pick and choose whatever felt like it fit for me, to find my own spiritual path….I approached it like any good Jew….with books…I read about different religions, every book I could get my hands on. That’s how I learned about Rastafarianism, and even without reggae, it was in inspiring religion to learn about, based on Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” movement…
But let me go back a bit…
When I first learned about slavery, maybe 2nd grade, a couple of years after my dad married my African-American step mom, who to this day I’ve only been able to talk to about race maybe 5 times, she just can’t, or hates to, or something….they’ve been married for 30yrs now…. Anyway…after that day, I came home from school with an intense case of miniature liberal white guilt….my mom…having a hard time seeing her child hurting said the easiest thing she could think of that was likely to make me feel better….”we’re jewish, honey, our people have been slaves too.” Sweet. Black people and Jews share a history of oppression. I’m not the bad guy.
That honestly worked to absolve me of my early childhood liberal white guilt, got me through elementary school….until it was impossible to ignore that being Jewish didn’t exclude me from white privilege. The exsistance of white privilege, and my clear benefit from it made me feel like shit….but how do you reject it?? I did what any silly ignorant well meaning 17yo girl that loved reggae would do…..I got dreadlocks. That made people treat me differently. It excluded me from privilege pretty effectively, because it is such a clear rejection of mainstream beauty standards for a pretty young lady…and people hate that.
That kinda worked in whatever misguided way I needed it to…I felt relatively justified in having locks…because I was a pot smoker, I loved reggae, deeply, soulfully…and hey, um, I had black friends, even family….but I’m not a Rastafarian. It’s undoubtedly been the biggest influence on the formation of my spirituality, and reggae continues to be my best guide…but there are huge core principles I simply don’t believe. That’s my problem with most religions…that’s why I pick and choose what works for me from several rather than subscribing to one.
When I was 20 I went to Barbados… (my older brother took me as an apology for my childhood…he was awful)
Barbados was amazing, in so many ways…how it created a friendship between my brother and me…the helicopter ride, the monkeys the music…..
The BEST thing I got there, was a painfully humbling conversation that forever changed me. The man was beautiful, and kind and bright, and had locks past his ass…I assumed he came over to me in the bar to flirt, and was thanking my lucky stars….but that wasn’t it…I was a white girl with dreadlocks and he had questions…. lots… and good ones. I thought hard and answered all of them, fairly well… I thought…. and then he very gently explained to me how offensive I was….very gently, because he really understood that it wasn’t my intention…. He explained how offensive it was to have dreadlocks when I was neither a Rastafarian nor black. How offensive it was that I would throw away my privilege, what he wouldn’t do for some fucking privilege….I understood from him that I wasting the fact that I was born on 3rd base, wasting opportunities or weakening my voice in the world sure as shit didn’t make me more like him. And didn’t make me understand his experience in the world any better.
He said to own it, use it, be myself, and use every bit of privilege I could scrounge up, use for good, for upfulness, for sharing overstanding (that’s what Rastas say instead of undertanding…makes so much more sense)
Its been almost 20yrs since then…I’ve had a lot of humbling experiences regarding race and culture…trust me you don’t know white guilt until you’ve wished your white privilege extended to your brown children…you don’t know what humility is until you realize that even with all the privilege than money, race and education can provide you still can’t make a difference for your kids. The impotence of oppression sucks, no one would choose it.
There were many important lessons that night…cultural appropriation and why it’s really not that cool….using my privilege rather than trying to reject it as if I could make it not exist, all by my silly hippy self (what a privileged idea, Jesus Christ) …the still burning humility…..but the best lesson was to allow myself to have uncomfortable humble conversations with people of different races and/or cultures….and I learned that that’s the only way to learn what other people’s experiences are like…you have to actually listen to them. That is the ONLY path to cultural sensitivity. You can’t manufacture the experience of walking in someone else’s shoes. Nor can You assume you know it from hanging out with people if you don’t talk about it….Sorry, but that black friend you have doesn’t automatically mean you’re cultured and culturally sensitive. I had lots of black friends back then, even a black step mom….but you can’t learn through proximity alone..I don’t think a single one of our white friends has ever asked my husband why he wraps his hair, but they ALL ask me…why whisper the question to his white wife? And no, I’m not gonna tell you here, ask him, he’s not scary… Have more uncomfortable conversations…be willing to grow…I couldn’t have heard that man the way I did if he had treated me as if I were being offensive on purpose…I would have simply figured he didn’t understand that I wasn’t like that….that I wasn’t racist or culturally insensitive…he was just judging me because I was white, (obviously I was cultured….I had black friends)……but instead he showed me how racism can exist without racists…(there’s a book with that title…it’s excellent) because he got that I was ignorant, but humble….and not stupid enough to choose to stay ignorant If there was a choice. If you’re willing to have enough uncomfortable conversations, they get less uncomfortable eventually. It’s worth the effort.
I cut my hair when I got home from Barbados. But Reggae will always be my spiritual guide. Not my only one, not by a long shot, but it’s my best one, and it’s the only spiritual teacher I can listen to every day. It’s my daily practice. But you can trust you won’t see me with dreadlocks again. Or speaking patois, no matter how many hours I spend with Jamaicans in basement recording studios. I will always be the Jewish white girl, with reggae in my bones.