The Skin I’m In: The Problem with #BlackLivesMatter
My skin is pale with hints of olive, my hair brown and wavy with bright green eyes. Everything about me should say that I’m a typical American (albeit a tall, large-breasted one). Yet I hear the echoes of the Middle East when pain inflects in my singing voice, see it as I slip the hamsa around my neck and feel it when I look at my phone and see Jerusalem looking back at me. I’m a Spanish Jew who came to America via Turkey. But like my ancestors in Spain, I can be very good at hiding my identity.
Jewish persecution is not obvious, but it is present. I have felt it at bars when Middle Eastern guys have hit on me and then quizzed me as to whether or not I was a Zionist. The fact I wear a hamsa and not a Star of David is evident of my fear of that outside world judging me. And although I have to read week after week articles about people who want to destroy my people both here and abroad in whatever way they see fit, at the same time I am blessed. I can hide my minority status simply because I have the light skin of my grandparents, not the darker skin of my great uncles. Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky. And sadly, we have seen it play out on our news screens more often than not lately.
My family was always an unusual bunch of people when it came to racial diversity, and we took stands. My great-grandfather was a proud freemason, who was rumored to leave his chapter after his friend, a black man, was denied entry due to the color of his skin. My mother refused to have her eighth birthday party because her best friend, a black girl, would not be invited. My father, who got yelled at regularly by his mother for inviting black friends over, was active in black theater during the civil rights movement. When I met one of his collaborators several years back and asked him how my white dad got in black theater, he laughed and smiled.
“We were at a party, and they saw your dad and they were angry,” he said. “They wanted to know why he should be there. And your father explained the history of the Jewish people and how they had been persecuted and destroyed through the centuries. Our struggles were the same. And from that point on, I understood your people, and your dad was one of the most respected men in that community I have ever seen. A lot of people didn’t like him for it, but that didn’t matter to him. Just what was right.”
We were rare. Perhaps we still are. Over time, I have seen the woman my family raised me to become, and even in the smallest actions, I have found myself to be unusually colorblind. And then, in less than a week, I saw how the world wasn’t.
Watching how two police officers within the past week were sent walking back into the world with no ramifications in killing two men, you wonder. You sit there as the hashtags have come and gone, seeing these men’s faces again and again. They have seemed to blend in with one another now. Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. And now Eric Garner. Black-skinned men, far from perfect, although none of them worthy of death — but even if they were, who were these men to deal it to them?
These are four different men, and it took Eric Garner to wake us up to realize that something is very wrong in the way we deal with justice in this world. The new hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, has become a huge statement. My friends are posting his last words: “I can’t breathe.” I remembered a time in my life where I said that exact statement while I was unknowingly dying. Except through medical help, I lived. And with my life, my voice is thankfully preserved.
As I lie in my bed, I lie in solidarity with the protesters who are conducting “die-ins” across the country. The hashtag of #blacklivesmatter is important, not only from the point of the death of Eric Garner. But what happens when the fury dies? What happens when the anger fades into oblivion and their names become memory again? What are we going to do to change this life where police brutality is acceptable behavior, particularly against minorities?
As I slip on and off my Jewish colloquialisms and identifying characteristics, I see the woman that my people made me: My Turkish great-grandfather, who was no stranger to fighting for what he believed in as a radical in Istanbul, who stood for a worthy man against his powerful organization because he knew racism was wrong even then. My father, who, no matter how much his mother screamed at him, risked his own reputation to use his art for the greater good of helping others find their voices. My mother, who had to answer my eight-year-old mind’s question about why Dr. Martin Luther King marched, knowing that her mother couldn’t see the difference between black and white skin when she was that age. They knew then that this battle against inequality meant potential sacrifices. And that is what we have to do.
Whether we bang on the doors of Congress to let us in to finally have our say, head out to the streets to be loud and clear in masks and our own real faces, to make a statement to let the world know we can’t live like this anymore, we have to do it. We recognize the problem, but we can only complain so far. If we don’t make changes and create the appropriate actions, we are going to lose our voices — the ones that create art, speak our hearts, that sing the pain and the suffering to give us the root of where we came from, which is humanity.
The question isn’t the problems or how they came to be; they’re already here. The question is: What do we do with them now that they are here? What should we sacrifice in order to make sure that we don’t have to see more people fading into the background? We need to rattle the chains more than any hashtag can give us. So slip on your identities, walk out the door and stand by your brothers. It’s time to get to work.