We are here again–facing the raw and ugly feelings of bias which make conversations across racial lines uncomfortable at best. The differences in perception that align with our racial identities are stark. Fear and mistrust are on the rise. It brings me to reflect on my own journey with the boundary between the races, a barrier built by our ancestors and passed through the generations.
When I was a child there were many boundaries of varying densities that surrounded my Jewish world. The unspoken lines of separation that I feared to cross were mostly defined by religious, ethnic or racial identities. Though the schools were integrated, the neighborhoods were not, and once past the first few grades of elementary school, there was little mixing of the races.
My family had a maid, a colored woman, who came in weekly to do housecleaning. My parents and their generation referred to her and all Black people as shvarzas. When asked, one was always told that, “shvarza literally means ‘black’ in Yiddish; Jews aren’t prejudiced.” But the term mostly had the same connotation as the “n-word,” which I never heard spoken. What I was told is, “They all steal. They all lie.”
I was a freshman at the University of Florida in 1962 when it admitted it’s first 7 Black undergraduate students (of about 16,000 undergrads). I was oblivious to their presence while I nervously found my people by joining a Jewish fraternity. Jewish students had a choice of three fraternities amongst the several dozen that would not admit Jews. Walls and barriers were taken for granted.
UF was situated in Gainesville, central Florida, a deeply Southern town, strictly segregated. The few Black students were not allowed to eat or shop off campus except in the Black section of town, far from the University. When a small group of white and Black students began the first civil rights protest, they picketed the restaurant across from campus and only asked that the Black students be served. Most students and faculty were outraged by this affront to the rights of private property owners. My fraternity brothers considered the protestors geeks, very uncool.
This was the setting for my first experience of crossing the psychic boundary of race identity. I made the choice to go to a meeting of the protestors, “The Student Group for Equal Rights.” I was afraid. I had the sense I was entering another world. Inside, I saw Blacks and whites talking and joking together and strategizing their next moves for pressing the cause of integration. As I write this now, it’s embarrassing to acknowledge how amazed I was by what I saw. But for me at the time, it was mind-blowing. I stepped over a line that defined my people as Jews, (and white), rather than as humans. At the same time, I stepped across a line that kept me a passive observer of events, and I became an activist involved in changing the way the world is.
Years later, I experienced a much deeper understanding of the racial divide and how it had been imprinted in my psyche. In the mid-Eightees, I had begun exploring the teachings and practices of indigenous people, the spirituality we know as shamanism. I was with a group of people experiencing a practice drawn from the Amazon region–working with the medicine plant Ayahuasca to connect with deeper sources of awareness and healing. As I entered an altered state, I had a heightened sensitivity to very subtle sensations in my body. I became aware of tightness and fear related to the man sitting next to me, who happened to be Black. The discomfort was not something I’d been aware of when I met him or when I first sat next to him. In fact, I had been fairly certain that I was free of racial prejudice, what people like to call “color-blind.”
In the shamanic journey process the agreement is to go within, not to try to engage or communicate with others during the experience. So I focused my attention within and asked for guidance. Shortly, a vision opened up and I saw my grandfather coming from “the old country” (Eastern Europe) through Ellis Island and into New York City. He was encountering Black people for the first time (in the context of the early 20th century). What struck me, what he seemed to be showing me, was the dramatic difference in body posture and rhythm. There was a vibrational difference with which he could not relate, the alien nature of which triggered fear. Faced with this, he embraced the very old European assumptions of superiority.
My grandfather was showing me this and encouraging me to see this false sense of difference and separation. In my vision, he was helping me dissolve what feelings of fear or discomfort with Black people I was holding in the very cells of my body. At the same time he was helping me, I sensed that he was clearing his own karma through healing the negativity he had passed along. This negative transmission was not only an emotional sense of separation, but of choices in behavior complicit in the exploitation of African-Americans that were part and parcel of the economic world.
In my vision, my grandfather helped me cut the chain of the “sins of the fathers” from passing to another generation. As I relaxed and opened to the flow of energy within, my feeling of brotherliness with the man next to me grew and my heart opened as if for the first time to the whole human family–all infused with the same Spirit.
As I look around now at our country and at the world, it is easy to despair at how deeply racism continues to express itself through the massive incarceration of young Black males, ongoing wealth disparity, and discrimination regarding job and educational opportunities along racial lines. So I share these personal boundary crossing stories and encourage others to do likewise. My hope is that the stories will help embolden more people to experience the joy of stepping into active participation in the movement for world harmony and justice. Likewise, to know the comfort of accepting our spirit-ancestors’ guidance and healing power which transforms the deeply embedded delusions of racial superiority and fear.