Amani Hayes-Messinger in a still from her Moral Courage video, "How do you ask someone about their race?"
Thanks to Amani Hayes-Messinger, a thoughtful dialogue is taking root around how people approach conversations about race and identity. In her new video, she says that race itself isn’t taboo, but that far too many people reinforce stereotypes when they ask about identity/identities, instead of opening up a meaningful conversation. She’s young, straightforward, and is absolutely worth watching.
Erica Brody: The American Jewish community is finally beginning to grapple with some of its own assumptions about race and identity. Right now, we see the number of multiracial Jews and Jews of color growing. We see so many Jews of all stripes voicing support for #BlackLivesMatter. And we see groups like the Jewish Multiracial Network building momentum and changing conversations. What do you think the most important thing people can do/think/read/question to create a more diverse, inclusive Jewish community?
Amani Hayes-Messinger: The most important thing people can do to create a more diverse, inclusive Jewish community, and to support black lives, is simply to make noise. In a recent email to many of my white, Jewish family members I highlighted the same task. The email went on to say the following: We must make noise and not stop until everyone is saddened and disgusted into action by the current state of our justice system, until America is in agreement that Black Lives Matter. To not put these conversations on the table, to not make them your primary concern, is to perpetuate the problem. If you do not voice what is happening, and the historical roots that have enabled what’s happening now, how will others know to ask? I use the term “make noise” widely. People must engage — do, think, read, and question as much as you can.
If our vision is that it be known that #BlackLivesMatter and that the Jewish community fully embrace racial diversity, we must also remember that these conversations cannot be kept within our inner circles. We must bring them with us everywhere we go. My commitment to conversations about race, identity, Judaism, and their intersections helped to prompt a group of students, including myself, and the rabbi of the Brown-Rhode Island School of Design Hillel to form the Hillel Initiative of Racial Awareness and Justice on Brown’s campus this semester. This group is responsible for opening conversations within Hillel and hopefully furthering dialogue across campus. Additionally, the group prompted the formation of the school’s first Jews of Color group.
When you make noise, things happen, people notice, conversations go further. Don’t stay silent.
Erica Brody: You’re clearly a change maker. Many of ZEEK’s readers are familiar with your grandmother Ruth Messinger and her work for social change. If and how does a family legacy of activism inform your own activism?
Amani Hayes-Messinger: I come from a nuclear and extended family where activism — in politics, education, or elsewhere — has always been expected as a part of daily life. Because of that, there are a lot of activists in my family, my grandmother included. Everyone is passionate about different things, so our activism manifests differently, but I’ve always been surrounded by people eager to make change. In terms of family legacy, I think the way I was raised to absorb and question the world around me — with the constant question “What can I do?” — certainly informed my own activism.
Erica Brody: The video is part of a new series called Just 1 Question from the Moral Courage Project, which “equips people worldwide to do the right thing in the face of fear.” Just 1 Question invites different people to host each episode and ask the questions that inspire moral courage. Did you get involved with this Moral Courage project through your spoken word performances? And what does moral courage mean to you?
Amani Hayes-Messinger: The Moral Courage group found a video of my spoken word piece “What Are You?” Moral Courage was excited about my poem and contacted me with a challenge; what question should people be asking instead? Even though it’s a lot bigger than a single question, that’s how the video came to be.
Moral courage means a lot of things, and I think it is again tied back to the values I was raised with, Jewish and otherwise, and the faith I place in identity. For me, the moral piece resonates with my Judaism and our obligation as Jews to help others and to help the world. In Genesis, in the very beginning of the Torah, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer, in all cases, should be a definitive “yes.”
The message here is not only to take responsibility for the brothers and sisters we are born with, but for all people.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?” To answer this, and more importantly to act on this, takes courage. I find that strength in understanding my identity so deeply, in celebrating that, and in acknowledging that in the places where courage fails me will be moments of learning.
Erica Brody: What kind of responses are you getting to the video? Where do you hope the conversation will take us?
Amani Hayes-Messinger: There are three main responses I’m getting to the video. There are people who get it, people who argue that you should not ask about race, and people who say it’s ridiculous and all about being politically correct. Viewers point out that the “What are you?” question is almost always targeted at racially ambiguous people. Often this means the individual asking the question wants to pigeonhole someone into a predetermined set of racial stereotypes. Sometimes, this also leads to asking “What are you?” as an introductory question, suggesting that future interactions will be shifted based on the individuals racial identification.
Let me be clear, the first question you ask someone should never be about their race. Still, I disagree with some viewers that you have to wait until someone tells you their race. Ask yourself first: Do I know this person? Am I using this as a way of assessing who they are based on preconceived racial stereotypes? Or, am I curious about their background, letting them self-identify, what backgrounds they feel help to shape their identity?
My precise point in shifting the question is to address the concern this second group of viewers raises. If you’re asking, “What are you?” the intention in the language is to pigeonhole someone. Identity isn’t neat. Race isn’t neat. Which brings me to our third group of people: This isn’t about politically correctness, it’s about opening conversations about who people are, how they see themselves. Hence, we must open up the question: I’m curious, how do you racially identify? Personally, I love discussing my identity, and a big piece of that for me is my race. An even better question may just be: how do you identify?
I’ve learned to take questions that ask about my race and turn them into answers about my larger identity. When someone asks me how I racially identify, I’ll tell them I’m bi-racial, but I’ll also weave in my Judaism. That’s a piece of my identity you can’t see, but it’s just as important. Some people still won’t be open to this question, some people will, but I believe that this gives an individual more room to tell you what they want to. I, for one, am way more likely to answer this rephrased question than “what are you?” I’m okay with people being curious, as long as they aren’t exotify-ing or other-ing me.
I hope that widening these conversations will allow us to see more of the complexities of race and identity and help us to celebrate them.
Editor’s note: Readers, we’re curious, if you don’t mind our asking. How do you identify? And we’d love you to share with us your ideas about when and how to ask about identity. Tell us in the comments.
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