Seeing Jews of color as different is racial profiling, too

Like many, I would like to find some sort of resolution in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin–George Zimmer-man case. Beyond that tragic event, there is a deeper concern about racial profiling that divided the nation and that no trial and no verdict can assuage. In the Bay Area in recent weeks, this concern reached a fever pitch.

Perhaps serendipitously, a series of protests against the Zimmerman verdict coincided with the release of “Fruitvale Station,” an independent film about the Oakland police shooting of a young black man in the early morning of New Year’s Day 2009.

I read great reviews of the new film and asked my son Jonah if he wanted to see it. He didn’t. He said it’s too sad, and perhaps too close for comfort. Jonah is 16 and African American.

As he gains more independence, I caution Jonah to be especially careful, because he may be seen and treated differently from his white friends. Dealing with racial profiling is a reality he lives daily, and it is undoubtedly unfair.

Yet “racial profiling” is not just about situations that involve the police. For Jonah, more often than not it is about looking different from those around him, about constantly fielding stereotypes and assumptions, some flattering, some insulting. Fortunately, he is becoming more savvy with regards to potential racial tension, and he talks about being aware of his surroundings and how he is perceived. If he is going to be in a situation where there is less diversity (Marin was his example), he will make an effort to wear khakis and a button-down shirt.

Whether at school, in synagogue or simply walking around San Francisco, this is his day-to-day reality. Helping Jonah deal with the wide variety of misconceptions people have about him has forced us to understand the breadth of the profiling phenomenon. It exists in all walks of life, even within our own community.

When we, a white Jewish family, adopted Jonah in 1997, we anticipated that he would face challenges to his identity and questions about his belonging. We feared that Jonah would be forced to choose between his racial and religious identities.

Almost every person of color has some story about walking into a Jewish space and being questioned about who they are and what they are doing there. Fair or not, our multicultural kids are often in the position of educating their communities about religious and/or racial diversity.

At the advocacy group Be’chol Lashon, we strive to help our young Jews turn their multiple identities into valuable assets. Hopefully this will help them to successfully navigate potentially uncomfortable or even volatile situations that inevitably will arise, both in and outside the Jewish community. But this is not their burden alone.

It is up to us, the parents and community members, professionals and lay people, to understand that every time a diverse Jew has his or her Judaism questioned, it is racial profiling; a religious “stop and frisk.” It may be harmless curiosity, but the consequences of treating those we perceive as “different” with suspicion can be damaging, not just to the individual but to the community as a whole.

Jonah wrote a poem called “People Always Ask,” in which he wonders why people are so quick to see differences rather than commonalities. It is a very good question that we should ask ourselves. The next time you encounter a person of color in a Jewish space, think about my son, born and raised in a Jewish family, a graduate of day school, with a fondness for gefilte fish: You may have more in common than you think.

Diane Tobin is the director of Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco–based nonprofit that advocates for the growth and diversity of the Jewish people.