Uncovering My White Privilege on Yom Kippur

09/29/2015 04:38 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

Yom Kippur always coincides with the beginning of a new school year, which I am keenly aware of this year, since just a few weeks ago I dropped off my own daughter at her first year of college. As I prepared to speak to you today, I have been thinking back to my own freshman year.

I remember feeling nervous and excited as I headed off a week early for the Freshman Urban Program, a week-long community service program for incoming first-year undergraduates. I enjoyed meeting my classmates there, but I became particularly close with Regina, who was black. When the program ended, Regina and I promised to look out for each other.

I remember going to the cafeteria during the first weeks of school, gazing out at long table after long table, and trying to make up my mind about where to sit. It wasn't hard to miss that a majority of the freshman blacks ate at certain tables, and freshman whites at others. Regina and I both tried joining each other a few times at our all black or all white tables. But I found the experience too uncomfortable and quickly stopped looking for her. She did the same. By the end of freshman year, Regina and I fell out of touch.

I do not like telling this story because it reflects my personal discomfort surrounding race, which led me to lose a friend.

Today, on the day we are literally told to "afflict our soul," I am forcing myself to recall my feelings in the freshman dining hall and my short friendship with Regina. As we sit hungry, pray and are commanded to pause and acknowledge our imperfections so that we can atone, I want to explore with you not just the topic of race, but one of the most uncomfortable aspects of race for me -- the topic of white privilege.

Rosh Hashanah is about birth and Yom Kippur is in many ways a rehearsal for our death. The word for atonement -- Kippur -- comes from the word kaparah -- which means "covering over." Death, in our tradition, is also a covering over. We are instructed on Yom Kippur to wear a shroud and abstain from life-affirming activities. Did you know that we say the final confession in Judaism only on Yom Kippur and on the day of our death?

We taste our own death today to help us introspect and atone with the clarity that many only face when their lives are drawing to a close.

Yom Kippur also affords us the structure of community, the company of so many others who have similarly come to see and grapple with themselves so that they may atone.

In the spirit of Yom Kippur, I would like to do some of my own reflective and repentant work about white privilege, a topic that can benefit from the courage and heightened clarity that Yom Kippur brings.

Some have said that being white means never having to think about it. White privilege is the privilege of obliviousness to race. It enables me, as a white person, to go through most of my life easily avoiding the feeling of discomfort that I experienced when I joined Regina at her table in the dining hall.

White privilege is also the privilege of invisible preference. It is the privilege of going to the movies, turning the television on, or reading the paper and seeing people of your race widely represented. It is the privilege of not having to tell your children that they have to be twice as good in school in order to be perceived the same. It is the privilege of not receiving "the talk" from your father -- or conversely, not having to give it to your pre-teen son -- in order to learn and teach about the life and death dangers of standing up to certain police.

A few months ago I asked my white Facebook friends to share their thoughts on white privilege. I think one of my friends in particular hit the nail on the head.

She wrote: "White privilege means that every single thing in my life is easier. It's easier for me to get jobs, it's easier for me to get healthcare/car insurance/buy a home/catch a cab, it's easier for me to raise my children because they don't have targets on their backs ..., it's easier to shop in stores because no one thinks I'm going to shoplift, it's easier to be an activist because I know that even if there is police brutality or arrests at a protest, I am unlikely to ... face serious consequences. ... No one is ever going to question me for driving a nice car, walking into a nice house or being in a wealthy neighborhood. All of this is mine not because of anything I did or am, but because of white privilege."

White feminist Peggy McIntosh was one of the early scholars to describe many Americans' unawareness around "white privilege." Her words from 1990 still ring true today so I want to share them with you:

"I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks."

White privilege makes me feel uncomfortable. I have a host of other feelings, too, that I would like to share with you. My intention in sharing my feelings is not to force my feelings on you, but instead to bring you into my own journey in the hope that it might inspire you to go on a journey of your own.

I feel BLIND.

There have been precious few moments in my life where I have been acutely aware of my race in the way I was at Regina's dining hall table. I recently told this to a black friend of mine. "Really?" she said. "If my white friends knew how many times every day I think about race, they would think I was crazy." Every black person I have checked in with agrees with her statement.

I have just now come to have a clearer sense of what she means. The other day, I went to get a cup of coffee at my local Starbucks, where the barista is black. Sure- I had noticed this before, but this time I started to think about it in a different way. I looked around and saw that all of the customers were white. What did it feel like for him to be working in an environment where he served exclusively or almost exclusively whites all day? What would I feel like in the reverse? Would I feel stereotyped? I would certainly be hyper aware of my skin color. All of a sudden, I got what my black friend told me about how often every day she thinks about race.

Why had I not thought about this in Starbucks before? MY WHITE PRIVILEGE RENDERS ME BLIND.

I feel GUILTY.

Two summers ago, Natalie, a friend of mine from high school, came with her two children to stay with my family and me. We were both planning to take our kids to the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington.

Natalie and I went to the same private, elite and overwhelmingly white high school, but she is black and I am white. Her son is a similar age to my son and they became friends during this short stay.

As I watched our boys bond, I thought about the teenage boy Trayvon Martin, who had been killed that previous year. I knew this death struck a chord in our country because it represented the unspeakable- that black lives matter less. But it took seeing my son playing side by side with my friend's son for me to feel it personally. These two little boys, equally sweet and innocent, were already living two completely different lives.

And so were my friend and I. Natalie recently explained to me that Trayvon Martin's death made her "scared to death" for her son. It had not made me feel that way for my son. She said that after Trayvon Martin was killed, she had to talk to her son, at age 10, about what could happen and make him aware of things that no 10 year old should even have to think about. I did not have to do the same.

MY WHITE PRIVILEGE MAKES ME FEEL GUILTY.

I feel DEFENSIVE.

At the same time, sometimes my white privilege makes me feel DEFENSIVE.

Here is an example. In high school, I worked hard. Not just regular hard, I worked very hard. I took all three languages my high school offered, I stayed up later than anyone in my household doing homework, and I played sports and took advantage of many extra curricular activities. When I got into the college of my choice, I felt like I 100% deserved it.

Now, I also see a connection between my getting into a good college and my white privilege. And while I experience emotions such as guilt, sadness and even anger in making this connection, I also feel defensive. Did I not deserve to get in?

Of course I had something very real to do with it.

But I believe so does that fact that I am white. My great grandparents arrived in this country filled with hope, rather than in chains. This was a land of opportunity for them. Despite being Jewish and immigrants, they still passed down to their children the privilege of white skin. This privilege helped my grandparents achieve, which helped my parents send me to a fancy private high school with strong connections to good colleges.

So was my getting into a good college like winning on the cooking show Chopped in part because I had access to a better food pantry than my competitors?

Did I get in fair and square or not? SOMETIMES ACKNOWLEDGING MY WHITE PRIVILEGE MAKES ME FEEL DEFENSIVE.

I also feel RESPONSIBLE.

I have a job where I am paid to work for social justice, including racial justice. I know how to advocate for change and even how to help others do so. Yet, I experience many moments when I feel only despair at the racial disparities in our country.

The truth is, we do not even need to recite these numbers yet again to know racial disparities are both deep and wide.

I believe that my white privilege is connected -- even if in a hard to grasp way -- to these disparities and to black people's oppression.

Last month, I asked my high school friend Natalie to tag me on Facebook and to survey her black friends about their views on white privilege.

One of Natalie's friend's responses was particularly striking:

"Thank you for inviting me into this discourse Rachel and Natalie," he wrote. "I am sure I see 'white privilege' much differently than my white brothers and sisters. I'll be 50 years old in October. I own a modestly successful business and am a college graduate. There is not and has not been one day ... that I don't walk out of my house KNOWING that I might not come back. This feeling is as real and present and constant as the blood coursing through my veins. So...there is that."

Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me similarly makes this connection. Writing about his childhood in Baltimore, he explains: "Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets."

Yes, I believe that white privilege is connected to black oppression.

I also believe that my white privilege has helped me reach a position where I can now help address the racial disparities in our country.

MY WHITE PRIVILEGE MAKES ME FEEL RESPONSIBLE TO WORK FOR CHANGE.

But where do I start? Where do I focus my energies? Where do we all start?

Why not start today, on this day of discomfort, with letting yourself get uncomfortable about white privilege.

Some have asked whether getting in touch with white privilege leads to change.

I agree with James Baldwin, who over 50 years ago, implied that it does. "White people," he explained, are "in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it."

Some argue that understanding white privilege is so overwhelming, it is paralyzing. Others worry that whites who own their white privilege will feel so righteous, they will fail to act any further.

I have found, by contrast, that the more uncomfortable I get, the more I act. For example, I have started many conversations with black people about race that I had been too afraid to have before.

One of the most meaningful conversations was with my assistant, Jonetta, who is black, when I asked her whether she thought I understood white privilege properly in certain sections of these remarks. Although Jonetta and I have worked together every day for the past three years and have had numerous conversations about our personal lives, we had never before spoken about race. In fact, Jonetta told me that she had never before had a conversation like ours with any white person.

I also was inspired to reach out to Regina for the first time since freshman year. In my "cold email" called "Hoping to reconnect," I told Regina about these remarks and expressed my desire to be back in touch. You might imagine how happy and relieved I was when she emailed me back, saying how excited she was to hear from me, and asking to read what I wrote. Regina and I have a lot of catching up to do.

My preparation to speak to you today has taken me on a journey that has already transformed the way I experience and act in the world. My hope is that, in honor of Yom Kippur, you also will begin or continue your own journey. Perhaps you can start by sharing your thoughts about white privilege when you break the fast tonight.

If you are a student, maybe a group of you will initiate a more formal conversation about race on campus, or join one that already exists. You could coordinate an event with the Black Student Union to encourage more students and professors to engage in the conversation. You could sign up for a class like Professor White's African-American Politics.

Whether or not you are a student, you could read Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World and Me, or Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, or Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy or James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. Maybe you will start a more intimate conversation about white privilege with a friend who is black-- and with a friend who is white. Or maybe, if you are a Jew of color, you will share with a group of white Jews what that experience is like.

There is no one "right" action. By allowing yourself to get uncomfortable, you will become much more aware of how significant a role race still plays both in America and in your day-to-day life. This new awareness will make you more likely to take the actions to create change that YOU are uniquely able and situated to take.

And please, do not underestimate how contagious your own courage in taking on this issue will be. The more comfortable we all get feeling uncomfortable about race, the more others will feel safe in joining us in getting uncomfortable too, and the effect will multiply.

Perhaps my beloved and erudite childhood Rabbi, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, put this concept best in religious terms, in an essay he wrote about race in 1964:

"Only out of the excruciating dialogue of prayer and confession and hearing can ... a people learn to obey God and link their world to [God]." (emphasis added)

G'mar chatima tova. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.