By Hannah Muhlfelder, NFTY Northeast
Last week, I found myself once again challenged by progressive programming at NFTY’s biennial business meeting, Veida, at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI). My fascination grew as I peeled off my layers of coats and sweaters in front of a long sign asking, “What breaks your heart about racial injustice?”
Last semester, I studied the link between racial discrimination and gang activity in my anthropology/sociology class. My final paper analyzed the rise of gang violence in South Central Los Angeles following the downfall of domestic job opportunities in automobile factories. Despite the hours of research and statistical analysis, I remained somewhat detached from the injustice that is so apparent in our country. Numbers are not experiences, and late-night research does not hold a candle to real emotion.
To preface the program discussion, all of the participants at Veida were asked to put on a variety of visual identifications. I was given a large blue dot, along with a significant majority of participants. In a series of six rounds, we were given five options of “life choices” and were told we could go wherever we liked. For example, in the first round, we could choose whether we wanted to be in the wealthy class, middle class, lower middle class, lower class, or be homeless. Naturally, we all wanted to be rich. As I moved on down the line from the first to second to third option, I found myself turned away by my friends on the North American board. They looked at my blue dot and said, unfeelingly, “There’s no room for you here.” By contrast, when I arrived at option four, the lower class, I was welcomed with open arms. Others around me made light of our lower status, so in the following rounds I repeatedly returned to the fourth option, seeking the only community that had been kind to me. I eventually stopped trying to get into the first three options, realizing that there would never be space for me, no matter how quickly I arrived.
When I stopped spending time trying to get into the better options, I had some time to think in between option switches. It was awfully crowded in the lower options, and there was so much space in the upper levels. It was almost… unfair.
And the fact is that it is truly unfair. No matter what I did, no matter how I acted, I could never hide that blue dot. My few friends with a purple dot, or even no dot at all, never had to do anything to earn their status. It was just given to them: admission to the nicest options and the best situations was just granted without any skepticism from anyone. But for me, it was always a no. For me, there was never any space in a square that only had four people in it.
Last semester, I worked hard. I did everything I could to learn about cultural development, to check my privilege, and to find a way to explain a societal division that seems so inexplicable. Until I was put in a place to be turned away again and again, it was all just numbers and words on a page. Granted, I know I will never understand racial injustice fully. I know that even after this eye-opening experience, I went home to a warm house in a safe neighborhood where I never have to worry about being turned away from an opportunity I have earned. Even still, having a new view on racial injustice was a big step for me, and a huge step for NFTY’s forward-thinking programming. I couldn’t be more grateful to be a part of a community that continues to push me to reach new heights.