Owning Our Ignorance Can Be Therapeutic
Years ago I had the opportunity to engage synagogue Temple Beth Israel in a diversity enlightenment session, which is a conversation about diversity and social justice. I expected it to be quite a challenge in terms of the intellectual exchange because the person who invited me was Dean of Library and Information Services at SUNY Plattsburgh, Cerise Oberman, one of my mentors whose style and professional grace is only surpassed by her intellect. I also knew other supportive colleagues would be in the mix, like historian Doug Skopp and sociologist Lynn Schlesinger, both members of SUNY Plattsburgh’s Center for Diversity’s Task Force, and fellow philosophy professor Henry Goldenberg. It was a really pleasant moment for me because often I walk into educational conversations with groups where I don’t know a soul, who have members who are either adverse to the underlying message of the workshop/session or think it is a waste of time because they already know everything about diversity (which is a joke in itself since I haven’t figured it all out myself and I get paid to know and teach it). Suffice it to say, the members of Temple Beth Israel were extremely receptive to the conversation I attempted to create and thoroughly engaged in the dialogue.
However, there was a moment in the conversation that I will never forget. I had never addressed a synagogue, and hadn’t really thought about the fact that a certain moment would arrive in the conversation, or I would have prepared for it. Well, the moment came when I went to refer to the group in its entirety by their cultural-religious-political reality, and became overwhelmed with anxiety that I was about to refer to them incorrectly, or more so, insultingly. You see, I wasn’t sure if I should call a Jewish group “Jews.” I think I had heard anti-Semitic remarks that were framed with the term Jew as I was growing up that somehow convinced me that the term Jew may have been a disparaging or offensive term. I know, I know, it is somewhat hard to believe that I actually had this concern, but how many of you know for sure whether to address me as African American, Black (or simply a very handsome, witty, caramel colored man, which is actually my preference).
Of course, as a presenter, you don’t want to offend your audience, and I don’t think I had ever referred to a Jew as a Jew before. Think about it, when I am talking to a group of lesbians I don’t necessarily have to refer to them as lesbians during that exchange. When I look back on it, perhaps I should be ashamed of that moment, especially since I am a director of a university’s diversity center and am supposed to be adept at language and at least somewhat sophisticated about varying cultures. Well, at the moment when I was at the epitome of my anxiety, the moment when I was poised to say it, or not say it, I took a deep breath and asked, “Is it appropriate for me to refer to you as Jews?” This classy group of people patiently smiled supportively and allowed me to grow right in front of their eyes. It just goes to show that no matter how sophisticated we are, a moment of discomfort is only one sentence away!
Have you ever had a moment of anxiety in not knowing how to address someone different from you? What did you do in that moment? Do you feel you handled it well, or would you like to have that moment back? Should we be ashamed of not knowing, or should we own the fact that we don’t know? What advice do you have for others who will inevitably experience a moment like that themselves?