What Does it Mean to be an Upstander Right Now?

By Dahlia Fisher – June 3, 2020

As a museum of diversity and inclusion, we proudly stand with the black community and people of all races, religions, and backgrounds who are enraged by the recent events taking place in our country. Although the museum’s physical doors may be closed, our hearts and minds are open, seeking solutions for change.

Judaism is a religion practiced by people from different origins. Our bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. We know what it feels like to be labeled the “other” yet many of us are also privileged to hide in plain sight, our predominately white skin camouflaging us among the masses. This is not so for members of the black community, whose visibility makes them open targets for racist remarks, acts of hate, and institutional discrimination.

We cannot forget the powerful statement by Stop the Hate essay contest finalist, Tadj Adams from Hawken School, who wrote, “For blacks, the question is not if we will face opposition, it is when… Without mincing words, racism made me afraid to be black.”


Through the museum’s annual Stop the Hate contest, we’ve heard from over 30,000 middle and high school students in the past decade, revealing personal experiences with discrimination. Year after year students express the pain of what it feels like to be black in America and also what they’ve done to become agents of change. And now, more than ever, we are being called on to join their efforts in standing up and speaking out. But what does it mean to be an upstander right now?

We checked in with a trusted resource, Jeyn Levison from Race Forward, an organization that brings systemic analysis and an innovative approach to complex race issues to help people take effective action toward racial equity. The conversation inspired us to search for answers to what might seem like basic questions, but help us better understand what race is and how we can talk about it.

Each week we will share what we’re learning and connect you to resources that expand our thinking and therefore our ability to not only stand in solidarity with the black community but also take action in an effort to end systemic racism in America.

We will not be silent.

#BlackLivesMatter #WeAreOne #StopTheHate


What is Race?

June 9, 2020

Before we can learn how to talk about race, we thought we should understand how it’s defined. So, this week we are exploring the introductory question: What is race?

The simplest historical overview we found was on the PBS episode “The Origins of Race” which explains that the word “race” once referred to ancestral kinship until the enlightenment era when slavery became a source of cheap labor, “With the expansion of the system, there was understandably some resistance even from Europeans, and so in order to continue to justify slavery we start to see the pseudoscience of race emerge that connected physical features, behavior, and legal rights, right around the 18th century when colonial use of slaves were expanding.”

Is race really a social construct?
According to National Geographic, yes! “Race’ is usually associated with biology and linked with physical characteristics such as skin color or hair texture. ‘Ethnicity’ is linked with cultural expression and identification. However, both are social constructs used to categorize and characterize seemingly distinct populations,’’ writes Erin Blakemore in an article on the difference between race and ethnicity. “Humans share over 99 percent of their genetic material with one another, and variation occurs more between individuals than ethnic groups. Nevertheless, the legacies of racial and ethnic constructs can be spotted in everything from housing to health.”

The social construct of race is so powerful that it shapes human experiences. Blakemore explains, “Racial bias fuels social exclusion, discrimination and violence against people from certain social groups. In turn, racial prejudice confers social privilege to some and social and physical disparities to others, and is widely expressed in hierarchies that privilege people with white skin over people with darker skin colors.”

Blackmore uses the word “privilege” which is another important word to define as it comes up a lot in conversations about race.

What is privilege?
Peggy McIntosh popularized the idea in her essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack in which she writes, “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. 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. Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable.”

We listened to Tim Wise, an anti-racist essayist, educator, and the author of numerous books like White Lies Matter and Dear White America when he spoke about accountability on NBC’s Into an American Uprising: White Accountability. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript:

If you’re really interested in accountability, and if you’re really interested in justice, you have to subordinate your own ego and your own anger and your rage to what black folks need in that moment.

You need to follow their lead. Accountability means taking your cue from the community that has the most to lose. Accountability means following the lead of people of color, and what people of color need from us right now is for us to nothing in these protests that’s gonna hurt them, that’s gonna blow back on them. So that’s number one.

The second thing for accountability is we have to operate outside the realm of the individual act. It’s fine to post on social media. It’s good to talk to our friends via Facebook and other places about what’s on our heart and what’s on our minds. But there’s gonna come a point when we’re gonna need to get back in community and meeting with people, and really talking with people, and sharing ideas in a collective sense.

Because the thing about activism and fighting and justice, it can be very, very isolating, and it can be very exhausting. And god knows, for people who have had privilege, any level of discomfort, right, folks will throw in the towel. Black folks don’t have the luxury of gettin’, I mean, they do get tired, right? People of color get tired.

But you can’t throw in the towel ’cause your life is at stake. But white folks, man, if we’re doin’ this and we feel isolated and it gets too hard, I know what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna just say, “Wow, it’s just so difficult. I’ve just gotta go do something else.” So we’ve gotta create support structures for us as white folks to stay in this work and to hold each other accountable. And I think that that is the kind of accountability that we need.

Want to learn more?
The Reverend Dr. Otis Moss Jr. has been fighting for racial justice since he walked with Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement. As a civil rights activist, spiritual leader, and founding board member of the Maltz Museum, Rev. Moss invites you to join him on Tuesday, June 9 at 7 pm, for “Rise Up!” an interfaith discussion with The Temple Tifereth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Cohen. This free virtual program will use Zoom technology. Please register now to receive the link for viewing: www.maltzmuseum.org/riseup


Can we reframe how we think about race?

June 16, 2020

Each week we are exploring what it means to be an upstander right now – in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death when communities across the nation have taken to the streets in protest, shining light on institutional racism woven into the fabric of our systems – We want to hold ourselves accountable to being part of the solution.

Before we can stand up and speak out in a meaningful way, we are asking the question this week: Can we reframe how we think about race in order to be effective allies in combating racism?

Jeyn Levison from Race Forward recommends watching a documentary called Race – The Power of Illusion to understand more. It’s widely considered one of the best resources on the subject of race. In the clip below, biological anthropologist Alan Goodman says it’s not so easy to reframe how people think about race. He admits, “To understand why the idea of race is a biological myth requires a major paradigm shift, an absolute paradigm shift, a shift in perspective, and for me it must have been like what it was to understand that the earth wasn’t flat.”


Superficial physical features lead us to assume that we are biologically different when in fact underneath the skin we are remarkably the same. However, we cannot pretend to be colorblind because that ignores the reality that racialized practices and policies have become institutionalized within government and laws so that racism persists.

The documentary’s support material, 10 Things Everyone Should Know About Race, makes the statement, “Colorblindness will not end racism. Pretending race doesn’t exist is not the same as creating equality. Racism is more than stereotypes and individual prejudice. To tackle racism, we need to identify and remedy social policies and institutional practices that advantage some groups at the expense of others.”

What is systemic racism?
“Systemic racism, or institutional racism, refers to how ideas of white superiority are captured in everyday thinking at a systems level: taking in the big picture of how society operates, rather than looking at one-on-one interactions… These systems can include laws and regulations, but also unquestioned social systems,” explains the online publication The Conversation.

Although not everyone in our country admits that systemic racism exists, which makes issues even more challenging to solve, we think this short video from the media team ACT.tv offers an easy to comprehend look at the way complex systems create barriers for people of color. And, as the video explains, “there isn’t one person to blame which means it’s all of ours to solve.”

Want to learn more about race?
Business Insider reached out to black professors and scholars to collect a list of 16 books on race & white privilege that will show you what’s really happening in America right now, noting, “Now is the time for Americans to educate themselves on racial inequality and oppression in the US… In this era, it’s not enough for allies to say they’re ‘not racist’… Instead, they have to actively adopt anti-racism, which is the set of beliefs and actions that oppose racism and promote the inclusion and equality of black and brown people in society.’’

We’re partnering with Literary Cleveland to offer a reading series led by Thomonique Moore, featured in the Business Insider article. To learn more, follow this link: https://www.litcleveland.org/classes-workshops/reader-series-combating-racism


How do we talk about issues related to race?

June 25, 2020

Talking about race can be uncomfortable. But experts say allowing ourselves the opportunity to be uncomfortable is part of how we open up and create change.

“Our kids are really open to talking about race and ethnicity when we’re young but it’s actually us as adults who are often uncomfortable and unwilling to approach these topics,” says California Teacher of the Year Alex Kajitani, speaking at TEDxEncinitas on Why Race Matters and How to Talk About It.

He discusses the four stages of ethnic identity development, explaining that if we shut down kids’ curiosity they get stuck in what he labels the “pre-encounter” phase. We send them to high school then college then the workplace as adults who pretend to be colorblind as if race doesn’t exist, but that’s not reality, he says: “Race and racism exist in the world.” In order for people to evolve into the final stage of their ethnic identity development– what he calls “internalization”–we have to be able to talk about who we are, be comfortable with who we are, and listen to others, becoming comfortable with who they are. It’s then that he says we can speak out and stand up to people who are disrespectful against others, closing his speech with this thought: “Talking about race and ethnicity is not racism. Acting badly toward someone because of their race or ethnicity is.”

Eric Deggans, a TV/media critique, echoes this message in his lecture How to Talk About Race, at TEDxBloomington.

“Talking about race is not racism,’’ Deggans says. “I can only guarantee one thing if you’re going to have these conversations. It’s going to get uncomfortable, but if you’re uncomfortable that means you’re doing it right,” he explains. He challenges us to talk about race when we’re not in a crisis because while crisis prompts interest in having conversations, it’s also a time when people are polarized. Still, we cannot stay silent he says, “As we grow more diverse as a nation these conversations are only going to happen more and more…Maybe now is the time to get involved.”

What can we do to get involved?
There are a number of resources available to help guide you. We picked a few favorites, but let us know if you find something we should be reading or watching. We’re not going to stop talking about race and ethnicity just because it’s out of the news cycle. As an institution we are committed to hosting conversations that make us uncomfortable, that push us to grow how we think and therefore act, and bring us closer together as a community of people from many backgrounds caring about each other.

In the Harvard Business Review’s recent article U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism reporters Laura Morgan Roberts and Ella F. Washington recommend avoiding the misstep of staying silent: “For people not directly impacted by these events, the default response is often silence. Many Whites avoid talking about race because they fear being seen as prejudiced, so they adopt strategic colorblindness instead. We know that many managers also think they lack the skills to have difficult conversations around differences. But no one has the perfect words to address atrocities in our society. It is the leader’s responsibility to try, conveying care and concern for all employees but especially targeted groups.” Read more >

TeachingTolerance.org features a Q&A on White Anti-Racism, with community activists who identify the mistakes white activists make in trying to be allies to people of color. Georgette Norman, an African American woman and director of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, responds with this insight: “The most common mistakes white activists make are 1) setting an agenda with the illusion of inclusion, and 2) having to have a franchise on comfort. God forbid a person of color says or does anything to make white activists feel uncomfortable. That means there can be no discussion of race and no challenge to their privilege, which means no challenge to their power.” Read more >

Jeyn Levinson from Race Forward shared a powerful article by Eric Wald of Western State Center, entitled Authoritarian State or Inclusive Democracy: 21 Things We Can Do Right Now. With a list of 21 things to choose from, we think you’re likely to find at least one you’ll feel compelled to get started on now. See them all >.

A personal favorite is #17: “Call on the United Nations to immediately appoint a human rights Special Rapporteur to investigate present-day lynchings of Black Americans and organize towards a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on policing in America.”

If you don’t know much about lynchings, that tragic history is explored in a new museum and memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, called The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Their website explains, “More than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. Millions more fled the South as refugees from racial terrorism, profoundly impacting the entire nation. Until now, there has been no national memorial acknowledging the victims of racial terror lynchings. On a six-acre site atop a rise overlooking Montgomery, the national lynching memorial is a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terror in America and its legacy.”
What Comes Next?
Our commitment to Racial Equity continues. Stay tuned for updates from us about ways to increase awareness about race related issues and deepen our knowledge about how to be an upstander and ally now. Join our mailing list to continue hearing from us: www.maltzmuseum.org/newsletter