The Talmud and White Fragility
I first read How Studying Talmud Helped Me Understand Racism in America at a legislative kick-off for Jews United for Justice in January. On initial reading I felt it was just a new way to say ideas I was already familiar with, namely intention does not equal impact. But the more I processed this essay, the more I realized Avi Killip is actually saying something more nuanced.
Killip overlays categories of injury from the Talmud onto racism. These categories were articulated by the rabbis to legislate how damages are calculated when an animal causes injury. She writes:
Three of these categories are named after various animal body parts: Keren (horn) Regel (leg), and Shain (tooth).
Each category describes the motivation of the animal that caused the damage. Keren describes an animal that harms out of anger. Its intent is to hurt. This is the image of the goring ox that attacks with its horns, its keren.
Regel, meaning leg, is any situation where the animal caused damage just by nature of how that animal normally behaves; how it walks (regel) in the world. Unlike the goring ox, these are cases where an animal stepped on your pottery and it broke. The animal wasn’t trying to break anything, it was just going for a walk.
The third category, Shain, literally meaning tooth, describes any situation where an animal causes damage while seeking pleasure. This animal did not set out to hurt your crops by eating them, it was just hungry. It never meant to knock over your fence, it was just trying to scratch its own back.
Prior to reading this essay, I had accepted and worked to internalize the idea that though my intentions (or the intentions of others) may not be racist, we can have racist impacts. I accept the reality of the privilege that comes with my white skin and how it’s benefits can come with negative side effects for my neighbors of color. Within this Talmudic framework, though, I think I was only really thinking about Shain—things that I do for my own benefit that may have racist impact. In my mind, these were actions whose impact I could work to better understand and attempt to mitigate their racist impact, or, when possible, stop doing them.
Prior to reading this essay, I had not spent a lot of time thinking about Killip’s Regel category—the ways in which I cause harm just by the way I walk through the world. It is a deeper and more nuanced take on privilege, and one that, as I started to process it, made me uncomfortable.
I wanted to share this new, Talmudic way of thinking about racism with my discussion group participants. I also wanted to think more deeply with them about the fragility that these ideas were triggering for me. I decided to pair Killip’s brief essay with White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism.
White Fragility by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, describes both the situations that cause discomfort in many white people when talking about race and the patterns in our lives that lead to the discomfort she calls “fragility.”
It was a very small group who gathered with me on February 20 to discuss the two essays. Our conversations traveled far afield from our two source texts, but when we focused on the texts, it was interesting to note that each of us was able to recognize ourselves either in the challenges that lead to fragility or in the societal patterns that help reinforce the fragility. Even while we recognized ourselves, we were fighting against one of the patterns that DiAngelo says contributes to fragility:
Individualism: Whites are taught to see themselves as individuals, rather than as part of a racial group. Individualism enables us to deny that racism is structured into the fabric of society. This erases our history and hides the way in which wealth has accumulated over generations and benefits us, as a group, today. It also allows us to distance ourselves from the history and actions of our group. Thus we get very irate when we are “accused” of racism, because as individuals, we are “different” from other white people and expect to be seen as such; we find intolerable any suggestion that our behavior or perspectives are typical of our group as a whole.
Indeed, I think the internalization of individualism is part of what makes Killip’s Regel category so uncomfortable for me. I want—I expect—to be judged by own individual merits (and intentions) not the history and actions of white people. But it is the history and actions of white people that makes it possible for me to cause injury just by the way I walk through the world.
It is a difficult lesson, since, as DiAngelo points out, its opposite is being subtly and not-so-subtly conveyed by every corner of our culture. It is a lesson I am committed to continue studying.