Addressing Our Own Blind Spots
“What are you doing here?” That was the first thing anyone said to me on the first day of my first class in the Africana Studies Department at the University of Cincinnati in the early 1990s. I had already taken a series of African American History courses in the History Department and had registered for this cross-listed class because it fit into my schedule. I do not recall the title of the course, or the professor’s name, yet the experience stands out decades later because of my interactions with my classmates. I was the only white person in the room for 11 weeks, three hours per week. The woman in the seat next to me who broke the ice with her initial question was wondering why a white student would choose to take this class, in this department. I did not have a better answer than, “Wednesday mornings were open.”
It turns out that her question was deeper than it first seemed to be. It was about more than the curriculum or the calendar. Her question was about the people we meet who help us to open our eyes and our minds in ways we would otherwise never think to do. Three decades later I have asked myself that question many times, “What are you doing here?”
I know now that I was there then because, if I had never left the comfort of familiar surroundings, my life and story would have been incomplete. I needed to shift my perspective to gain more clarity than I knew I needed. I needed someone to tell me what was in my blind spot and that was only possible if someone was seeing what I was not.
I had grown up in a racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood and graduated from a high school that reflected that population. I was a middle-class Jewish kid who thought that because I was studying African American history, I had the complete picture. My comfortable and familiar environment at the time was the History Department with its predominantly white students and liberal Jewish faculty. It took being the only white person in the room, and the willingness of my classmates to challenge my assumptions, to reveal some of what was in my blind spot.
I thought of myself as a minority because I am Jewish, and my classmates saw me as white. That incongruity opened the possibility for conversations outside of class that transformed my college experience. I had unknowingly benefited from systems that were designed to “keep people in their place.” As well-intentioned as I may have been, it took people whose experiences of that system had been radically different than mine to teach me that we are always either enabling or dismantling. There is no third path.
I have different blind spots than I did in college. On the issues of diversity, race, class, justice, equality and prejudice, we all need others to guide our ways. Our collective experience becomes clearer when we stitch together a more complete picture that fills in the missing parts of each person’s panoramic view of the world. That mind-opening is possible only by listening to each other’s stories, by believing what is uncomfortable to accept, and by willingly admitting that our own experiences are not universally applicable.
As a Jew I am compelled to see the sacred and unique in each person. I am also obligated to see myself as if I had personally been redeemed from oppression via the Exodus (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 116b:3). I am called to identify with the oppressed and to do whatever I can to leave the world better than I found it. That begins by acknowledging the role that I play, even unintentionally and unconsciously, in perpetuating broken systems.
It is a timeless challenge to ask ourselves and each other: “What are you doing here?” My answer today is more complex than scheduling an interdepartmental course listing. I am here to listen, to learn and to be a force for progress. I do not have all the answers and always need guides to find the blind spots and friends willing to ask the tough questions.
Rabbi David Komerofsky has been with Temple Israel Canton since last July. Although an Akron Native, he spent time in Texas for his career at the University of Texas, Hillel International and Temple Chai.