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On Assimilation + Reclamation

This writing was done as part of a faculty cohort for the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing in May/June 2020. The prompt was to reflect on our ancestral legacy.


My ancestral legacy is survival. Carbs folded into dairy and vice versa. Challah dough kneaded over flour before we knew about gluten-free.

My ancestral legacy is hiding. Running. Dreams of safe rooms behind secret walls in closets.

My ancestral legacy is comedy, a singer in a piano bar, hands over keys making loud and public our joy.

My ancestral legacy is the way neurons curl in on themselves, the gut knowing that we’re not wanted and we never were, the shake that comes in conflict — but am I good enough to keep? — the way some of my first words were “I’m sorry,” said right after I received a shot at the doctor’s office, a wide-eyed repentance for taking up space.

My ancestral legacy means something.

Two days ago: I sit on the edge of the bathtub while my son sits on the closed toilet seat, towel around his shoulders to keep his newly showered body warm. I pick through his hair methodically, fingers and eyes sleuthing for nits and lice. I don’t do detail like this but in this case I must. I tell him to stay still, hating the way this directive comes out with sharpness and urgency, punctuated by tired and frustration and also some control, power-over. I hear the exasperation in my voice as if it’s coming from somewhere else. And I wonder if it resonates in his ears like the directives of soldiers, of past lives when heads were shaved against wills, when tears had to be swallowed out of fear and shame. He bows his head. He’s still. Again. I don’t have it in me to come back into softness in this moment, to stroke his shoulder and say, “I know this sucks.” I’m tired right now. I hope I’m not hurting him. I feel outside myself. My numbing out means something.

His dad suggests we shave his head, remembers out loud how he himself did that when he was seven-years-old and how everyone called him “fuzzy” as his new hair grew in. I direct my reply to this suggestion towards my son, and it comes from my head brain and outer-shell: “You can definitely do that, but only if you want to, and you certainly don’t have to.” I’m back inside myself and inside my body, and I catch a sob. I flash to guards shaving my cousins’ heads in camps, armies shaving cadets’ heads now, this government cutting Indigenous kids’ hair when they were forced into boarding schools. Hair means something.

I only recently began to wear my hair down, to no longer apologize by way of an iron and serum that’s advertised to “control.” It feels like a revelation. In the winter my curls freeze when I walk from house to car and I love the way they set.

Growing up, I heard stories about how women I knew had gotten surgery to make their noses smaller. It would be said matter-of-factly, only slightly above hushed tones. Always it was punctuated with, “Oh, she needed that done.” I nodded as if I understood. I did kind of understand. Their noses were too big to be beautiful. With that logic, then mine is too big to be beautiful as well. Noses mean something.

I don’t think that the project of assimilation was happening consciously. The women in my family had a clear sense of what white feminine beauty looked like to them — a thin body, smooth straight hair, small nose — and they went after it. I was born into this project, this chapter of our assimilation into whiteness: Theirs is the standard of beauty but remember your roots. Get a Jewish education but let’s not be too Jewish.

I was taught to be unapologetically Jewish and also to distance myself from other Jews. Don’t be loud like them. Don’t get up in other people’s business like them. Don’t be entitled like them. Remember in every second that we’re lucky lucky lucky and be grateful grateful grateful. See, we survived.

Underneath that, this is also what I learned: We have to prove our worth here. Be quiet and get to work and do good and earn our place here.

When we went to friends’ houses in the suburbs, I was also taught that Jews aren’t welcome here, or that we were only welcomed (let in, tolerated) recently. We were red-lined before we assimilated sufficiently into whiteness. My dad grew up in North Minneapolis until he was five years old, then he moved to St. Louis Park. His story is like other white Jews’ stories, and this is what white flight looks like. The leaving means something.

In the 1970s, my parents received a VA loan to buy their house. They purchased it with no down payment in a mostly white neighborhood. This money was available to my parents because my dad had served as a physician in the Air Force and because he’s white. Banks saw my dad as trustworthy and his Black colleagues as “lending-risks”. The way my family accumulated wealth means something.

This was my education about being an American white-bodied Jew: The Holocaust is over and now we’re white and everything is okay. The USA was always on our side, always fighting for and liberating us. They saved us. It’s better here.

It means something to remember, to notice the way these stories shape me. The straddling — whiteness and not whiteness, the way I perpetuate white supremacy because I’m here and in it, and the way that whiteness sometimes rejects me or my people*. The way I can retract into whiteness when I get scared, retreat into wealth where I have access to it, retreat into land that’s been stolen and a history that’s been over-simplified. I was taught to see our people as exceptional — our victimhood and our “success” assimilating into whiteness, navigating the systems that tried to kill us then “save” us, the trauma in the past tense.

*Let me be specific here because language means something, too: when I say “my people” I’m referring to white Ashkenazi Jews. Ashkenazi Jews are all races and not all Jews are Ashkenazi.

My dad is a western trained medical doctor. He also wanted to be a math teacher. He almost failed out of medical school because he hated his first year, the bookish nature of it, the hard science, the depersonalization of it all. Then, with patients, with people, he could radiate his gentleness and listening and smarts. My dad practiced pediatrics at a private clinic in Wayzata, a suburb that’s on the list of the ones that only recently began tolerating us.

This is the way my dad practiced medicine, my favorite story of him: It was 4am and he woke up my mom to tell her that he was going to the hospital. My mom asked why, because he wasn’t on call. He replied: “I have a 5-year-old patient who’s about to go into surgery this morning and I want to make sure that he understands that this surgery isn’t his fault.”

When I started craniosacral therapy training, he gave me his anatomy atlas. In it are pictures of white mostly male bodies; detailed sketches of the mazes of nerves and arteries and veins. Someone labeled those things. A man went through part by part and named each and every part of our bodies. And he did this in Latin, or with Latin roots, in a way that doesn’t acknowledge relationship or connection.

Do you know that the pelvis and the sphenoid — bones in our hip and inner-skull — mirror each other’s structure and breath, and they both look like butterflies? Do you know that the body breathes in time with the universe, that we are all a series of contractions and expansions? That as babies we humans first communicate with our legs — kicking signs of frustration and joy and hunger — and then white supremacy and capitalism and Christian hegemony and patriarchy work to disconnect us from our lower bodies and put us in desks and mis-teach us history and make us forget the soles of our feet?

I’m in seventh grade social studies at my mostly white Christian private school. It’s been a couple weeks, so it’s time for another African American history lesson. We put our white US American and European history textbooks (but they’re just called “textbooks”) on the wire shelves underneath our desks and walk to the shelf in the back of the room to get the African American history textbooks. This is what I remember: the African American history textbooks are older and less colorful than our usual textbooks; the stories speak of slavery and resistance; everything is in the past tense.

Here’s what was taught; here’s what we learned: Slavery happened and now it’s over. We live in the North, so we collectively came to our senses and fought the South and won. Racism stopped with the Emancipation Proclamation. (Except the lynchings we read about in later history, but those were only in the South as well. Except Jim Crow, but again, that’s in the South. Look how enlightened we are up here in the North. Us/them. We’re on the right side of history. Racism is over, and we — and now the teacher is talking to the white kids in the class or maybe everybody because “we don’t see color” — and we helped save the day.)

Part of our savior complex is that we haven’t acknowledged, haven’t reckoned with, haven’t sat with our own participation in this system of white supremacy. Our savior nature feels good, gives us worth. It brings us outside the system — it’s not in us so we “fix” it from the outside. We were never taught that we are a part of it, that it’s working inside of us as much as we’re inside of it.

I joined a teaching program when I was 22-years-old. I went to Oakland with zero teaching experience, only an ideology that told me that teachers can be the difference that makes the difference, that if we work hard enough then we can single-handedly solve poverty and food insecurity for our class of 36 Black, Latinx and Tongan students.

What wasn’t included in my teacher training and what I neglected to learn until much later was an acknowledgement and analysis of structural racism, the way that poverty and food insecurity and underfunded schools don’t happen in a vacuum. My teacher training didn’t demand that I root into who I am in this context, my own cultural programming, my lineage, my lens. It also didn’t demand that I seek to understand the context and myriad strengths of the community that I was entering. I learned how to teach phonics, how to “control” the classroom like the frizz in my hair. I was taught again — and, in my own ignorance, complicit in digesting — the mostly implicit messaging that I was “objective,” “individual” and “savior.”

I still held a faint notion that I had earned many of the opportunities afforded to me, that hard work alone made the difference in life outcomes. I’m reminded of what was written on the gates of Auschwitz, echoed verbatim on the signs of the protestors who stormed the governor’s mansion in Michigan to protest mandates intended to slow the spread of COVID: “Hard work will set you free.” These narratives of white supremacy — rugged individualism; disconnection from context — are prolific. The sign that killed my ancestors became the theory of change of the teaching program in which I participated.

The way we’ve been lied to in whiteness means something. The cost of our assimilation into whiteness means something. The unlearning, detangling, remembering, repairing, reconnecting — these mean something.

1 Comment

Ilene Antelman
Ilene Antelman
Apr 29, 2022

Very powerful & beautifully articulated. Have you considered publishing this? Do you know the magazine Lilith? They might be interested.

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