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by Sharrona Pearl

Don’t Assume Anything About That Kid on the Bus

I see where the mistake came from. Unfortunately, there just aren’t that many Jews of color in our community. But still: don’t assume that that the black boy on the Jewish day school bus is the bus driver’s kid.

Yeah. That happened. I don’t think I need to tell you how it made the kid’s mom feel.  I don’t think I need to tell you what that says about our school community’s assumptions, commitment to inclusivity, and default gatekeeping. But to be crystal clear: it was devastating. 

There’s some context, to be fair. Our bus had been a mess the first couple of weeks of the school year. The driver was late (hours late), partly, it emerged, because of childcare challenges. (Insert full rant about the need for much better and more comprehensive and more affordable childcare in the US.) So yes— there was a day when the driver’s kids, an older girl and an infant boy, were on the bus. Once. Neither of them was five years old.  Neither had been riding the bus every day since the beginning of the year.Screen Shot 2019-03-05 at 3.27.59 PM

It could have been worse. The kid never knew it happened.  A series of texts went out to the bus WhatsApp group when a concerned parent saw this boy on the bus and thought that we were about to have another set of bus driver challenges so soon after the ongoing issues had finally been resolved.  They were texts born of exhaustion and frustration and two weeks of waiting on street corners. The administrator of the list responded immediately, confirming that every child on the bus belonged. The mother of the kid in question collaborated with her to send an e-mail introducing this student to the entire bus group. The e-mail noted that he was black, and offered a list of excellent diversity resources for everyone to consult both individually and with their families. The kid’s mom also chimed in. Other parents rallied. Shabbat dinner invitations were issued. No fingers were pointed. No one was blamed. A heartfelt apology from the original poster was offered and it was fully accepted.

But it should never have happened. Instead, if necessary, the concerned parents could have reached out privately to the school principal.  Or the bus parent.  Or, frankly, their own kids, who could and would have promptly told them that this boy unequivocally belonged on the bus and in the school. Instead, the parents assumed that the black child could not possibly be a part of our community.  And sure, there was an incident fresh in their minds that cued that response.  But, again: Just because an assumption is easy doesn’t make it right.

Parenting is hard enough. Having to justify your existence and membership in a community that is supposed to support and welcome you; that you are paying a huge premium for; that you sacrificed a great deal to be a part of; on behalf of a five-year-old boy; is enough to break a parent’s heart. And make her walk away, looking for somewhere that’s more accepting.  Somewhere that has a greater imagination about who belongs.  Somewhere that takes a moment to check its own racism and structures of exclusion.  

Choosing not to walk away is an act of profound love, generosity and commitment—to her kid, to Judaism, to a vision of what our community could be.

And a bit more context: our school’s pretty damn white. Not entirely white, but pretty overwhelmingly so. If anything, that reality should make us more sensitive to being inclusive and welcoming. Jews come in all colors and from all socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities and places in the world and walks of life. Many are white.  Not all. And that’s changing rapidly. If we want to make sure that Jews of color feel welcome, we have a lot of work to do to make them actually welcome.  We have to change our immediate and default assumptions. We have to educate ourselves about structural oppression and microaggressions. We have to check ourselves and our privilege and our racism and spend some real time looking at how they manifest in the way that our schools and synagogues and camps and community centers are organized.  And we have to partner with them to make sure that white Jews are not speaking for Jews of color and assuming we know what they want and need.

We have to make ourselves assume that every kid, regardless of skin color, belongs. 

When it comes to the kind of Jewish community I want to be a part of, it’s always going to be better to practice radical hospitality than structural exclusion.  It’s going to take work to build that kind of community.  It’s worth it.  For that five-year-old, and every Jew of color who comes after.  And, equally importantly, it’s worth it for my kids.  It’s worth it for my family, and for me.  Because the alternative, in which people don’t feel they belong on the basis of skin color, is simply not an alternative.  In my Jewish community, kids of every color belong on the bus. 

(Note: this post has been seen and approved by the mother of the child in question)

© 2011 Lilith Magazine