(Liya Rechtman)– The position termed ‘minority’ is necessarily defined as in direct opposition to the majority, and grouped as such based on some common characteristic. When I think of ‘minority,’ I normally picture an African-America, Hispanic or Asian person. I went to a predominantly white high school and grew up in a Italian Catholic (read: also white, but immigrant) neighborhood. While being a practicing Jew was in some ways notable at my militantly secular high school, at least half the school was in some way Jewish. Even Amherst, which spends a great deal of resources on being diverse, is still categorized (in the black community) as a PWI – Predominantly White Institution. Yes, I am one of few feminists, and fewer Jews, but suffice it to say that I have never felt that I am outside of the majority.
In the past week I began work at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People , and since I have been keenly aware of the experience of being considered a minority. Most of my first day, before I was even assigned a project, was spent with my fellow interns, catching up on an entire lexicon of vocabulary, both conversational and academic, that I would need in the universe of African-American civil rights.
I learned then that while I unknowingly (and by default) attend a PWI, most of my co-workers go to HBCIs (Historically Black Colleges or Institutions) and intended on having their children do the same. For them, Howard University was the direct equivalent to Harvard. Where at Amherst we have Chi Psi, TD, and Deke, they have a whole, separate Greek system that I had never heard of before – complete with step competitions and a different system of rushing, pledging, and something called ‘probate,’ wherein new pledges come out publicly in support of their chosen fraternity or sorority.
I learned about their heroes. I naively attempted to prepare myself by rereading Autobiography of Malcolm X and MLK Jr’s Stride Towards Freedom, but these kids could quote Thurgood Marshall and Obama like Reform Jews quote Rabbi Hillel and English majors reference Freud. Intellectually, I had never considered Stand Your Ground and I didn’t know the ins and outs of ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act). I was blown out of the water by our first heated political debates.
On day two, Ben Jealous was in the adjacent room for an interview, and he needed someone to sit behind the cameraman to help him keep focus. This meant spending an extra hour or so after work basically just staring straight ahead without smiling or blinking. The interns were told that we could fight amongst ourselves to decide who got the opportunity. The other five interns seemed so excited, that I, not quite knowing who Ben Jealous was, also volunteered to stay late. I put my name into the hat and waited while the girl in the cubicle next to mine shook the hat and shuffled our slips. “ConstantLy, you’re up! Have fun!” She announced.
“So… um, who is this guy anyway?”
Apparently this was the wrong question to ask. Do you know who Ben Jealous is? I probably should have known. No, I definitely should have. I directed my pre-internship research on African-American literature and less so to more recent history. Ben Jealous, as it turns out, is the president of the NAACP and a very important man.
G, the intern across from me, shot me a distrustful look: “You don’t even know who he is and you get to sit with him for an hour? Out of all the interns this summer he’ll remember you.”
This was the one and only moment in the week I’ve been working there that I felt truly out of place. It was not for me to take away privileges from kids who had worked so hard to get in here, the epicenter of African-American civil rights. I, on the other hand, had taken a spot reserved for placement from my Reform Jewish advocacy program. They worked here five days a week for the whole summer, while I was only here 3.5 days and spent the other 1.5 in classes on Jewish Ethics and Professional Development (respectively) taught by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. No mutual passion for engagement in civil rights could help me now. These were not my people and this was not my space. I was a guest at the NAACP – a respected and well-liked guest, not in any way mistreated or excluded, but a guest nonetheless.
“You know what: it’s fine, G, you go ahead.”
So what does this mean? I’m still trying to work that out. No one asked me to give up my spot explicitly, and I was, after all, placed in the hat and randomly sorted along with the rest of the interns. If I had known who Ben Jealous was, there would have been no contest. But I haven’t spent my year preparing to work at the NAACP, I didn’t until very recently begin to follow them politically, and even then it was mostly just when they came out in support of marriage equality.
We’re all working on the same research binders together all day, but at five o’clock, they go to the Howard dorms of the homes of the family they’re staying with in Maryland and I go back to GW, to a suite filled with three other Jewish girls active in the Reform Movement.
There’s more to what I’m doing than this one anecdote, but I’ll sign off now for fear of rambling. In the coming five weeks, I’ll be blogging primarily about the experience of being a Jew living in DC and working for the NAACP.
Stay tuned my lovely she-bomb readers!
<3 ConstantLy Liya Rechtman
Ben Jealous, President of NAACP, in support of gay marriage: