The Birth of Racism

When I tell you I live in Williamsburg, you probably picture hipsters in skinny jeans and fancy hats pouring out of the L train at midnight. And you would be right. They are wandering down Bedford Ave right now, with their Oslo coffee cups and wire rimmed glasses. Well not now, at 8:30am on a Sunday. Now, they are all asleep. It is the other Williamsburg that is awake this early, the ones with children, the ones who are all bundled up and headed for the playground at 8:00. We have coffee too. Only we made ours at home, in a giant coffeepot that is set to start brewing at 6, and we carry our own reusable mugs because we will need refills. Multiple refills.

The hipsters and the mommies are not the only tenants of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. If you go south of Grand Street you will come across Hispanic families who have been in the neighborhood far longer than I have. And if you keep going down Bedford, past Division Ave., you will find yourself in the world of the Hasidim. 

The Hasidic families spend a lot of time in their own small community. They do not go to my daughter's school, or our local playground. We never see them at any of the restaurants that we frequent. But I often see the women coming out of the local pool, which has a daily women only swim session. Occasionally a very large group appears with many small children at the indoor playspace that is three blocks from out house. And sometimes in the summer, we see them down by the water on Grand Street, where we go to watch the sunset. 

If you ask my daughter about the Hasidim, she will say that they are "mean". She will tell you that their children "stare at her and make faces." She will say that she "does not like them."

I am very thankful to have grown up in one of the most diverse places in the world and I have tried very hard to raise a child who is accepting of everyone, even those who are different from herself. She is in a dual language program at school where many of her friends are native Spanish speakers. I answer her questions about race and religion with as much honestly and compassion as I can. I have Orthodox Jewish relatives and Maya has been to their home for Hannukah. She has never heard my husband nor I speak badly of the Hasidim.

But Maya is seven. Once, maybe two years ago, we came upon a Hasidic family down by the river. There were four children, of varying ages. And they stared at her. They whispered and giggled. They did not try to play with her or talk to her or interact with her in any way. They just stared. And at no point did either of their parents tell them to stop. 

When she asked me about it later I explained that they were young. I told her that they attended a school where everyone looked like them, in a community where everyone looked like them. I tried to make her understand that these children were not being mean on purpose, that they just did not know any better. They were just interested in her because she looked different. 

But the fact remained that she felt uncomfortable. She was angry and confused. She "did not like the way they looked" at her.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with wanting to live near people who are just like you. But when communities become so isolated (whether it is due to race, or religion, or wealth) that they no longer interact with each other, it is the children who suffer. How can we teach our kids to love everyone, when there is no "everyone" in their lives?

If you ask Maya about the Hasidim now she will explain that they live in a very different world from hers. She will even tell you that she hopes to have a Hasidic friend some day. She will say these things because they are what I taught her. But in her heart she will still remember being pointed at. She will remember the mean faces. And she will remember them until something positive happens that replaces that moment. A different interaction.

That something may never happen. 

So all I can do is teach my child to be nice anyway. That there is a huge difference between the thoughts you have in your head and they way they translate into action. 

In other words, you do not have to like someone to treat them with respect. To value their life anyway. Because they are human. 


For those of you who have been reading my Facebook posts lately, I apologize. Its not that I do not believe in the cause. I have just been stuck in a lot of traffic lately.


  1. You forgot to add that you grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan and have trained in karate for 25 years with an inter racial group of karatekas. Before I met your dad I lived in suburban and semi-rural communities in California and Long Island that were mostly white and lower middle class. I observed how frightened and racist these people can be towards "strangers" in their neighborhoods. This is all part of what our country is like outside of big city communities.


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