Wholly Jewish: Kelly: I Have a Right to Be Here

What do we all have in common? We all live - and balance - complex and nuanced identities, that, when braided together, make us wholly ourselves - and “Wholly Jewish.” Join April Baskin, the Union for Reform Judaism’s former vice president for Audacious Hospitality, as she speaks with Jews of Color who share their experiences, insights, and how their identities enrich and create a more vibrant Jewish community.

In this episode: Non-binary and Black and Queer and Lover of Camp. Fiercely proud and powerful Kelly Whitehead narrates how she navigates the world while encompassing their multitude of “ands””. This is instead of the current “Woman and Black and Queer and Lover of Camp. Fiercely proud and powerful Kelly Whitehead narrates how she navigates the world while encompassing her multitude of “ands”.

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 [Quote] There's so much that makes me think about who I am, and also by being a person of color, I think a lot about who I am because I'm often in explicitly white spaces or mostly explicitly Jewish places.

[ReformJudaism.org Intro] Welcome to "Wholly Jewish," a podcast from ReformJudaism.org. Everybody knows that there isn't just one way to be Jewish and there isn't just one kind of Jew. And in this podcast we talk to people about their different identities and how those identities intersect with their Judaism... Or in other words what makes them Jewish-and-and... AND, what makes them Wholly Jewish. This season the Union for Reform Judaism's immediate past vice president of audacious hospitality, April Baskin, interviewed members of the Jews of Color cohort of the JewV'Nation Fellowship. Today, she's talking to Kelly Whitehead. 

[April Baskin]: So the first question is what's your "Jewish-and-and" identity? And the preamble that I give for that is that often in our society in America people are given singular labels. "She's a woman that's a black person". And in the work of audacious hospitality specifically with the JewV'Nation fellowship we've noticed and we name that many times people have a Jewish-and identity and that in general people have far more complex identities that can't usually be contained within a single label. So what's your Jewish-and-and?

[Kelly Whitehead]: I think I think a lot about my identities whether that's because of who I am or I guess how old I am being 24 in this America. There's a lot of time to reflect on who you are and as I go out into the "real world" whether that's from camp back to work or from college to work and just out in the world. There's so much that makes me think about who I am and also by being a person of color. I think a lot about who I am because I'm often in exclusively white spaces or mostly exclusively Jewish spaces so I think I am Jewish and black and queer and a woman. But the order I would put that is women black queer. Not that one means more than the other. I think being Jewish is who I am. Since I started going to Jewish summer camp at 14 it is how I define myself. It is how I find my values. It's how I found my friend and how I do my work as a Jewish educator. Also being a woman has meant so much to me. I've almost exclusively had Jewish and female role models growing up. Some of my proudest moments at camp have been around honoring women and being there for young girls and being that really Jewish female role model and proving that women can be strong wherever they go. And it is who I am, like I've never felt more proud to be a woman than I do at 24. And I'm black. I can't hide that while I may look racially ambiguous like when I'm going to Jewish spaces there's like "oh like are you tan... you're not tan." You know there's these awkward (laughs) situations where I don't quite feel like people know who I am or they assume often that I'm not Jewish or that I'm custodial staff. But no I think I am a proud black woman even if I struggle with my identity because of my family or whatever else there's been. I take my skin tone everywhere I go especially in the summer when I when I get a lot of sun. And I'm queer I think I have no hiding that. And, also being a 24 year old in 2018, it's I've never felt really any obstacles in my career identity yet I think it's a driving force in who I am, how I see other people, and how I found my friend, and I was talking to a rabbi once and I was - he knows I'm black obviously knows I'm a woman and Jewish, and I also told him I'm queer. He's like wow you have so many blessings. [laughing] It made me laugh because yeah it does. Yeah I guess I have lots of blessings. But it's also who I am. I just feel so fortunate to live in like this kind of world where I can just be like all those things and it's just me. Like I don't really feel a lot of obstacles. Yes in that sense I'm blessed.

[April Baskin]: How do these identities interact with one another for you in your day to day life.

[Kelly Whitehead]: Maybe when the thing that comes to mind is code switching. Like it depends what space I'm in. Maybe like if I'm in a queer space like that identity will come to the front. I feel like being a woman is something that I bring with me all the time I'm like internally being Jewish is something... that's who I am, and it's my job and my friends.

[April Baskin]: And can you define "code switching". Or how that plays out for you in your experience.

[Kelly Whitehead]: Yeah I think the way I talk to other Jews is I like use their shared language, I'm not talking about Hebrew or Yiddish, I'm just talking about things that they can understand versus when I'm talking to black people, like I'm not using Yiddish or I'm talking about different things that are unique to black people. And you're kind of lifting up one part of your identity and that language and culture and thrusting the other one a little bit back down so you could fit in.

[April Baskin]: Right. Right. So you've got you've got a large cultural toolkit right at your disposal.

And so in a world Kelley that often asks us to fit into neat categories and often only one... What's the interplay of your different "ands"? How does that play out for you when there's that kind of pressure to do that when it's literally impossible for you to do. How's that experience been for you.

[Kelly Whitehead]: I got really scared, I though you were going to ask me to pick one. [laughing]

[April Baskin]: Oh no no no. Girl, you know me. Seriously? [Laughing] Never. Never ever ever.

[Kelly Whitehead]: I think it's usually there's no way... You can bring one up or one day you can feel like extra... like I can wake up and feel like, "yeah I'm a black woman" but I'm still like a woman and I'm still queer because that's who I'm attracted to and how I live my life because I think I'm a type of person that lives my with life with love,

[April Baskin]: Awww, yes you do.

[Kelly Whitehead]: I think you can't you can never just pick one. I'm also coming right off of Jewish summer camp where I'm used to be surrounded by other Jews, being you know the culture and it's very much who I am.

But at the same time you know you never have to explain yourself there. I mean even though there are non-Jews, it's still the cultural norm.

[April Baskin]: Who are non-Jews?

[Kelly Whitehead]: There's non-Jewish staff there that they hire through a system called "Camp Leadership or Camp America" and they're from England or other parts of the UK and they hire them for an experience at a summer camp.

[April Baskin]: I mean you've already spoken to this in terms of the code switching that you do adjust your expression the expression of your and's depending upon the scenario you're in. Do you have other thoughts to share about what that experience is like for you as you enter and navigate different spaces and cultural environments?

[Kelly Whitehead]: Yeah I just thought of a time where maybe even though being a woman is such a whole part of who I am, and how I define myself and my femininity, and my love for feminisim and other women, I was thinking that I have a close relationship with a lot of the male staff because I was their supervisor last year or the year before they were my campers. And often I can be like the only female presenting person in that crowd or in a group, and I become like really conscious of that. And I don't -- I probably change my behavior somewhat like a comment like "oh, Kelly's one of the boys." And I guess the attention part of it is exciting, but really like that's not where -- I'm with those people because I really enjoy them but I don't think that's necessarily where I'm the most comfortable or I do feel like I'm code switching my gender identity.

[April Baskin]: That's really interesting.

[Kelly Whitehead]: I think that part of me...

[April Baskin]: That's very interesting. That's really cool. I would argue -- not that you made a case otherwise -- that that's a strength that you possess to be able to navigate in those spaces and also be clear about where you most thrive and feel at home. Can you tell me about a time in your journey where something changed for you dramatically as it relates to your Jewish identity? It could be something involving the external world or just something that happened internally with you with your own internal thought process that that shifted something within you that shifted who you were or how you live moving forward.

[Kelly Whitehead]: I can't think of a specific moment but definitely going to a Jewish summer camp for the first time really changed my entire life path and I wouldn't be where I am or who I am today if I didn't go to camp. And that means different things because I grew up in Brooklyn and Queens where there's a lot of diversity in many ways where it didn't matter that I was black even in my synagogue growing up like it didn't matter that I was black and I never felt like an outsider or had to explain myself. Like most people were from interfaith families, or my friends were and it just made sense. Or maybe it's because I was 14 and, finding myself when I started going to camp. But for the first time like I realized I think I was different. Going to camp as a black person... and honestly that was OK and it made me feel like I was proud to be Jewish and even though there's been some like troubles I guess at camp internally feeling like an outsider. I still feel like I became who I was and then I think -- fast forward to when I was about 20 and I was a counselor for the 15 year olds. I really I think the summer that I realized that yes, I loved working with Jewish teens and they're so amazing. All teens are because kids are so powerful and underrated and really have a lot to say that I realized I wanted to keep working with Jewish teens once I graduated college. And then my identity also became like a path in a way and I think that's different from other Jews who might not be in the Jewish profession. It might be a side or it could still be a core part of who they are but they have to actively practice. As for me I just wake up, I show up to work or go to camp for a few months.

[April Baskin]: RIght, you live it.

[Kelly Whitehead]: Yeah.

[April Baskin]: That's really wonderful. I'm curious as someone -- I've attended summer camp. And so I'm intimately familiar with the magic of it. But I'm wondering if you can say a little bit more like. Like my question for you is how so? Like you said that cap shifted your life. Can you give me some specific examples of experiences? Yeah, and the impact it had because not everyone listening has been to Jewish summer camp and I actually think it's really a thing that is different but unless you either live it or hear some firsthand accounts it's hard to begin to even conceptualize what it's like.

[Kelly Whitehead]: I think a Jewish summer camp is an immersive experience and you have this buy-in because you're already there. You can't leave. I mean, you CAN leave but ... [laughing] There's a lot of processing and the best part about it is it's often very screen-free. Even the staff can use their phones like the campers don't have their phones and you just are there with each other and camp is also the place where you learn to make mistakes. And you learn that it's OK to make mistakes because your friends will still love you. You can fall and get back up again. And I do the most growing there for sure. I think I'm given way more responsibility as a member of the leadership team at camp. Also we have like a system of evaluation and check ins that happened so rapidly. And camp ...Also time is weird at camp. It feels like there's three full days in one day. So much happens with that. It's like a it's like a pressure cooker where everyone sings all the time. [laughing] That's my favorite analogy.

[April Baskin]: It is a pressure cooker where everyone sings all the time?

[Kelly Whitehead]: Yep. Everything just happens so fast and so intensely and you fall in love so intensely and you learn about yourself and you make the best friends you're ever going to make and it just ... so as a staff member you're given check ins with your supervisor and you're asked to set goals and specific goals and expectations and then at the end you're given an evaluation of how you've done, how you've met those goals... In a way that it doesn't really happen in the outside world, or if it does, it happens on the much lower scale.

So I'm waking up and I'm thinking OK like am I still worried about what other people think of me. Am I managing my time, like there's other people counting on you. And it's so wonderful also to do that, and go swimming all the time, and play tennis, and go on a stream hike, and climb the wall, and do these things that make you feel like a kid. And they bring out that incredible energy and joy of life that I think is hard to recreate when there's no immersive buy-in.

[April Baskin]: Right. Right. Thank you so much. So as a person who is Jewish and a woman and black and queer. What's something that you never want said to you ever again?

[Kelly Whitehead]: I hate it when it people assume that I am a member of like a custodial staff or help staff. And also when they think of another person of color. So the first part has happened to me in my synagogue where I work it's happened to me at the hotels in at URJ's Biennial...that confusion that just like...I hate feeling like I don't have a right to be there because of the color of my skin.

[April Baskin]: Right. And what's so interesting is that I suspect in all of those cases the person who caused that feeling had no intention of doing that. And yet their actions so clearly communicated that they saw you as an outsider without them even realizing it that that was still the impact. And it's something that that we think, as a movement, as a society in general and specifically within our Jewish community and the Reform Movement need to continue to have an ongoing conversation. Because I remember when you came up and mentioned that to me, Kelly, and it was tragic to me that you were the fifth person in two days who had come to me. So that doesn't even include the people who didn't know to come to me, who processed things differently. And these stories are hard but are so important for us to be honest about them that we can continue to unpack them. So I I truly appreciate a new Kelly someone who loves her community and her people and her Judaism so much, that even though it is arguably exhausting to mention this when you have so many good things going on that you're still naming it because it has to change.

[Kelly Whitehead]: I ove my identity and it just feels like that implicit bias that people have it just takes it away. And I will keep telling that story and those stories and examples of implicit bias to as many people as I can because once they know that that happens like then hopefully they will know that, they'll think before they talk to a person of color. They need to know if their words matter even if they're not explicitly saying things that are racist. You can still take away some one's identity.

[April Baskin]: Completely and it's subtle yet it's incredibly subtle for that person so much so that they're not even noticing it. But what I find fascinating about this that we really need to surface through conversations like this Kelly is the fact that I realized a few years ago as I was analyzing these dynamics that often the person doing it doesn't even know that something just happened which is fundamentally a problem. If there is someone who is continually committing a harmful act and they're not even aware so. So I really commend your courage and your willingness to share that.

So the second part of this question to kind of swing us back up is what's something that you have been waiting to hear that you would love to hear?

[Kelly Whitehead]: It's not as much as something I want to hear but something I don't want to hear is like I just want to be treated like everyone else is. I don't want to be asked like what are you or where you're from. You just love to walk into a Jewish space and be like seen as an equal to someone who is white.

[April Baskin]: That's I think I think that's counts a perfectly great answer.

[Kelly Whitehead]: It's a cop out. [laughing]

[April Baskin]: No, not at all! I take personal offense to that. That is... don't talk about my girl Kelly like that! No I don't think that's a cop out at all. I heard you I heard you say that what you would love is to be treated with the same level of respect and normalcy and was... what'st the word? There's a specific word that I'm looking for... That you would love to be treated equitably.

[Kelly Whitehead]: Mm hm, as if I belong.

[April Baskin]: Yeah. As though you belong.

[Kelly Whitehead]: I don't want to have to prove myself.

[April Baskin]: Yeah. As you as you shouldn't. And you shouldn't. So I think that that is a fantastic response and not a cop out in any way, quite the opposite.

So I have one more question for you and you're welcome to answer it however it makes the most sense for you whether you want to answer it creatively unexpectedly or traditionally. And the question is who or what inspires you to be a better Jew? And it's up to you what better means in this context.

[Kelly Whitehead]: I think obviously the first person that comes to mind is the first female director of Camp Harlam, Lisa David, who is a strong, amazing, wholesome, woman who her leadership is so phenomenal because of her patience and her kindness and just the way she approaches life. And I think she does that with love and that I find really aspirational. As someone who is trying to make a career out of my Judaism.

Also my mom, another female Jewish role model who has taught me everything I know who has raised me to be the person that I am who has done a lot of suffering in her life and is still so strong and so loving and so present. And then there's you April who is a -- this is not a suck-up, this is true! -- Black Jewish woman who has helped me so much since we since we met about three years ago, when I came to you at my Biennial, when I didn't know who else to talk to or complain about the implicit and explicit bias I faced at that Jewish gathering. And you've just been there for me and have brought me these friends and these colleagues and these other JewV'Nation Fellows who get it. And that is so powerful and I'm so grateful and you've given me this confidence that I didn't know I could have, that I could talk to Rabbi Rick Jacobs for 20 minutes straight....

[April Baskin]: Oh yeah.

[Kelly Whitehead]: ...Yeah. About the implicit bias that I face in the Jewish community, to a dude that talks to like Netanyahu and Barack Obama! and I could like have his attention for so long. And tell him what's going on in the Jewish world and how it makes me feel like less than, and I can, you know he came to camp and how I can be at camp and thrive, but I also feel like less than and that there's many obstacles that are still left to be accomplished. I wouldn't have done that if it wasn't for you April.

[April Baskin]: I don't know if that's true but I am nonetheless very honored and appreciate that that's very kind to you.

[Kelly Whitehead]: I also think just everyone I've ever met helps me act with my heart who helps me seek meaning in life. And just find the joy to keep going and they don't have to be Jewish for that but they do inspire me to be better to do better.

[April Baskin]: I love that I love that. I love that you mentioned this value a couple times in our conversation about you both wanting to live in you respecting and others people who live and lead from a place of deep love. I think that's really moving and then and then this theme that you also said toward the end here of just gleaning from people all around you in your world who live what I would call heart-centered life, are guided by their heart which is just so important. And I think it's reflected in so much of the work you do in the lives you touch.

Thank you so much for taking this time to speak with us today. And I'm so glad that I get to be in this Jewish community with you. Thank you so much.

[ReformJudaism.org Outro]: Thanks for listening and we hope you tune in again for our next episode. We would love for you to rate and review us on iTunes and you can always visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. Wholly Jewish is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life, and until next week, l'hitraot!