In this powerful chapel speech, a Pomfret senior, Barak Swarttz, challenges the community to reach beyond “Color Blindness” to understand Cultural Competence and “the difference that difference can make.”
by Barak Swarttz ’14
Shalom. For those of you who have heard that word before but don’t know what it means, “Shalom” has many translations, including “good morning,” and “peace.” Today I am going to speak to you about my personal definition for a phrase that is familiar to all of you: “color blindness.” You are all familiar with this phrase from a variety of contexts that differ somewhat from my own definition.
I’d like to begin by taking you back to when I was six years old. In 2001, my family moved from the United States to Israel for two years. In Israel, I lived and went to school in the neighborhood of Talpiot, which is a very interesting place because it is a region of Jerusalem where many foreigners from all over the world come to live. During our two-year stay, we lived among people from Ethiopia, England, France, Canada, and many other countries, along with a few fellow Americans. My brother, Nadav, and I attended a small school in the city of Jerusalem, where, for a while, we were considered the “new kids on the block,” since we were the new Americans at the school. Nadav quickly became best friends with a kid named Avri, who also happened to be American. My brother was lucky to find a friend: he immediately had someone to go to who could help make his transition smoother. In contrast, I felt alone. Class-work, fitting into the school system, and even becoming comfortable walking to school alone, were difficult for me. For a while, I didn’t have many friends or teachers that I could communicate with, so I felt left out by the group. Coping with being a loner, sometimes being bullied, and managing everything by myself with only some help from my family, were tough for me.
While I was dealing with feeling like an outsider at school, my family meanwhile decided to give back to a certain group of people in Israel who had suffered as “outsiders” a lot more than I had, for their whole lives. This tribe is called the Bedouins, and they are a nomadic group of people who travel the desert and who are Arabic speaking, but not ethnically Arab. They are their own isolated group of people, who tend to have their own villages and go about themselves. We helped build a medical clinic for the Bedouins in the Negev, which is a desert like region in southern Israel. The Bedouins needed help to build the clinic, since the Israeli government does not provide many of the same services to the Bedouins that they provide to other groups in the cities. They don’t have the same resources that a lot of Israeli citizens have.
The program that we went on to help them was a lot like Habitat for Humanity, except we were building a medical clinic in the middle of the desert. We worked for a few days in the hot desert sun alongside the Bedouins. When I was working with them, it was very hard to communicate. None of them spoke English well, but still I managed to be resourceful and managed to communicate in many creative ways. Even though we stayed there for less than a week, I seemed to instantly click with all of the kids there. They brought me to their one-room school, which was located pretty far from their village and is the size of a Centennial classroom. On the walk, they pointed out something that I will never forget. There is a giant barbed wire fence which was around a chemical waste plant used to dump toxic waste. The contaminants in the dump seeped into the ground, and then into their water table, which ran into their drinking water. They had a limited supply of clothes, food, and water.
One kid in particular would speak to me in Arabic, which I do not speak at all. When I first met him, I didn’t know what to do, so I just made up a mix of words that sounded like Arabic and random sounds, combined with a lot of gesturing, to convey my emotions. The older Bedouin teenagers, who did speak a little English, helped me with this. They also watched over my brother and me during our stay, and I was able to hang out with them when we were done working each day.
They turned out to be some of the nicest and most humble people I have ever met in my life. Still to this day, I couldn’t imagine living under those circumstances; hence I have the utmost respect and empathy for them.
After we returned to the United States, I attended a private school called JCDS in Watertown, Massachusetts. My grade had just 20 kids, from towns around Boston; many were even Israeli natives. Spending the next six years with such a small group made it easy to become close with my peers, but it was also a bit isolating.
I was the only one in my class of 20 who went on to Newton South High School, one of two big public high schools in town. When I went on to high school things didn’t go so smoothly in terms of the judging I faced from the kids there. I got judged immediately by many, but at the same time I was actually able to make a lot of different friends, most of whom were older than I was, and who came from many different places.
My grade at Newton South was nearly 500 kids and the school population was close to 1800. At first, I was again sort of an outsider, having gone to different schools than most of the other kids. Around 85% of the students at South had gone to the same elementary and middle schools together. I only knew a handful of kids so I kept to myself and tried to focus on two things – school and basketball.
Throughout high school, my main group of friends represented a wide variety of kids who were all of different nationalities. A lot of them came to Newton through the METCO program, which brings students to Newton from inner city Boston so that they can obtain a better education, since the inner city schools aren’t so great. Some of my friends at Newton South were White, Asian, African, African-American, Hispanic, and more. As I made a diverse group of friends, it felt like many of the white kids, most of whom grew up in Newton, had already excluded me from their groups and cliques, and had started talking behind my back, without knowing anything about me. I was a brand new student but I already had these obnoxious “haters” talking about me. In contrast, I found that the METCO kids were not quick to judge, showed respect, and gave me the opportunity to get to know them.
Let me also back up, and explain how I had met my group of older African Americanfriends. Back in 5th grade, while I was feeling isolated at JCDS, I had started to play in the local Newton basketball league. I didn’t know anyone there but at the time there was a group, mostly all black, of kids who were freshman at Newton South High School, who saw me playing one day. They were really impressed by my skills and started to invite me to come to the JCC, my local gym, to play pickup with them. Over time, I became really close with them and when it was time for me to go to South, they were my first real group of friends. Basically, I started at South in a peer group of mostly all black kids. I think that’s where the judging started, because I was always around them. I guarantee that if anyone else were in my situation and had grown close to a certain group of people, regardless of their nationality or skin color, he or she wouldn’t just ditch that group once high school started – that would just be fake and disrespectful. Most of the kids at South who were so judgmental of me, didn’t realize that I had already known all of those kids for years, and that’s why they judged me.
I have long lived by the motto: In order to get respect, you have to give it. That phrase came from my brother when we moved to Israel, when I was still that shy outsider kid, because many of the kids in my school showed me little to no respect.Since then, it has grown into a guiding idea that is very important to me. There were many kids, the majority of them white and from the wealthy town of Newton, who had decided to portray me as a “follower”. During that freshman year and beyond, many of them began to describe me as a “wigger”, meaning someone white who thinks that he or she is black, and all simply because I had met my group of black friends five years before in the Newton basketball league. I guess it’s kind of ironic that my name is Barak, which, by itself, also made me somewhat of an outsider.
It was mainly guys who would say, “Barak thinks he’s black,” because I’m always around black kids and I play basketball. As annoying as this was, I managed to let it go in one ear and out the other. None of the constant criticism I was receiving caused me to change my group of friends or stop being proud of being the white Jewish kid I am. The group I associated myself with all shared one thing in common – our diversity. A lot of my METCO friends at South came from rough neighborhoods in Boston, such as Dorchester and Mattapan. These neighborhoods aren’t the safest and are very different from how “safe and white” Newton is reputed to be.
My two closest friends from South are Josh, who is originally from Zimbabwe, and Shariq, who was born and raised in Pakistan. I never have and most likely never will meet someone who has gone through everything that Josh has experienced so far in his life. He grew up in Zimbabwe, from which he escaped with his mother and brother, and somehow made it to the United States, where he has experienced relentless racism. Shariq’s family situation is also rough, as he has been sent to and from Pakistan numerous times and his family is on a very tight budget. Some days he worries about his parents coming home with food, or whether they’re going to be able to afford his college tuition.
Their tough situations make me feel for them and want to have an impact on their lives. The three of us, known as “the trio”, became extremely close in our senior year. Even today, my house is their house, as they know the door is always open no matter what time of day it is. Josh has been over for Passover and Shariq has celebrated the Sabbath with my family many times. Both of them have a lot of fun learning about my family’s lifestyle and my parents enjoy teaching them more about our origin. Our “trio” is a group of completely different kids, all of whom treat each other with the same respect.
Here at Pomfret, I initially felt like an outsider when I arrived on campus as a PG this fall. The majority of the kids here had already been together for two or three years. When I got here, some of the same judging I had felt as a freshman at Newton South seemed to be repeating itself.
Quickly, I came to regard Jeff, Cam, Smiley, and Austin as my friends, and once again, I was the new white, Jewish kid with a group of mostly black friends. Not only was Jeff the one I shadowed on re-visit day and texted throughout the summer, he also brought me under his wing when I got here, and I consider him as an older brother. Cam is like my younger brother, who still to this day calls himself Jewish; it’s an inside joke, but a nice one. Cam genuinely likes to learn about my religion, and jokes that he is Jewish too out of respect. I call my parents “Imma and Abba,” which in Hebrew means mother and father. “Yo Rock let me talk to Imma” he says when I’m on the phone with my mom. For a 16-year-old kid, I look up to Cam more than he realizes on and off the basketball court because of his maturity, character, and heart. Austin and I have had numerous classes together since the beginning of the year and since then we have maintained a close friendship. Whether it’s laughing on the ground, communicating by making really bizarre sounds, he and I share one of the strangest but most unique bonds, which I appreciate a great deal. Something I think a lot of my peers don’t realize about Smiley is the fact that he has a great head on his shoulders. I have always admired his dedication towards football and with his scholarship to Umass, I can only imagine the great things he will begin doing soon.
As I tell you this, many of you may be thinking that I am the only white kid in the group. I wonder if the four of them were white or of a different ethnicity, if you’d think differently. I know that I wouldn’t treat any of them differently.
Not too long ago, my father approached me and told me: “Barak, you’re so color blind to people’s skin color, nationality, origin, and you accept people for who they are, and for the kind of people they are.” He told me this with pride and it got me thinking about how I had gotten to be this way.
Some may think that “color blind” means that I don’t see each individual as their own race and I consider everyone as one, which isn’t quite how I think of it. It’s more of a choice, and it takes hard work and practice to be this way: I choose to see people as individuals and not by their skin color, race, origin, or ethnicity. I try not to fall back on stereotyping people and making judgments about them by the color of their skin. It’s not to say that I’m not aware of those things, but I don’t judge people based on their appearances.
I know that I may sound like I am preaching to you or saying that I am good for thinking this way. But I just mentioned that thinking this way takes practice. As I think back to the shy six year old kid that I used to be, I know that I was more judgmental then, and it has taken a lot of practice to become a more open and accepting person. I guess that every time I’ve met someone, I have gotten another opportunity to practice seeing him or her as an individual, and over time, it has become part of who I am.
I have had the experience of being an outsider and I know how painful it can be. The series of places I have lived and visited, and the many incidents I have been through have given me an almost instinctive sense of accepting people who are outsiders. It has helped to have my family who have given me lessons that I come back to: my older brother who taught me to show respect in order to get it, and my father who helped me to see that I had developed a practice of being “color blind.” I would like to leave you with this idea of practicing color blindness and acceptance. It is not always easy to lay aside our prejudices, but it gets easier with practice. Think about the diversity of friends you have made here at Pomfret, and about the differences in race, gender, religion, and economic class that surround us. Ask yourself: when have you been able to put aside the small judgments that are common to make around different people? When you meet someone new, it’s ok to make a conscious decision to not judge right away, and to purposely “practice” color blindness.