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Q & A for Teens: Strangers Among Us
Q&A for Teens

Q & A for Teens: Strangers Among Us

Kids in my class are acting racist and I feel powerless.


Dear Lauren,

I go to a public school in a mixed neighborhood. The white kids in my class constantly make fun of “the Mexicans” in our school, and it really bothers me, but I don’t know what to do. I feel so bad about it, but I feel powerless. Any advice?

Lauren Roth's Answer

First of all, I have a question that I know you’ll agree with me on: when did “Mexico” come to mean ALL the countries of South America?! When I hear people talking about “the Mexicans,” I whisper to myself, “People of Hispanic origin. People of Hispanic origin.” And I think that’s the point: “the Mexicans” (whom we should all refer to properly as “people of Hispanic origin”) are PEOPLE. People who happen to hail from a different geographical area than we do.

I can tell you for sure what Judaism says about how to treat a group that hails from a different place in the world than we do. It directs us to treat the stranger kindly, “for remember that you were once strangers in a strange land.” People who are not part of the mainstream population, who are not part of “the establishment,” deserve kindness and regard.

As y’all know from my previous columns, I’m from good ole’ Maimphis (that’s Memphis, Tennessee, for those of you without a Southern twang!). This past Shabbos, my husband started singing Shabbos songs at the Friday night meal—with a Southern accent! I was in seventh heaven! He knows I love my “country” of origin, down South, so he used the accent everyone around me used when I was growing up. It made me feel so at home, so happy, so at peace, to hear that Southern drawl. Now let me ask you a question: does the fact that I’m from Tennessee, and you’re from New York, or Zurich, or Jerusalem or Moscow make one of us lesser than the other? Definitely not, from the Torah’s viewpoint. Recall the quote from Strive for Truth I wrote in my last column: “We are obligated to respect every person simply because he or she is a person.”

Now that you know the Torah’s view on this issue of “difference,” let’s talk about your feelings of powerlessness. I just read Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, and I definitely speak for the trees—and any disenfranchised group—when I remind you that it only takes one seed, and one person who cares, to replant an entire forest. You, my good, caring person, can turn the tide.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Yesterday I was at Barnes & Noble, reading to my 4-year-old son. Because he was wearing his yarmulka, we were obviously Jewish. I noticed a couple of little girls with “Lakewood Christian Academy” insignias on their sweaters hanging close to me and nervously trying to see the pictures as I read. I was so excited for the opportunity to put Jews into a good light! I gave them a warm smile, turned the book towards them, and said, “Here, girls, come sit with us—would you like me to read to you, too?” They shyly nodded, and sat next to us—through five more books! Their mother was thrilled, and kept thanking me for my kindness of including her daughters. It is entirely possible that I made up for any and all badly behaved Jews who ever crossed or will cross paths with that mother.

Another example: today, I had someone working in my house. He asked my opinion of different options regarding the work I had hired him to do. At one option, I shook my head and, apparently, wrinkled my nose. His response was, in a very nasty tone: “Don’t wrinkle your nose. You can shake your head, but don’t wrinkle your nose at me.”

Do you want to know what I did with that man’s misbehavior? Did I snap back at him, creating more negativity and criticism and bad energy? No. I was simply purposefully kind to 10 other people today. That’s the way I try to turn the tide of the world. I figure I’m one person with one seed. The only way to grow a forest is to make 10 positive turns for every one negative turn I receive.

“All that is necessary for the forces of evil to triumph in this world is for enough good people to do nothing,” said Edmund Burke. You are not powerless. You are powerful beyond your wildest imagination. You can speak your mind to the bigots. You can tell them, “Come on, guys, let’s not talk that way; they’re people, too. They’re just from a different part of the world than we are. What’s the big deal?” Then quickly change the subject. Even if they laugh off your comment, I assure you at least one of them might just think about what you’ve said. And if you do say something, then at least you know that you tried to stop the hate. At least you planted your seed. Whether it grows or not is not always up to you.

Or you can do my ten-to-one rule. For every rude comment you hear someone make, do ten kind things. There are always ten people hanging around who would love to have some kindness extended their way. You bring more light into the world when the racists and bigots spew their darkness.

I just want to end with a favorite quote of mine. My refrigerator door is filled with awesome quotes—maybe I’ll start including them in this column so you guys can be inspired by them as much as I am! This one is from To Kill a Mockingbird, stated by Atticus, the wise father: “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

You can be the cleanup crew. You, one person, with one seed.

February 9, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 13

(9) Yehudit, February 17, 2013 7:31 PM

The nasty workman....

All other issues aside, Lauren, I hope one of the kindnesses you did in reaction to your nasty workman was to yourself and tour family: by not letting him back into your home. He sounds potentially dangerous, that kind of response is not what I'd call within the normal range of "offended".... !! Also, I agree with the commenter that you did not address the moment of "helplessness". What can a teenager do when surrounded by his peers? That was the advice asked for....

(8) David, February 14, 2013 1:51 PM

Mexico isn't in South America

Leaving the geography aside, however, I do think the kindness notion is a good one. Let's take this a step further-- how do we, as Jews, impart the notion of separateness and "chosen-ness" to our children without managing to give them the impression that it's ok to look down on people who aren't members of our group? I've seen far too much xenophobia coming from religious Jews to think that this problem is in any way limited to public schools...

(7) Anonymous, February 13, 2013 6:35 AM

This does not address the issue

Doing 10 good things for everytime someone is racist does nothing to address the racism. Why not get to know the Hispanic people. This can show them you are not racist and show the racists you are not one of them? This is non confrontational and also supportive

Tzvi, February 25, 2013 6:20 PM

I respectfully disagree

When others around you act negatively, you become influenced by that behavior, you may even start thinking that way and possibly, with time, your distaste for the negative behavior might disappear. If however, one decideds to react to such situations, although that person might never be able to change the present situation, however such a person can change himself/herself.

(6) Debbie LItwack, February 13, 2013 12:46 AM

Very nice!

First I've read of yours. Liked it!

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