The Right to Be Offended

I always enjoy Rabbi Shafran’s eloquent pen, and therefore it would only be right to begin this letter with a list of all the specific instances wherein he enlightened and entertained me with his insights. Alas, time and memory sadly fail me.

I did want to comment on his column “Off Color” (Features, February 13, 2019) about the use of blackface. Rabbi Shafran draws what he concedes to be an imperfect comparison between the use of blackface and the display of a swastika. Of course, the difference is that a swastika is a symbol used and widely associated with a group whose agenda was genocide, while blackface is simply imitating the dark color of another’s skin. A more apt parallel might be a non-Jew who puts on a yarmulke or a long beard, something which I don’t think most of us would find offensive, if he was not doing so for the purpose of demeaning Jews.

This brings to mind my elementary school days when we made presentations (for some long-forgotten purpose) and my classmate performed Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. She smeared cocoa on her face (Heaven help her if she ever decides to run for public office) and wore a suit jacket and tie. But that was considered no different than a student who might wear a wild, white wig to dress up as Albert Einstein.

If there is nothing inherently negative about dark skin, then there is nothing offensive about coloring one’s skin to play a part. The fact that black people have made it into such a gaffe only enforces the notion that black skin is shameful, embarrassing or second-rate. Racism and reverse-racism in effect make the same statement: Some people are better than others for arbitrary, societally-determined reasons. The fact that so many are up in arms about this issue shows they’re buying into the racist creed. If our culture were truly “color blind,” dressing up as someone of a different race would carry no stigma.

D. Cohen

Rabbi Shafran responds:

Thank you so much for your kind words and, especially, for your cogent point.

Yes, the comparison was, as I admitted, “imperfect.” That said, though, I think a better parallel to what blackface evokes in many African-Americans might be a casual portrayal of an Orthodox Jew by someone with a prosthetic prominent nose or wildly unkempt beard.

I try to avoid psychoanalyzing entire groups (and even individuals, although, unfortunately, I often succumb to that), so I can’t identify with confidence what yields the great sensitivity most blacks, and many whites, have about innocent blackface. But, as was the point of my column, what matters isn’t whether someone is justified in being offended by something, but the simple fact that he is.