In My Own Words: Feeling discomfort

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I actually had to double check because I started to think, “Wait, that can’t be real. She must have accidently sent me a link to a comic/fake news site.” But, unfortunately, I was wrong and, since it was on a topic I’ve been thinking of writing about for the past few months, I figured now was the time. 

The subject: Discomfort or, rather, feeling uncomfortable when some aspect of American history is discussed. People are taking any criticism of the United States as if they are being personally criticized. Even worse, many of them see these comments as a personal insult.

I decided to write this after reading the article I mentioned, one that discusses the bill Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has backed called “Individual Freedom.” It would allow schools and businesses to be sued if they teach students about racism or train employees about how to prevent discrimination. The actual bill says “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” and “an individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” 

Wow, that means you might not be able teach about slavery, systemic racism or the history of discrimination in our country. It’s obvious this is aimed against the Black population, although Native American, Asian and other immigrants come to mind. But then I thought, “Can’t make anyone uncomfortable? Does that mean we can’t talk about antisemitism? Will the Holocaust also be off the table?” 

My first reaction was actually, “Are people so sensitive that they can’t hear about mistakes our country has made? Do they have to believe that everything our ancestors have ever done is perfect? Are white folks so narrow-minded and scared that they can’t bear to see someone else’s point of view? Don’t people want to change and grow? And more important, if you don’t think you personally have done anything wrong, then why would this bother you so much?”

In addition to the fact that this bill would turn the study of American history into meaningless pap, the repercussions might be very different from what the originators expected. Just think about the school administrator in Texas who said that, since they are required to show all sides of an issue, they have to include those who think the Holocaust was OK. The recent law in Tennessee that allows religious adoption agencies to refuse adoptions to couples who offend their religious sensibilities was aimed at the LGBTQ community, but one agency is being sued after preventing a Jewish couple from being able to adopt. 

One ironic result of this law could be preventing white Americans from talking about any discrimination that occurred against them in the U.S. Want to talk about the signs that used to appear saying, “No Irish Need Apply” or the jokes against those of Polish extraction that negated their intellect? Would that be OK if they are both white? Maybe they won’t be able to discuss those either. And what if white folks say something that makes Blacks uncomfortable, for example, claiming the recent protests of Black Lives Matter were riots. They could be sued because that definitely qualifies under the part of the law that says, “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race.” You can’t say they’re being too sensitive if you claim to be uncomfortable when someone talks about the evils of slavery.

What this law really does is support censorship. It’s ironic that its supporters are those who complain about “cancel culture” and “political correctness.” This bill is just a different kind of political correctness, one I find offensive. To be clear, I don’t support cancel culture: I believe that people can have differences of opinion. I dislike people being condemned for saying something decades ago that was not problematic then, but is now considered offensive. We need to find a balance between these views, but that won’t happen unless we can have open discussions and, when necessary, admit when our country could have done better. That ability – to recognize when the U.S. didn’t live up to its ideals – is what makes our nation great.