MILLBURN, NJ — last week, the Black Americans of Millburn-Short Hills (BAMS) hosted a virtual panel, entitled “Black Lives Matter Real Talk: Can’t We All Just Get Along?” which explored the current racial dynamic in America, following the rise of Black Lives Matter protests across the country since the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

The panel was moderated, by Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. Panelists included:

  • Lisa Opoku Busumbru, Millburn resident and Partner at Goldman Sachs
  • Nancy Kislin, Millburn resident and Family Psychotherapist
  • Mellisa Okoko, Millburn High School Class of 2020
  • Peter Akwaboah, Millburn resident and Managing Director at Morgan Stanley

Gewirtz opened the discussion by posing the central question on the minds of all viewers: “how are we going to make ourselves allies?”

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He then plainly laid out the situation that everyone in the country is currently facing. He said, “there are twin pandemics right now. One of disease of the body and another of disease of the American soul.”

To show the true state of the “American soul,” before the discussion began, a 12 year old student at Millburn Middle School read a poem about his experience with the n-word. He acknowledged the word’s history, saying it was used to make black people “feel distinctly lower than, less than, not as important.” When this student was called the n-word, that is exactly how he felt, “lower than, less than, not as important.”

While the word is not used as often as it once was, the student explained why that is not necessarily an improvement, saying that now, “it is even more damaging when it’s used.”

Like the student, the panelists shared their personal experiences as black people living in America.

Busumbru experienced racism from a young age. She described her first day of Kindergarten where one of her classmates told her “you’re not brown, you’re black like dirt.” As a result, she learned to live her life with “armor” to protect herself.

Even living in Millburn/Short Hills, Busumbru said, “I experience some of the same types of insults that I had as a child here in our own community.”

She explained the poor treatment she received at the mall, shopping with a friend when a salesperson called into question her ability to pay for the clothing items she had chosen multiple times. It was only when Busumbru’s debit card went through that the salesperson’s demeanor changed. That’s when she decided, in Busumbru’s words, “to treat me like a decent client, to treat me the way she should have treated me from the beginning.”

Busumbru ended her anecdote on a resolute note, saying “this is a typical day in the life of being black in America.”

Akwaboah, who shared his own personal experiences, proved just how true Busumbru’s statement was. He described a morning when he was driving his son to soccer practice. Right as he was leaving, he was stopped by a man. This person told Akwaboah that he was driving too fast. In response, Akwaboah said “no, I’m not driving too fast, I’m doing 20 miles an hour.” The man insisted that Akwaboah had been driving “45 miles an hour” and said “this is a private road and you’re not meant to be driving through it.”

Having lived all over the word, Akwaboah said that he was familiar with racism. He explained that the  “only difference” in America is that he can die and that his kids can die. His kids, who are all teenagers, have already experienced racism to the point where being called the n-word for is according to their father, “business as usual.”

Okoko, being a recent high school graduate, described the impact that racism can have on a child. When she was younger, Okoko said “I saw my blackness as a curse.” She now believes a primary reason for that is because she did not see successful black people portrayed in the media.

She explained that the black people that were portrayed in the media were based on a stereotype that was built during the minstrel shows of the 1830s. Though it has been nearly 200 years since the stereotype of “blackness” was built, it has persevered.

After panelists shared these anecdotes, there was a shift in the panel to looking at the true meaning behind phrases often used when discussing racism, the first being “white privilege.”

Okoko defined the term by simply stating “we [black people] were taught that we weren’t as good as our white counterparts.”

That sentiment was echoed in the discussion of the next term, “institutional racism.” To explain it, Busumbru used a poker analogy. There are two people who have been playing poker for a couple hours. 1 person is ahead by $5,000. After the game, this person reveals that they had been cheating the entire time and says  “I’m sorry about that, but let's just start playing again.”

However, this person doesn’t give the other person any more chips or any of the $5,000, claiming instead that the game is on a “level playing field.” So, the other person is starting short and is expected to compete on the same level

Busumbru said that this is the reason why black people must tell their children “you will have to work three times harder, you will be passed over for a promotion, you need to be smarter, you need to dress better.”

Consequently, she described how black people must swallow several microaggressions that happen every single day. When George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight and didn’t receive justice, despite the whole incident being captured on video, Busumbru said that everyone had reached their tipping points, that they could no longer swallow all those microaggressions. Therefore, “everyone is done with trying to work within the current system.”

She continued, “we didn’t just get mad about the George Floyd incident. In my own mind, I just went back to Kindergarten and I had been processing everyday, every one of those traumas, every microaggression that I’ve experienced for the past 44 years.”

With that deeper understanding of what black people face in America, the panel turned towards figuring out how the community moves forward. Okoko brought up the importance of education, saying that it is “a revolutionary tool and we should use that in the black community and the white community.”

Kislin agreed and shared a story that came up in a session with one of her teenage clients. This client was upset to see that people had been reenacting George Floyd’s murder on the app TikTok.

Kislin explained that children are now using technology for 10 to 12 hours per day. Parents have no idea what their children are seeing during this time and there is a danger in that. Who are they having to educate them, to redirect, to correct?” she questioned.

The responsibility, Kislin said, must go to the parents. The parents must take an active role in educating their own children to “embrace everyone’s differences.” She urged the parents to “use these stories” that were shared tonight to start discussions with their children.

Okoko said that now is the time for everyone to open themselves up to learning. If someone corrects you, she said it is important to “take it as a learning experience.”

Busumbru encouraged everyone listening to take an active role in their own education, saying “if every weekend, the only people that are here [her home] are Gunayan, then we are continuing to perpetuate this divide among the races.”

It is vital that people reach out of their own comfort zones to “try to bring people together one dinner at a time,” she said.

Most importantly, at this point in history, there is no choice. As Kislin said “because we’re bearing witness to your stories, we now have a huge responsibilities”

Gewirtz expressed understanding for how overwhelming the issue of racism seems and offered some advice from the Talmud. The Talmud says “we are not able to finish all of the work,” but Gewirtz says that the community cannot let that be discouraging. He said, “everyday we wake up and crack a little bit of that work, we’re going to make a difference.”

If you missed the panel discussion, you can watch a recording at: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/1OXJD6g0QfLl6ANhDuuK7BYaDcsXxr3Ss