By Sonia Paul
Yavilah McCoy, one of this year’s speakers at Mount Holyoke’s annual BOOM! Conference, developed a practice during the pandemic of avoiding engaging in “sound and fury [that] signifies nothing.”
It’s a practice she developed in response to the fact that many people proclaim justice as a motivation, hold signs at protests and make bold statements that they are allies for various marginalized communities and individuals — yet their proclamations and ideas fail to consider activism and movement building intersectionality, and they do not do the work of dismantling “-isms” that are in direct relationships, McCoy said.
“The first thing I ask people to do is to talk about abstract ideas in terms of their relationships,” said McCoy, who is Black, Jewish and a pioneer of the Jewish diversity movement, which opened up the idea of intersectionality in Jewish spaces. “Who are you in relationships with? And who are you not in relationships with? And how has that changed your perception of the justice and equity you are seeking?”
“Our ability to issue social media–based sound bites has increased the habit of virtue signaling to a level that I think needs some attention,” she added. “I firmly believe that you can and should speak out against injustice anywhere, but it must start with your investment in relationships.”
McCoy knows this from her own experience. When she founded the nonprofit Ayecha in 2000 as a resource and community-building organization for Jews of color, there was little attention given to the experiences of nonwhite Jews — most people didn’t even know that Jews of color existed. Part of that had to do with the language people used to talk about the Jewish experience. People were discussing Jewish multiculturalism and diversity with respect to the different customs and traditions of the Jewish people, as well as the geographical lands they inhabited and came from. But she found there was resistance in naming race in Judaism and acknowledging the impact of white supremacy on the Jewish experience.
“There’s no real color to Jews. There is a color to white supremacy,” McCoy said. “And so when you bring religion into relationship with white supremacy, what happens is that we start to create hierarchies of value, even within a religious identity, [around] who has the [closest] proximity to whiteness — and whoever has the [closest] proximity to whiteness becomes the most authentic and valued representation of faith under white supremacy. The truth is that people of color have been a part of our religions, a part of our families and a part of our history from the very beginning.”
Acknowledging Jews of color “disrupted the idea of there being an equal sign between Jewish and whiteness,” McCoy said. And Ayecha’s intersectional focus and dedication to opening up spaces for experiences of Judaism beyond whiteness helped shape the work that McCoy continues to do to this day. She is now the CEO of the nonprofit Dimensions Educational Consulting, which provides training and consultancy in diversity, equity and inclusion and works directly with Black women leaders in community development programs. One of its programs is a leadership program for women of color and Jewish women of color to come together across different faiths, genders and other intersectional identities to be in what McCoy calls a “liberatory space.”
“Liberatory space is a space where folks can rest, where they can experience themselves as empowered and resilient,” McCoy said. “And in those spaces, we have conversations about what it means to resist the impact of ‘-isms’ on our bodies, on our minds, on our spirits, on our being and actually be stronger leaders by being able to have those conversations at rest.”
Rejecting racism, sexism, classism and other “-isms” is also foundational to Dimensions’ JOC & Allies Project, which creates one cohort for white women dismantling racism and another for Black women leaders and other Jewish women of color who are in the power seat at their organizations. This program focuses on developing skills for being allies and accomplices — and there is a difference between the two, said McCoy.
“Allyship is the beginning of understanding that there’s something bigger than yourself in terms of the need for justice in the world,” McCoy said. But at that same time, she added, a person can believe they’re an ally and engage mostly in virtue signaling or performative actions.
It’s when people start to believe that they themselves are directly implicated in the cause for justice — regardless of whether they have an identity that has been marginalized or one that has been historically privileged — that they have a personal stake in moving from being an ally to becoming an accomplice for change, McCoy said. “Accomplices will take risks to be able to make this change happen and will stay in the work, even when it gets difficult and even if it’s uncomfortable. Accomplices are willing to stand with others in solidarity, even when that standing up does not benefit them.”
Intersectionality can help deepen the practice of being an accomplice and an ally. But at the same time, in our world today — and especially on college campuses — it’s all too easy to get caught up in “sound bites” where people jump to shut down conversations or conflate nations and states with people and forget the humanity and bodies involved in their talking points, McCoy said.
“What starts to happen is people talk about ideas as if they exist outside of people’s bodies and often have no idea about the way ‘-isms’ actually run in terms of their impact on people’s lived experience of injustice and inequity,” she said. “We end up just arguing with each other, and our power to make change in an argumentative space is usually limited.”
That’s why maintaining humility and empathy is so essential on the path toward transformational justice. No one organization or resource is going to teach you about intersectionality, but opportunities to learn from others and their intersectional identities are everywhere, McCoy said.
“You have to be willing to be flexible and to allow your justice to breathe. And, to me, [you have to] be more gentle on people and harder on systems.”
And if trying to advance a particular need for equity and justice in the world matters to you, McCoy said, it’s important to have what she calls an “I” story that stems from your exploration of both your personal narrative and origin story and your relationships with others.