I am not my race.
Schvartze is a Yiddish term akin to the the word n*gger. When Ben Faulding, a bi-racial Jewish man living in New York, decided to participate in the What I Be Project he knew he was spotlighting the taboo topic or racism in the Jewish community. Although he was one of 88 participants in the project’s Jews of New York series he had no idea the avalanche of global controversy this image would create.
Prior to the image being released, Yeshiva University bravely agreed to showcase the What I Be Project on school grounds. They would join the ranks of Princeton, Columbia and Duke universities. That was until they made the highly controversial decision to reverse showing the project. Their basis? They weren’t going to be able to show the project in it’s entirety. Ironically, the reversal did more for the taboo topics than if the project was just given a green light. Ben Faulding’s image had tapped a vein.
1. What were you most nervous about before being photographed?
I was definitely worried about seeming petty. A lot of the time when I see people do pieces like this it seems like they’re airing individual grievances and I was very concerned about that. I didn’t want to make it seem like I was attacking anybody in a public forum.
The attitude towards race in my community was stale. There are people who have outdated views towards other races and there were people who tried to be enlightened but there was nothing new coming into or going out of the debate.
I hoped to spark a little conversation.
I didn’t expect it to get to the point where it did though.
2. Why did you agree to participate in the What I Be Project?
I really wanted to connect. It had been about a year since I had moved to the Crown Heights neighborhood and I still felt like I was missing something about the people around me. I felt like there was this untapped resource of creativity and individuality that was out of reach. I wanted to see others as much as I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be a part of the project as much as I wanted my face and my voice to be included in it.
3. Once the image went public how did people respond?
After my image went public quite a few of my friends asked me about it. They didn’t get what I meant or why I had done it.
So I wrote a blog post about it. Then everybody knew.
Strangers were commending me on it. It was a bit much. It was not what I was looking for but I was glad that my ideas had spread. That was important to me. A lot of people thanked me. I think there is a lot of homogeneity in my community and many people who try to stray an inch left or right are quickly whacked back into line. People seemed glad that it was okay to question the status quo.
Some people were not so happy though. A few friends questioned why I would insult the community. I wasn’t mad at them though. They were raised differently.
4. If there was any backlash, what happened?
There was definite backlash. I got some angry responses. One guy went so far as to call me a danger to the community.
I thought that was funny though. I couldn’t take it seriously. But after a while the negative responses took their toll. At one point I was accused of being an islamist. That guy was seriously off but it came at a time when I was so exhausted by all the attention—negative and positive—that it hurt a little.
It shouldn’t have but it did. At least the others recognized me as one of their own.
5. What’s been the most significant lesson learned from your participation?
I had people questioning whether or not racism was a bad thing. I didn’t expect that. The idea that racism is bad was so basic in my mind that I never really learned an articulate explanation as to why it is bad. I had to learn that and sometimes on the fly. I learned not to take any part of my argument for granted because somebody will always take the weakest part of an idea and attack it. It can drag all of our ideas down.
6. What would you tell someone thinking about participating in the What I Be Project?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Everybody has their struggles. At the same time don’t devalue your self or invalidate your struggles because somebody has it worse. Don’t be afraid to express yourself. If for no other reason your expression might give somebody else the courage they need to fight their own battles. This definitely happened a few times during my WIB experience.
Please read Ben’s personal statement at the project’s website.
What is the What I Be Project?
Steve Rosenfield’s What I Be Project encourages millions, globally, to courageously address their insecurities. What started as an experiment in 2010 has since transformed into a full-blown, and sometimes, controversial movement. The subject of an image will share verbiage on his or her skin related to their insecurity. They accept this as part of who they are, however, acknowledging it does not define their whole being. Steve clicks the shutter and posts the photograph online.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Photo: Author’s Own