Tina Sacks on racial inequality in health and feeling ‘Jewish enough’ – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on July 23, 2022

From a young age, Tina Sacks struggled with feeling Jewish enough. Growing up in Chicago with a Black mother and a Jewish father, who was not observant, her strongest connection to her Jewish identity was through her relationship with her paternal grandmother, an immigrant from Belarus who spoke little English.

Sacks, 50, is now an associate professor at the School of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley, studying racial and social inequalities in health. She co-authored a study published in February 2021 on ancestral trauma and how it informs ones decision-making. In 2019, she shared her personal story in the UCB media relations publication Berkeley News about her Black and Jewish ancestries and how they shaped her worldview.

J.: What inspired you to choose social work as your field of study?

Tina Sacks: Ive always been interested very broadly in health, and how health and ill health are socially produced. Some people have access to health and some people dont. Oftentimes, that is predicated or organized around race, gender, ability status, immigration status, etc.

For me, growing up in the kind of household that I grew up in was so foundational to me. My dad was the first generation in his family to be born in the United States. His parents were immigrants from what they call the Old Country. My mother is from Mississippi. She was part of the Great Migration that came to Chicago and [out of the South] in this country. So it was always interesting to me that both of my parents, both sides of my ancestry, had this kind of immigrant experience, an experience of discrimination, of surviving all kinds of incredibly difficult circumstances, but their outcomes were profoundly different.

That really boiled down to race and how race is lived in the United States, and how one side of my family was able to transcend their humble immigrant beginnings and antisemitism, etc., to go on to have much longer lives and health and other things that my mothers side of the family did not have. That upbringing made me very deeply curious about how we arrange society and how that relates to who gets to be healthy and who does not.

Your study on ancestral trauma focused on one woman whose great-grandfather was in the Tuskegee syphilis study. Do you feel you have experienced ancestral trauma yourself?

In terms of Judaism, theres no question. Its something Ive been thinking about a lot more, as my dad is really aging. My dad doesnt know anything about anything in his family, and I am pretty sure thats because there was a lot of trauma there. There was a lot of stigma. My aunt was mentally ill, and because my grandparents didnt read or write in English, my dad was forced to translate for them, sign papers, be engaged in things that he never should have been exposed to. But because they were immigrants, he was recruited to deal with a lot of [his sisters] issues.

Those kinds of things are common in a lot of Jewish families. Theres this idea of sort of sweeping it under the rug, we dont want to acknowledge it, we dont want to think about it, we just move forward. I definitely think about that a lot.

What is the focus of your current research?

Im working on a study of how social mobility impacts health and well-being among Black people with college degrees. Theres this idea that socioeconomic status or class is sort of uniformly protective for people in the United States, and that is not the case. So Im interested in how ethnoracial minorities who are not poor fare in a highly, highly racist society.

In what ways do you think your Jewish identity has affected your work?

I think I have a deep sense of being othered. I have a deep sense of being outside of normative standards, whether they be Christian, or white, or male, or whatever. That has deeply impacted what Im interested in. There are certain things about Judaism that I do feel are very central to who I am as a person, some of the questioning of things, of not taking things necessarily at face value, of questioning authority. There are some values of Judaism and then also certainly of the culture of Ashkenazi Jews that I feel are implicit in who I am.

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Tina Sacks on racial inequality in health and feeling 'Jewish enough' - The Jewish News of Northern California

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