Re: Brief Encounters with White Men by Claudia Rankine, NYT magazine, 7/21/19
Dear Ms. Rankine,
I don’t have enough fingers to count the diversity events I’ve participated in over the last decade where a White person, struggling to understand their privilege says, “But I grew up dirt poor,” or “But I’m a wheelchair-user,” or “But I’m gay.” The word “privilege” in White Privilege is so easy to conflate with social privilege, economic privilege and other forms of benefits and opportunities. The word “privilege” often puts one more hurdle in the way of White people understanding our White Privilege. I agree that the term “White Dominance” might have been a better choice than “White Privilege” for engaging White people in our critical examination--and self-examination--of systemic racism in this country.
In nearly every diversity event I’ve attended, facilitators anticipate the issue of White people who don’t feel privileged. They frequently use as an example Italians or sometimes Irish to address pushback from White Ethnics to acknowledging and understanding our White Privilege. “Your ancestors might have been impoverished, but you still…” or “They may have fled famine…” they begin. But in exactly zero diversity events I’ve attended has any facilitator ever used Jews as an example. Several articles I read recently, while attending a conference at Teachers College, Columbia University on equity, race and pedagogical practices, similarly used examples of Irish, Italians and Slavs, but skipped the Jews. And yet White Ethnic pushback at the events I’ve attended is nearly always from people who, like me, are Jewish. I’ve heard an Irish person cite their White Ethnicity once in a diversity session, while struggling to understand White Privilege. And I haven’t heard a word about it from an Italian.
Not so we Jews. As victims of White Supremacy and hate crimes ourselves, more newly White in this country than many other White Ethnics, Jews who are new to doing work on race and equity are sometimes the folks who have the hardest time understanding that we are both marginalized and reviled, and fully possessed of White Privilege. That they’re not mutually exclusive. And that they intertwine in complex ways.
Blacks and Jews in this country have a complicated history. No more so than now, when being an American Jew is dangerously and erroneously conflated with the Israeli government’s human rights abuses against Palestinians and Israeli PoCs (there, I said it), and when Trump and company use Jews as a battle tool for their reactionary positions without our participation. It feels like we are now as hated by some on the left as we’ve long been by the extremist right. Yet Black universities gave sanctuary and jobs to Jewish professors escaping the Holocaust. We founded the NAACP together. We marched together in Selma. Our allyship has deep roots. But that allyship deteriorates further, each time we leave the messy relationship in the closet.
Every time I hear facilitators talking about Italians, or read scholars on White Supremacy citing the same, I find myself thinking, “Oh, they’re talking about Jews again, but are afraid to name it.”
Why? Are we too much of hotbutton topic? Do we hijack the podium too often? (Talking is in our blood.) Is the subject too incendiary? Just too complicated? It certainly is that. Various politicians and public intellectuals of color have recently cited fear of reprisal from American Jews and their allies for their silence on Israeli foreign policy. But leaving Jews out of the discussion on White Ethnicity is—dare I coopt this term?—a kind of fragility.
I get it it, though. I used to speak up about the particular issues of my dual identity as a Jew and a White. These days, when doing work on race, I often, like you, don’t mention it at all. I’m afraid to. Afraid of being seen as the Jew. Afraid of muddying the waters in an acute discussion. And it makes me ashamed. And less of an ally. I’m remembering a professional development session at my school, where I listened to a White-Jewish colleague protest that he was not from a privileged group. And I listened to the facilitator respond by talking about Italians. And I said nothing.
Ms. Rankine, you are one of my literary luminaries. I’ve read work by you with students, and discussed work by you with friends and colleagues. You’re a stunning writer. And brilliant. And deeply important.
So it was with a certain element of disappointment that I read your essential piece. Published in a periodical read by some of the same White guys who skip you in the airport line. And some of the same White friends of mine, authentically trying to look within, who still speak of being “color blind.” And I got to the line asking, “How did Italians, Irish and Slavic peoples become white?” and then, quoting Matthew Frye Jacobson, “…Celts, Slavs, Hebrews and Mediterraneans.” Hebrew? I’m not Hebrew. And I thought, “Et tu, Claudia Rankine?”
I have a shameful confession to make. When Jews were murdered at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was grieved and outraged, like so many people across racial and ethnic and socio-political lines. I tabled my day’s lesson plan for my 7th grade ELA classes, and worked with the Social Studies teacher to quickly create an interactive, culturally responsive lesson on hate crimes. I was deeply grateful that I work in a field where I had a productive outlet for my anger and fear, and where I like to think I make a difference. But there was a little part of me—and I’ve never said this to anyone before—that thought, “Oh, good. Now the country will actually believe that we are victims of White Supremacists, too.”
Because of our White Privilege, we aren’t afraid, when we leave the house, of being stopped and frisked, stopped and shot. Unlike you, we can choose to reveal our identities or not. Step into the exhausting Work or step out. That’s why we had to wear yellow stars on our clothing. To identify ourselves. That’s why most of the hate crimes against us take the form of graffitied swastikas, instead of injury to our bodies. (The exception being observant Jews in religious dress.) But our role in The Work is informed by our hyphenated identities.
I’d like to end this letter by quoting the last lines of your article. Because you said it better than I possibly can. “I was pleased that he could carry the disturbance of my reality. And just like that, we broke open our conversation—random, ordinary, exhausting and full of a shared longing to exist in less segregated spaces.”
When discussing White Ethnicity in Whiteness work, please let’s not erase the Jews.
Yours in Allyship,
Painting: The Beggar of Prachatice by Conrad Felixmüller (1924)
P.S. Please read Greg Thrasher's comment, below. I don't know the guy, or how he found this post, but he calls me out for using Jew to mean White, American Jew. And he's right--that's exactly what I did. I stand corrected for normalizing whiteness. Most Jews are white, with the issues of hyphenated identity I discussed above. But we are, as he notes, a diaspora community and come in different shades and nationalities. I still have work to do and always will.