Sunday, February 15, 2009

On Being a White Jew in Racist Amerikkka: comments and discussion

The image to the right is the cover of a book recommended to me. I have not read it, and am concerned and troubled by its title. It reinforces the idea that "Jew" = "white" or perhaps "off-white" which very effectively invisibilises Jews of color inside and outside the U.S. Now, on with the discussion.

Valerie, a frequent visitor to ARP, and I have been engaging in a discussion elsewhere on this blog that I believe ought to have its own space. I feel this way particularly because the comments have existed only, until now, under an initial post that is primarily about women of color and the Academy. As the comments there thus far are not centrally focused on the politics, experiences, or perspectives of women of color and women of color's presence in the Academy, I'd like to keep comments there open to such a discussion.

Meanwhile, there is a much needed on-going discussion traveling around the U.S. and abroad, including here at the moment, about the degrees to which being Jewish and white can be or is the same thing as being Gentile and white, structurally, institutionally, historically, culturally, and especially politically. As should be clear, not all Jews are of Eastern (or Western) European descent primarily or at all. There are Jews of color, of all colors, across the globe in every continent. With that, I'll post the comments, including the newest ones, below.

Valerie wrote:
As a Jew, I have to say that neither my parents nor I have ever felt anything other than White. I'd feel like a bit of a poseur trying to claim anything like the oppression of WoC.

Sorry to be so persnickety on your blog. I really do appreciate your writing, and this really was a pretty brilliant entry.

Julian responded:
Hi Valerie.

Thank you for bringing up this issue! I *really* welcome and appreciate your comment, and, just to be clear, persnickety remarks are very welcome here! No apologies are necessary. : )

Speaking now from my own experience, I've met many white Jews from and beyond the U.S. who do not consider themselves to be white. And as a U.S. white Jew, I strongly disagree with them about this, in terms of how race is and has been defined and enforced in the United States and most of white supremacist Europe for one to two hundred years. If "we" are in nations whose ruling population has distinguished races with terms such as Black and Colored and White (think white South Africa), I believe the Ashkenazim fall into the white category unambiguously! Then again, I've never set foot in the white areas of South Africa.

What constitutes being "of color" (racially, ethnically, and politically) varies widely; some people of color and whites include white folks in the population termed "people of color"; I do not.

Unlike you, I have felt something other than white as a U.S. citizen: the historically white supremacist ads by Abercrombie and Fitch have no use for me, for example; "All-American" is rarely a Jew of any ethnicity or race, if being Jewish is identified as such in their ads.

I think the experience of Jewishness as it pertains to being white, among the Ashkenazim only, is very varied. There are places I know of where homophobia, anti-Black racism, and anti-Semitism/anti-Jewish bigotry are each strongly and virulently held and expressed among heterosexual Gentile and/or Christian white boys and men against those who are perceived of as "other". (They don't tend to view any girls and women, including white ones, too favorably either.)

Any neo-Nazis or Klanspeople I run into are not likely to regard me as white, and could beat or kill me because I'm not their idea of "white". Of course being gay also does nothing for my level of "acceptability" with those folks.

The Ashkenazim, as well as the Sephardim and the Mizrahim were all found to be "[not-white]non-Aryan" under European Nazi rule--at least as Nazis ridiculously while lethally defined the term "Aryan". Neo-Nazis still consider any Jew to not be white, or to be "impure". As if any white person is pure! (Again, don't get me started!)

Any Jew in the U.S. of entirely European descent (let's say north of Spain), particularly of Eastern European descent, I regard as white, in terms of race-related privileges and entitlements as I understand and experience them.

And, also in my experience, U.S. white Jews do not collectively have the standing, status, or level of entrenched occupational presence or colonising and controlling white supremacist force that Gentile whites do, particularly those Gentiles of Western European Christian descent. In Israel, yes. In the U.S., no. I see Israel, among other things, as an increasingly violent white male supremacist State. (And the Jews there are not comparable to white U.S. Christians, in any historical or political reality.)

Even given all that, I personally and politically consider the U.S. Ashkenazim, generally speaking, to be racially white. But not so the Sephardim or Mizrahim, inside or outside of the U.S.

I think those of us who are raised and treated by non-Jewish whites as whites who "happen to be Jewish" (don't get me started!), should own that albeit ethnically marginalised privilege. And, of course, Jewish folks do not often occupy one ethnic, political, racial, or cultural location. Some Ashkenazic Jews I have known have last names that have been anglocised (Greenblatt to Green, for example), and are fair-skinned and light-haired enough to "pass" as white throughout their lives. For me, if they are not religious, that means they ARE unambiguously white.

In my view it works this way: if "feminist" or "profeminist" implies whiteness, that's a gross distortion of reality, even while it is reinforced by the media reporting on feminism and the Academy teaching it. If "lesbian" or "gay" is equated with being white, in white-dominated, white-controlled social circles, that too is racist. If "Jew" equals or implies white, that's just as politically problematic, as it invisibilises so many Jews around the world, including within the U.S., who do not and never did speak Yiddish, for example, and who may have no relationship whatsoever to Eastern (or Western) Europe.

I welcome more discussion about this.

Valerie replied:
You have actually made a brilliant point here. While I'm the fair-haired and pale-skinned daughter of Eastern-European atheists who made it clear that they considered their trips to synagogue a part of being "culturally" Jewish, and while there are many people with similar experiences in power, I should not speak on behalf of Sephardim or those who are more religious.

In the extremely anti-semitic environment in Texas where I grew up, I did not feel white, but since moving north, I have always felt white. Perhaps the whiteness of Jews varies according to local attitudes?

There's this great book, How the Jews Became White Folks, which sort of perfectly explains how I can feel and operate as white while my aunt does not. I haven't had any major setbacks due to my heritage, but she has had to run from genocidal maniacs to a country where she was treated as a burden and occasionally threatened with violence.

Valerie added:
I guess that what rubs me the wrong way is that many many Jews in this country who have never experienced any social role other than whiteness appear to use a legacy of persecution to conjure anti-semitism at will. They are extremely prone to doing this whenever the topic of Israeli occupation comes up, and then blythely informing me that I am a "self-loathing" Jew. The fact that I have actually had to worry about my physical safety due to my Jewishness and they have not doesn't come up, possibly because they don't want to discuss the ways in which I'm probably much more attuned to what actual anti-semitism looks like than they are.

Julian responded:
Thanks for continuing the conversation, Valerie, and for alerting me to that book. I think another important addition to this conversation is James Baldwin's classic essay on African-American non-Jews and white Jews in the U.S., found here. I think there is a core way in which we are in deep agreement and in this response I want to be sure I make that explicitly clear. What follows is a direct reply to your last comment to date.

Yes, I agree, there are many white folks in the U.S. who are also Jewish, who claim to be "not-white" because they are Jews. And to that I say "Bullshit". And I'll add that my experience alone, or my feelings about my own whiteness are not central to the discussion of whether or not I am politically racially white. I am white here. I live each day as a white person in the thoroughly racist United States of Amerikkka, which means I benefit every day from this privilege and status.

As for the experiences of Middle Eastern, Eastern European, African, and U.S. Jews in Israel, as I have never been to Israel, nor been close friends with anyone who did, I do feel qualified to engage in much discussion about this issue. I am experientially ignorant on the topic, and to pretend otherwise would likely become glaringly apparent soon enough. This doesn't mean I am without a political perspective on current events in Israel, woefully ignorant though it may be. I can say that I believe Israel is a currently behaving as a white male supremacist colonising racist State. I understand that some Jews and non-Jews argue convincingly it has always been that. If one wishes to discuss the racist conditions some Jews experience, one need only note how Ethiopian Jews are (mis)treated in Israel by non-Black Jews. The Israeli military's decimation of regional Palestinians--Israeli or not, who often have far fewer economic privileges than Israeli Jews, is further evidence of blatant injustice running rampant there. And, also, I have never lived in a country where "my people" believe themselves, correctly or not, to be regionally despised and threatened with annihilation. That "my people" includes Palestinian and other Middle Eastern Jews, must not be forgotten. Too often their stories are left out of the news reports. But the only population of Jews in the U.S. facing extinction, that I know of, are those whose race, ethnicity, and heritage is also American Indian.

I remember sending out something on white privilege, probably written by Tim Wise, who is also Jewish, btw, to some Jewish and non-Jewish white friends of mine. One white person wrote back that she never thought of herself as white before, only as Jewish; that she sided with people of color, not with white people, if such "lines in the political sand" were being drawn; such lines are not drawn, as far as I can tell, and if they are the tide washes them away twice daily.

I understood this came from how her parents framed up race, ethnically, in her home of origin--mostly in terms of past generations of people who lived elsewhere under very different circumstances. She had consciousness about race and racism in the U.S., and so it stunned me that she'd think of herself as "not-white" here, now, in this grossly assimilationist country she and I were both assimilated into. I'd met her family, knew a bit about her upbringing, including where she'd lived in this country, and none of that information led me to conclude she was anything but white here. And Jewish. Definitely Jewish too. So I want to confirm, affirm, and validate your irritation with white Jews who pretend not to be white, or who think we can claim "non-white" status here, just because we are also Jewish. This is not to say that there do not remain, globally, places where conditions exist such that being white and Jewish has effectively equaled being not-white. It comes down to the ways those particular nationally or regionally empowered race supremacists have defined and controlled the meanings of racial identity through systems of exclusion and institutions of genocide.

My own family fled pogroms, as not-yet-white Jews, not as white Gentiles, in Eastern Europe. My father was not born in this country. I was. He fully assimilated and so I grew up partly in a home that was secular, celebrating Christmas and Easter as "U.S. American" holidays. (Those occasions means had much more to do with Capitalism than "Christ", and at least as much to do with the Pagan elements subversively absorbed by the Christian churches, such as decorating trees and coloring eggs.) In any racially diverse social space it was assumed he was white. Everywhere I have lived I have been white. Everywhere I have traveled to I have remained white. Even encountering, not infrequently, anti-Jewish sentiments, stereotypes, and bigotry hasn't rendered me "less white". It may have made me feel less white. But that's not the same thing.

I'll add that there are ALSO plenty of non-Jewish white folks who ALSO claim to be "not white", sometimes due to economic or other forms of persecution. I encounter this belief most earnestly and callously among Gentile poor and working class white folks I know, but it shows up among the middle class as well, including, among the upper middle class. Only because my social circle is primarily female, some very white women have expressed to me some variation on "Oprah has far more privilege than me." This is a classic retort usually rhetorically designed to mix apples with oranges, as if me being gay and Jewish, for example, somehow means I don't also have economic, education, white, and male privileges. Whites, in my experience, are often clumsy and careless in supposing that because we are marginalised or oppressed in some other way, by gender, sexuality, or class, for example, that that means we don't still have our white privilege solidly and institutionally intact.

Related to this: a white, middle class gay male acquaintance, who was my age, once told me an overtly anti-Black racist joke--not the kind that I could "misunderstand", adding it was OK for him to tell it to me because he's gay, and it's a joke originally told by Whoopie Goldberg in a video he saw of one of her stand-up performances. Somehow, in his politically delusional mind, being white and gay meant he was also Black (?), or that gay white guys experience enough of what Black people do who are lesbian, gay, or neither to qualify us as "one people". One thing white people don't experience is being Black, and I let him know it wasn't OK with me that he shared that joke with me--no matter who originally told it, that since it was delivered from him to me, I didn't think it was funny at all, and that such an attempt to bond with me over such a bizarre understanding of "shared oppressions and permissions" would undoubtedly fail to win me over as a friend. I promptly cut him out of my life and have not spoken to him since. That I could afford do so speaks to some of my own privileges.)

But back to the issue of Oprah Winfrey having more privileges than any given white person. "Being more privileged" doesn't mean "having more white privilege" necessarily. It may mean having far more economic privilege and power, but even that is not as secure for any person of color as it is among the white rich (in the white supremacist countries I'm aware of, at least), even if the white person's wealth was largely accumulated in their own lifetime, as, obviously, was Oprah Winfrey's. Oprah must obey white supremacist rules of conduct if she is to maintain her social standing, and keep her wealth. If she insisted, against the wishes of her white producers and corporate sponsors, on doing a series of programs on her talk show about white supremacy, having guests like Andrea Smith, Marimba Ani, and Tim Wise, with her not arguing against them, she'd (and we'd) find out rather quickly how tenuous her "social standing" is among whites. If she agreed with Andrea, Marimba, and Tim that this country is currently deeply and viciously white supremacist, murderously racist, and aggressively genocidal, and that all white people participate in and benefit from this racist system, we'd see her white audience tune out, her producers be threatened to "get things back on track", and her corporate pals quickly "unfriend" her.

Second, Ms. Winfrey still faces anti-Black racism every day of her life, and can't live a day without doing so, no matter what middle class white folks think her life is like. The very fact that many white folks apparently look to her as a "humanitarian who happens to be Black" role model is founded in a deeply racist assumption about the capacity of the individual to escape structural oppression and identity, in this case as a formerly impoverished African-American woman. Too many whites--women and men--assume that Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey have "made it" into Whiteboyland just because they are rich. Sorry, not so fast.

Ms. Winfrey and Dr. Cosby are also called the n word, and she is also called the b word (among other misogynist-racist terms), routinely by bigoted whites--women and men, and by bigoted men--white and of color--across the economic and social spectrum. And those whites and men, often one and the same, get to feel superior (or not) when they do so. Regardless of how they feel hurling the n word or b word around in this way, they are exercising their white/male entitlements to do so; they are enacting their white/male privilege; they are maintaining white/male supremacist power.

Ms. Winfrey and Dr. Cosby will only "benefit" to the degrees they speak in accordance and in collaboration with corporate white heterosexual male Amerikkka. It goes without say that white some white Jews and some people of color do collaborate quite profoundly with the powers that be, no group collaborates more so than economically and sexually privileged white men. White women are marginalised and oppressed due to gender, every day, more extremely so if lesbian or poor.

An activist I know who is of color has noted how white women and men of color are in uniquely troubled places, structurally and socially. Women of color are so marginalised that they have relatively little to lose by resisting. White men are so rewarded that it is highly unlikely we will collectively organise against the powers that be ourselves. But white women and men of color are caught in a zone where the white male supremacist rulebooks offer this: "if you play your cards just right, you might be rewarded"**.

**Fine print: Rewarded as an individual, never as a group.

What I have noticed is this, and this is an observation about the coercive power of structural location, not genetics or biology. The institutional power of "whiteness" and "manhood" is neither elucidated by the Human Genome project, nor atrributable to hormones and brain structure, much as white male supremacist sociobiologists whimper on and on about how much this is the case. White men are, on the whole, hopeless. (And I welcome white men to rise up against white male supremacy in a way that is fully accountable to women of color, and please, PLEASE, prove me wrong.) Some political white women disproportionately focus activist energies against "patriarchy" and not white supremacy because they are implicated as oppressors when the focus is on white supremacy, and, just like white men, they don't, collectively, relish the idea of investigating what their privilege really means. Men of color disproportionately focus on racism, not on patriarchy, not on male supremacy, because to do so implicates them directly as structural and interpersonal oppressors of women, particularly and usually the women of their own ethnic groups.

In primarily liberal to progressive circles I have been part of, there is a certain kind of useless oppressor-guilt that results in privileged people feeling not remorseful, not non-oppressively rageful, but instead sheepish and sluggish about owning the merits of their status, as they/we benefit all the while. Among white Jews, I see this liberal guilt and sluggishness impeding own our understanding and responsible action as whites. We wish not to deal with the fact that our whiteness, like anyone else's whiteness, is a socially real manifestation of power that is unjust and deadly to people of color, some of whom are also Jewish.