When people ask why I chose Black Studies (following each time someone asks what I majored in) I tell them about the first Black Studies course I took at the State University of New York at New Paltz, Race and Racism. Albert Williams-Myers and the course itself shed light upon what had always struck my soul, human behavior surrounding discrimination and injustice found throughout history. I began my journey during this time in answering two fundamental questions, what is racism and how does this apply to my Jewish identity.
Williams-Myers introduced a new definition of racism to me as beyond just feelings and actions but more so as a system of power. In a society where white people uphold a structure of institutional racism, people of color cannot be racist, because they do not uphold or benefit from this institutional structure. Through describing this ideology to a class full of students ranging in hues, Williams-Myers answered all of our questions in the most inviting context. He gave us many examples of this ideology, one being that white people had never been institutionally discriminated and slaughtered the ways many Black lives had and continue to be throughout world history. One of my first questions though was – what about the Jews, what about the Holocaust? “Well the Jews,” he said, “were not considered white.” For me the answer wasn’t sufficient and from there on, I’ve continued searching for one.
Since a child, I’ve consistently been transfixed with how humans interact or more so do not interact, among a dividing line of skin color. I think this was something ingrained in my soul but I also attribute these feelings to the household in which I was brought up in. I am not sure when I realized the breadth of my Father’s life commentary but the words “America has always been a racist country,” were certainly not spoken for the first time after the death of Mike Brown. A son of a Holocaust survivor, my Dad was raised and raised us as well to always be wary of government. “As my father always used to say,” says my own Father, “one day he was playing soccer with kids, and the next day they were all wearing brown uniforms.” With this structure in place, I have always held a strong identity as a Jewish person and a critical eye towards all forms of discrimination, not just anti-semitism – because God knows Jews are not the only ones people love to hate.
Among the explosion of social media in regards to the tragic death of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, I stumbled across an article on Haaretz written by Benjy Cannon titled “Jews, white privilege and the fight against racism in America.” Throughout the piece, Cannon tackled many issues surrounding the current state between Jewish and Black Americans and over arching questions, such as what happened to the strong alliance between Jews and Blacks during the Civil Rights Movement? As Cannon wrote, “During this period – the 1950s and 1960s – Jewish Americans themselves had only just begun to be accepted among white Americans as equals, and still remembered what is was like to be oppressed.“ What is most critical about Cannon’s response is that whiteness is never stagnant but always a revolving door.
Who is considered white today was not considered white 50 years ago and so forth throughout time. However there is more to this answer, as it is no secret that dominant power structures strategically work so that minority groups are pitted against one another. Both Black and Jewish Americans were barred from working at many institutions which is why Jews were often teachers in predominantly Black school districts and often worked under the same roofs of Higher Education.
In all circumstances though, once a hint of racism or anti-semitism catches wind, all trust will be broken. We saw our relationship unravel in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn during the famous teacher strike of 1968. After many white and mostly Jewish teachers had been fired from a local school board of a predominantly Black neighborhood, Blacks and Jews became entirely put in opposition to one another. As the rise of control and Black Power emerged in the education system, so did fears that these ideologies would be converted into anti-semitism. After mysterious pamphlets emerged stating students should not be taught by “Middle Eastern Murderers,” any alliance we once had completely fell apart. Simultaneously, the events created an environment where Jews could no longer be ambivalent about their white identity and were forced to acknowledge it. This strike not only affected Jewish and Black communities in New York, but gave way to our communities across the nation.
The idea of whiteness is powerful because it speaks to the current state and privilege owned, or not owned by many Jews. Through this acceptance of whiteness, many Jews (but most certainly not all) have climbed up the economic ladder. Were there benefits of this move? Sure, but I believe our assimilation into whiteness has been extremely detrimental to our relationship to our own oppressive history and has immensely segregated us from communities of color.
One of the first steps in debunking racism, is acknowledging it. If we do not acknowledge the power, strength, and force of a rampant white supremacist ideology, it will continue to tear down and unleash violence among all communities of color. An extremely regressive step in this path is playing the victim and turning the grievance among yourself. Is racism the only ism in the world? Obviously not, however that does not mean there needs to be ranking in place.
Along the same vein, don’t count yourself out of your whiteness, even if you are an advocate for equality. In a letter to the editor responding to Michael Eric Dyson’s, “Where Do We Go After Ferguson,” one reader wrote
“I am ‘white,’ so is my wife, so are most of our friends. Not one of us views the events as Mr. Dyson suggests. All of us are horrified by police brutality and the victimization of another young black man. Although a majority of whites may indeed blame the victim, a substantial minority does not. And that is the point: By stereotyping whites as sharing in the same racial stereotypes, Mr. Dyson inadvertently helps to deepen this country’s racial divide.”
To this response I say, congratulations! Cutting around my sarcasm though, we cannot speak about racism without using the word race. Instead of being upset about being stereotyped go talk to those majority of whites who blame the victim. Instead of being offended that people of color might stereotype you or judge you based off your oppressive skin tone, make efforts to gain their trust. We can talk all we want about how “not racist” we are, but instead of adding to our own narcissism, why don’t we go out and try to educate our own people who are racist (conscious of it or not).
For many of these reasons I was extremely disappointed while reading Hila Hershkoviz’s response to the Haaretz article, “Ashkenazi Jews are not white,” as her statements are strongly detrimental for the hopes of a Jewish and Black alliance (Ashkenazi refers to Jews of European descent). Black Studies is not just an academic discipline but a caveat for change. To create change we need to educate our own communities, so if you are white and/or Jewish, this is a personal shout out to you.
My takeaways from Hershkoviz’s response are that she wanted to make clear that not all Ashkenazi Jews have light skin and that Jews have and will continue to be discriminated against. This, is all true, however you cannot define an entire group of people. Not all Ashkenazi Jews are white and not all are non-white. I am not practicing a form of Western imperialism, I am living in a country founded upon white, Christian, Western imperialism and whether I like it or not, I am reaping many of its benefits.
Regardless if any Jew would like to identify themselves as white, many of us sure as hell pass as white. To take responsibility for my whiteness does not make me any less Jewish or any less critical of anti-semitism, but instead it furthers my ability to repair the world – Tikkun Olam as we say. Yet, as stated earlier, ones’ whiteness changes with both time and place. Because of this, Jews have always fallen in an odd, ambiguous place, because we all look different. Do I believe we have an originating Middle Eastern identify, most certainly. Do I believe I look Middle Eastern, definitely not – I know this from my experiences passing as a white woman in America for the past 24 years. This experience is different from many of my other Jewish friends who do not pass as white and whose families have fled from places around the world from South America to Iran.
No one has forced us to identify as white, because we have not had to, many of us have already passed for white. If you are Jewish, I will let you identify yourself. I ask you though to remember, while many of your experiences have been based on your Jewish identity, how many have been based on your whiteness?