A shonda for the Jews
On April 25, sitting in the “Louis B. Mayer” auditorium of the Jesuit university where I teach, I said the words “I’m white and I’m proud” over and over again. At first, I barely mouthed them, shifting uncomfortably in my seat and looking around. And then my voice became audible. And then I awkwardly shouted, sort of. Why did I do such a thing? I was in the audience of comedian W. Kamau Bell’s performance, “The Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour,” and he made me to do it.
I’m a Jew who spent the first ten years of her life in the Soviet Union. I’m also a professor who often has conversations about intersections of oppressions with students. It’s not surprising that shouting “I’m white and I’m proud!” was very uncomfortable for me. Discomfort was the point though. The exercise implicitly reminded the audience of the overt expressions of white nationalist pride that have become the norm in the Trump era. Just last week, Neo-Nazis burned a swastika in a rally in Georgia. But Bell’s stated purpose was to make the audience members who identify as white to get a small, largely symbolic, taste of what it felt like to be a person of color. Specifically, he wanted white folks to know what it means to have to take responsibility for the actions and words of individuals within their community. For example, the Kanye “slavery was a choice” incident had just taken place the day before and everybody had already asked Bell to comment on it. In fact, he felt the need to rewrite a good chunk of his show in order to address the controversy. Bell’s message was that, while it is, in some ways, absurd for people of color to have to explain the ravings of a celebrity, the response should not be to shirk from responsibility. This means that white people, too, have a duty as white people to take responsibility for the actions of other white people they disagree with, now more than ever. It’s a call to “collect your people.”
Like other white people, I’m not used to taking responsibility this way, but my resistance has a particular flavor. I grew up painfully aware of my Jewish status and saw myself as a member of a minority race. My identity was inborn and there was little that I could do to change the systemic discrimination it came with, except leave the former Soviet Union. However, since my family’s immigration, I have enjoyed white privilege every day of my life, something unavailable to Jews of color. As part of my white privilege, I have not had to account for the actions of other white people as a white person.
My sense of responsibility for the actions of other Jews has been a different story. In the Trump era, feelings of shame surrounding the choices of high-profile Jews have become a day-to-day reality. Many of my Jewish friends share that feeling. We as Jews of course have a language for our particular brand of tribal shame. The various spellings of shonda, meaning shame, come into my social media feed with regularity. The cast of Jewish characters currently associated with that word among my friends has been identified in some detail in this publication, most resonantly for me in Talia Lavin’s piece, Trump’s Jews Are A Shonda For Di Goyim. Michael Cohn, Alan Dershowitz, Steve Mnuchin, Jared Kushner and most recently Mark Zuckerberg — these are just some of the people who make me squirm when I open my Internet browser first thing in the morning.
Many of us white Jews are used to feeling guilty for the actions of other Jews. We are also used to feeling uncomfortable about the idea of identifying as white because of our checkered experience with the American version of the white/color binary. Still, what we white Jews need to get better at is feeling shame for other white people as white people.
Saying “I’m white and I’m proud” is always going to be weird for a Jew. I hope to not have to do it again anytime soon. That being said, for Jews who enjoy white privilege, there is value in experiencing shonda as white people so we can better collect “our people.” Yes, I’m still talking about white people. So maybe we don’t exactly have to feel “white and proud” — but we can at least feel proud-ish.