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Why I Check Both White and Jewish

Sisterhood contributor Caroline Rothstein Image by Jonathan Weiskopf

Join Caroline Rothstein on Twitter for a Tweet chat about this article tonight, Wednesday, July 31, from 7:00 to 7:30pm ET. Share your opinions with the hashtag #MyJewishID.

On a recent Saturday morning, I left my Bushwick apartment in yellow galoshes and a black raincoat, my red umbrella tucked under my elbow, my yoga mat swung over my shoulder. As I opened the door to exit my building, a middle-aged Latino man left the adjacent bodega with a fresh cup of coffee in hand.

He turned his body and prepared to sit on my building stoop. Instantaneously, upon walking outside, I pulled the front door behind me; I didn’t want it to slam into him. After all, I always close the door when someone is standing in the doorway.

As I turned right and headed down the block to catch the bus, I caught a glimpse of the man’s face. It looked as if decades of disappointment engulfed his gaze. I watched him leap back into the bodega, raising his voice: These white people moving into the neighborhood are racist.

I halted. Turned around. Walked back. Met the man, now sitting on my tiny stoop, eye-to-eye. Amidst his hurt words, I told him I had no intention of insulting him; closing the door had nothing to do with the color of his skin.

He stood up and said that us white people keep moving here, thinking everyone’s a criminal. I assured him I wouldn’t have moved here if I thought that. Assured him I’m working desperately hard to respect everyone who lives in this neighborhood, which is predominantly Latino/a. And then, coaxed by something far deeper and far more overwhelming than this specific interaction, my eyes welled up with tears.

I think about gentrification every day. No matter where I move — deeper and deeper into Brooklyn — I am invading someone’s community; I am a white artist jacking up the rent, puncturing a community that isn’t mine. The fact that I am Jewish does not override the way my skin color affects the communities in which I live and have lived throughout New York.

This, amongst myriad other realities and socio-political experiences, is why I concretely distinguish between my racial identity as white, and my ethnic and religious identity as Jewish. While I acknowledge the many manifestations of my white privilege and care deeply about creating an equitable society, I continually confront the paradox of being both the oppressor (white) and the oppressed (Jewish). I also recognize that not all Jewish people are white: We come from a plethora of racial, ethnic, national, and other demographics, with varying distributions of privilege and equity.

I have pondered, investigated and deconstructed my own social identity as both white and Jewish for years. It’s often complicated to embrace my racial identity as white when people have systematically worked to exterminate Jews — when I have experienced anti-Semitism at countless moments throughout my life and when we Jews are numerically a tiny population.

And knowing that a mere half century ago, “white Jews” were identified solely as Jewish, rather than white, is important to note. When I left the mostly white, affluent Chicago suburb in which I grew up for college at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, I realized that my skin color had more of an impact on how I engaged with my environment than my faith and ethnicity as a Reform Jew. My skin color exempted me from racial profiling incidents and discriminations too many friends of color experienced on and around campus. All over in this country, my skin color grants me access and prompts trauma for others; while I involuntarily gentrify my Brooklyn neighborhood, my skin color actively upset a man on a rainy Saturday morning.

Does it matter that my great grandparents and grandmother lived on the outer edges of this same borough; does it matter that my father got beat up at a WASPy New England boarding school for being Jewish; does it matter that I was called upon by a professor my first week of college to offer my general thoughts on genocide since my last name was Rothstein and I must have therefore had some opinion about Hitler, when all I have to do is close a door to make it seem like I am bulldozing an entire city? Simply by being white, I am aware that I trigger other people’s pain.

As tears streamed down my face outside my building that morning, the man asked the bodega clerk to get me a napkin. He handed it to me and watched me wipe my face. Then he hugged me. Tried to calm me down. Said now he knew me. He would protect me like he protects everyone in the neighborhood. He explained that he owns the newspaper stand across the street. That he is a good man. I assured him I never doubted that. He continued shaking my hand, hugging me and assuring me he had my back. Then, I walked away, boarded the bus for yoga and kept sobbing.

Having since stopped by his newspaper stand several times to say hello, having hugged him many times, having had him introduce me to the man at the cash register and his friends hanging out on the curb, I still can’t completely figure out why I cried so much. Maybe it was the fact that I upset him — I don’t like upsetting people; I don’t like people to be angry with me. Maybe it was the fact that I sometimes don’t like being white — I don’t like that I can’t escape my role in gentrification. Maybe I was victimizing myself as I have seen too many other white people, including myself, do when confronted with the visceral impact our white privilege has, how deeply it hurts other people. Maybe it was the fact that I had intentionally closed the door — not because he was Latino, but because he was a stranger, and no matter how socially aware I strive to be, no matter how hard I work to negotiate my white privilege and unpack my simultaneous identity as the oppressor and the oppressed, there is still an impulse, deep inside, to overlook a stranger in the doorway.

Sometimes, negotiating this often juxtaposed, yet simultaneous sense of self, that’s how I feel inside: a stranger in the doorway, not sure which identity is in, not sure which identity is out.

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