Acknowledging Privilege, Surrendering Struggle

I recognize Caroline Rothstein’s tears. So, probably, do a lot of well-meaning progressive Jews. Those tears of guilt and misunderstanding are the outward manifestation of an inner struggle to accept, as she writes, being both inside and outside: oppressed and privileged.

Today, Ashkenazi and some Sephardic Jews in America are white. We weren’t always, but then, well, we ascended into the white supremacist hierarchy, leaving people of color out in the cold.

At the same time, Jews’ collective experience and memory of oppression informs a rich social justice tradition for many of us, one in which we don’t just sympathize but strain to empathize. We were strangers, so we advocate for immigrants. We were relegated to ghettoes, so we fight poverty and racism. That’s why when we’re reminded of our own role in contemporary racial or socioeconomic oppression — or how we’ve benefited from those ills — we can get upset in a very personal way.

Sometimes, I think, progressive Jews’ stance of advocacy can shield us from confronting our own privilege. This widely-circulating Salon article by Myisha Cherry explains why that contradiction persists

For progressive Jews in America, it’s practically mandatory to stand up for others. But giving up the bootstrap myth about ourselves means rewriting a major part of our identity. It can cause tsuris to reexamine, both collectively and on a personal level, how much of our achievement has been our own sweat (and we did sweat) and how much we’ve benefited from the color of our skin — even when we experienced anti-Semitism. Such an examination leads to some uncomfortable questions about issues from gentrification at home to occupation abroad.

The Applied Research Center’s Rinku Sen, a major thinker on race, recently wrote a piece about two levels of awareness of racial disparities in light of the Trayvon Martin case and its appalling verdict. One level is an “implicit bias” that we don’t consider, system 1: comfortable, complicit. System 2 is where we reconsider our assumptions and interrogate our fears. Sen writes,

Sen notes that this is a more involved, difficult level of thought. But I want to argue that it can also be liberating to let go of what Cherry calls the “egotistical notion.” When I say liberating, I don’t mean: “Whee! I’ve coasted along on my socioeconomic, gender, and racial advantages while others have faced discrimination!”

Instead, I mean the liberation of taking the blinders off and seeing the truth. For me, that ongoing process began the day I arrived at my Ivy League school and began to meet many other Jewish girls who, like me, had edited their high school newspapers in well-to-do communities. At first I panicked at the idea that I wasn’t nearly as unique and special as I thought. I wanted to think of myself as deserving and justly rewarded. Yet the evidence indicated to me that merit made up a much smaller part of a Harvard acceptance (and all kinds of other advantages in life) than advantaged circumstances of birth and upbringing did. My ego and my intellect were battling, and that battle caused a lot of handwringing, guilt and denial. But once I accepted the facts, I was free to move on to other terrain: figuring out who I was as an adult, fighting for inclusion and fairness for everyone without pretending our experiences were exactly alike.

When we actively deny our privilege in the face of reality, we’re maintaining an exhausting disconnect. So when we finally acknowledge our privilege, or as Sen would put it, when we move over to system 2, we may have to scrutinize ourselves harder, but we can also give up the effort that fighting off the truth requires. And then we can be better allies for social justice, better listeners, and better students in the school of solidarity.


Sarah Seltzer

Acknowledging Privilege, Surrendering Struggle

Your Comments

The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. All readers can browse the comments, and all Forward subscribers can add to the conversation. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters or repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Recommend this article

Acknowledging Privilege, Surrendering Struggle

Thank you!

This article has been sent!