For as long as I can remember, being Jewish has been my primary identity. Once I came out in my early 40s, I embraced being gay as my second primary identity. I am proud to be both. Yet, why am I reluctant about being white?
Growing up I never thought about this. You could count the number of non-white students in my Elementary school on one hand. And so I saw myself as white because…what else could I be?
Yet, eventually I realized that I didn’t really think of myself as white. The reason was clear. To me, white was equated with white and Christian—I was not part of the Christian majority, therefore, I wasn’t truly white.
Culturally, this was nothing new. For years Jews were not seen as, nor considered themselves to be, white. Jews were a separate “race.” It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that this began to change, as Jews became more successful and well-educated. Of course, this narrative does not apply to the 12-20% of American Jews who are people of color. I am referring to the Ashkenazi Jewish American community, of which I am a part.
Not considering myself to be white is not about skin color, but instead about my sense of identity and belonging. Yet, if I don’t see myself as white, does that mean I don’t benefit from white privilege or in any way perpetuate white supremacy?
Following the events in Charlottesville in 2017, in which a woman was killed during the Unite the Right Rally, I wrote a blog post which addressed the conundrum that Jews are both targeted by white supremacist hate while at the same time—since most of us present as white—we benefit from white privilege.
I am not pulled over for driving in the “wrong” neighborhood, nor am I followed by store security guards. I am not ignored or spoken over by others in the room. People don’t cross the street when they see me walking towards them; they don’t challenge my right to be swimming in a pool, watching birds in the park or walking in my own neighborhood. No one assumes, in a restaurant or hotel, that I am an employee. My job applications are not passed over because of my name.
Most powerful of all: as a parent, I never needed to have “the talk” with my children, especially my son, about how to act if they are stopped by police. I have never needed to worry that they might get profiled while out at night, or, accused, arrested or killed because of the color of their skin.
That is white privilege. It has nothing to do with socio-economic status. It is simply based on skin color.
This is not new. Our country’s unfair system of policing and incarceration originated in order to preserve slavery and later to control former slaves. Redlining, inequitable property taxes and employment regulations are all ways that white Americans have been privileged over Black Americans and other people of color.
It’s not just about white supremacist hate groups. It’s about the fact that our country was founded on the “self-evident truths” that all white people, especially men, were “supreme.” Eventually, Ashkenazi Jews became widely accepted as white, even if anti-Jewish hatred and violence continued. The descendants of enslaved Africans and other people of color did not achieve that same level of communal acceptance.
Cory Booker urged the Jewish and Black communities to unite in fighting violence and prejudice during a candid conversation with Jodi Rudoren. Missed it? Watch here.
There is something insidious about this. As a Black friend pointed out, the acceptance of Jews and others as white simply gave whites a stronger majority and more power to systemically oppress Blacks.
It would be easy for me to say that I bear no guilt for our national sin of slavery, since my ancestors didn’t arrive until around 1900. However, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” As a Jew, I may not carry guilt, but my white privilege means I still bear a responsibility to help dismantle the racist system.
As a gay Jew, I know that anti-Jewish and homophobic rhetoric and violence are both still present and increasing. Yet, I also know that when walking down the street, I am probably seen as white, and assumed to be Christian and straight. So I don’t feel afraid.
In the past, I could have been arrested in America for being gay (and still can be elsewhere), and as a Jew I would have been forbidden to attend certain schools or belong to certain clubs. Yet, our nation was not created to oppress us as it was Black people.
I am proudly Jewish and gay; though both groups experience prejudice and persecution, we rise up and prevail in the face of hatred and violence and I am proud to stand tall under the banner of these identities.
However, I have no pride in being accepted as part of white America, which has built our unjust system. I have no pride in the fact that I don’t have to worry when walking down the street because of the whiteness of my skin.
But it doesn’t matter how I feel about being seen as white. De facto, I am white. I have a personal responsibility to not only fight racism, but to dismantle white supremacy. This begins by learning all I can about how and why systemic racism and white supremacy came to exist.
It is also my responsibility to help others in the Jewish and LGBTQ communities to understand our responsibility. Then, we need to work together with Black Americans and all people of color to break down the system and rebuild it from the ground up. Only then can we all truly dwell in one nation under God. Only then can all of us realize the self-evident truth that all humans are created in the image of God. Only then will everyone in our country treat one another with equity, compassion and justice for all. Only then will America truly be great.
Rabbi Steve Nathan is the Director of Jewish Student Life and Associate Chaplain at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. He was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, has a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology and has studied Midrashic storytelling with Peninnah Schramm and Mindfulness meditation with Rabbis Jeff Roth and Sheila Peltz Weinberg. His Torah commentaries, original midrash, poetry and more can be found at www.mindfultorah.org.