Rabbi Steve Nathan is the endowed director of Jewish Student Life at Lehigh and also serves as an associate chaplain. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.
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 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-20th Century that this began to change, as Jews became more successful and well-educated. Of course, this narrative does not apply to the 12 to 20 percent 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 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, I wrote a blog post which addressed the conundrum that Jews are both targeted by white supremacist hate while at the same time — as most of us present as white — we reap the benefits of 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 and frightening 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 when they are out at night whether they might get profiled, pulled over, accused, arrested, or even 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 either. Our country’s unfair system of policing and incarceration originated in order to preserve slavery and later to control former slaves. Red lining, inequitable property taxes, and employment regulations are all ways that white Americans have been privileged over Black Americans and other people of color. That is white supremacy. It’s not about white supremacist hate groups. It’s about the fact that our country was founded on the self-evident truth that all white people, especially men, were “supreme,” and not that all were created equal. Once Ashkenazi Jews achieved our new “white” status there was communal acceptance, even as 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.
There is something insidious about this. As a Black friend pointed out, the acceptance of Jews and others as white simply gave whites more of a majority and more power to maintain the systemic oppression of Blacks.
It would be easy for me to say that I bear no guilt for our national sins of slavery and systemic racism 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 as someone seen as white 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 just walking down the street most likely I’m 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. Systemic racism also rears its ugly head in the LGBTQ world: homophobia and transphobia, including violence and murders, disproportionately affect LGBTQ people of color.
Coming full circle, I am proudly Jewish and gay, even though both groups experience prejudice and persecution, because we rise up and we prevail in the face of hatred and violence.
However, I have no pride in being “accepted” as part of white America, which has built our unjust system and created racism. I have no pride in the fact that I can “pass” and not have to worry about the types of prejudice and hatred mentioned above simply because of the whiteness of my skin.
Yet. 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 work to dismantle white supremacy and the white privilege that accompanies it. This begins by learning all I can about how and why racism and white supremacy came to exist.
It is also my responsibility to help others in the Jewish and LGBTQ communities to understand this. 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 eternal truth that every human being is created in the image of God. Only then will everyone in our country truly treat one another with equity, compassion, and justice for all. Only then will America truly be great.