Painting by Amrita Sher Gil (a Jewish Indian artist from the early 1900s); courtesy of Wikimedia.
[Image description: Painting of three Indian women looking down and away from the artist with serious expressions.]
There is no question that I walk through the world as a white person. To most of the people that I meet, I am a white person. I feel comfortable in white spaces and safe when talking to cops. But there is also no question that there are subtleties to my experience that differentiate it from whiteness. And of course, calling myself white ignores the long history of antisemitism which has sought and continues to seek to distance the Jewish people from whiteness and it’s privilege. The simplest way I can explain my race is that whiteness is a label I feel a responsibility to claim. Ignoring it feels like a blatant disregard to the privilege I am afforded by the color of my skin. But white is not an accurate or complete summation of the way I experience the world or the way my people have historically experienced it.
I hope that this very edited rambling is helpful to you in your understanding of yourself or of the Jewish people. If you want to talk more about how European Jews relate to whiteness or how I relate to whiteness, buy me dinner and we can talk about it, especially if you’re Jewish or have more than a high school level understanding of what Judaism is. But the truth is, you don’t need to understand how I feel. What non-Jewish people need to understand is that this issue, like pretty much every other part of Jewish identity, is complicated and you shouldn’t assume anything about the beliefs or identity of an individual Jewish person. What you need to know is that even though I call myself white, even though you see me as white, that does not mean my experience in the world is the same as a white non-Jewish person’s. And, just as importantly, what white Jewish people need to realize is that regardless of how we feel about the label white, we are seen as white by a lot of people. We have white privilege and thus we have a responsibility to acknowledge racism and to fight against it that is just as important as our responsibility to fight against antisemitism.
I believe that Jewish people are not well represented in media. I believe that we still face discrimination and hatred. I believe that the nuances of our experiences and the nuances of antisemitism are not discussed enough, particularly within our own communities. These are important conversations to have but they are not conversations you should start having as soon as you hear anyone mention race. Instead, when you hear a person of color talk about their experience, their oppression, you should listen and you should support them. Do your part to uplift their voices and dismantle racism. It is completely possible to do these things and continue to separately have conversations about your own experiences and oppression, just as it is possible to be white and Jewish at the same time. Perhaps more importantly, white Jews, we need to acknowledge that there is racism within our own spaces.
Here’s the thing, regardless of my own relationship with whiteness: I don’t see Jewish spaces as white spaces. Jewish spaces, like Judaism, exist outside of the traditional lines of race, or at least they should. Jewish spaces are not white spaces, yet when Jews of color enter these spaces they often experience them as white Jewish spaces. Jewish people are not incapable of racism; in fact, they are just as capable of racism as anyone else. Jewish people can be racist and thus Jewish spaces can be racist. It is our job as white Jews to fight against racism everywhere, especially in our own communities. But making our spaces safe for Jews of Color does not just mean fighting against racism, but changing our own stereotypes of who is Jewish and what Judaism is. Welcome Jews of Color into your community, and do not assume someone’s identity or experience because of their race. Acknowledge that their identity is inevitably shaped by the other parts of their ethnic background, in fact, it is likely that their Jewish identity is shaped by these elements. Remember that there are many ways to be Jewish beyond the Ashkenazi traditions that so dominate what we think of as Judaism. Only when we shift the way we think about race within our own community will our spaces be Jewish spaces and not just white Jewish spaces. But of course, don’t take my word for all of this. Linked below are the stories of Jews of Color, uplifting the voices of others starts within our own community.
What Makes This Jew Different Than All Other Jews? Race, Difference, and Safety in Jewish Spaces by Shais Rishon (video)
As Jews of Color, We Need You to Read This (roundtable interview)