the rack and the screw

White Privilege & Jewish Identity

Posted in I may be a bit of a Jew by bellareve on March 25, 2009

I am not a religious person, but I am ethnically and culturally Jewish. I do not go to temple or speak Hebrew, and I never had a bat mitzvah, but I appreciate my heritage and certain cultural elements like Jewish food, music, and humor. I like living in a city with a Jewish community. My family does speak Yiddish, and we celebrate the major holidays by being with family, not by invoking God. We are Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe. 

I do “look” white and am generally treated as such, to the best of my knowledge. One never knows exactly how one is read or perceived, but I sense white privilege when, for instance, I go to a store and am not looked at with suspicion, but instead am catered to. I sense it when I am taken seriously by professors and at job interviews. 

But I don’t “feel” white, per se. Meaning, I do NOT in the slightest, identify with mainstream WASP culture. It is foreign to me. I feel more comfortable around other ethnic groups. I actually feel somewhat anxious and insecure around whites. The experiences of hearing a non-English language at home, and bringing lunches to school that are not American cuisine, that looked and smelled weird to my classmates as a kid, are othering. 

None of this negates the privilege of looking white. However, the point of this post…I guess it is frustrating when Jews and whites are lumped together, as though we all experience the same level of privilege, occupy the same rung on the racial hierarchy, and oppress other groups to the same degree. Because that is inaccurate. I resent when people assume such. It means they don’t know the history of Jews in America, or the extent to which being Jewish is an ethnicity, not just a religion. For instance, when Jews first immigrated from Europe, we were not considered or treated “white.” (The same is true of the Irish and Italians). And to the people at the top, to the ruling class, to families like the Bushes, Jews are still despised. And anti-Semitism is not only about persecuting those who don’t believe in Christ; the holocaust was based on the existence of Jewish “blood” and genes. It was a racial issue. 

Also, some Jews, many whom are Sephardic, actually don’t look white. My mother, for instance, looks Middle Eastern, although our ancestors come from Russia. I know other Jews, some Persian and Israeli, with darker complexions, who were actually targeted and profiled in the post-9/11 anti-Arab/Muslim hysteria.

To understand Jews as white, in terms of social position, is an egregious oversimplification. 

My personal experience of this: As an undergrad, I took a class called “Women of Color in the U.S.” At one point, the TA, a WOC, told me that “as an Aryan woman,” I had to be extra careful to check my privilege in the class discussions. 

Rewind that. I’m sorry, ARYAN? Actually, it was the “Aryans” who tortured and gassed my relatives. Read that sentence again. And thanks for assuming that pale skin = Aryan. This is doubly absurd because I have a clearly Jewish last name, and the TA must have known this from grading my papers.