Saturday, August 21, 2010

Losing My White Privilege

For the record: I'm not White. I'm Jewish.

Okay, so I know you're thinking, "same thing, right?" But it's not. I learned a long time that Jewish (even white-skinned Jews) is never white. Being Jewish is like being the least popular popular kid -- sure you belong, but only in group pictures.

However, this isn't to say that I don't have White Privilege, because I do.

It took me a while to understand that because, well, the phrase itself is hard to get past. Privilege? Me? How? Life can be so difficult that most of the time I couldn't imagine it being any harder. (I was teenager at the time, so give me a break. We all think our own lives are the center of the universe at that age.) But as I grew up, started to deal with some heavy issues, I began to accept the concept... mostly.

For all intensive purposes I look White, talk White, walk White, and speak White. Why is this? If I don't call myself White how can I equate myself as being practically White? As a Jew, secular integration is one of the defining characteristics of most Jewish-Americans. We hide in plain sight, or tuck our "otherness" away in segregated communities. We pretend to be like everyone else (which in America is still seen as White, male, middle-class, etc.) while minimizing any exposure of our Jewishness.

Which is why I can tell you that I look White, but I'm not really White. I've had too many experiences with White people who zero in on my being Jewish like a kamikaze bomber to ever accept being defined as White.

Yet people still do it, and consequently I have White Privilege. It was only after I got together with my girlfriend that I began to see what that meant.

Just so there's no confusion, my girlfriend is Black. She's not light-skinned; she can't "pass" like I can, so to speak. She is -- in her words -- "obviously black".

Now that I'm dating her, I've had to deal with lots of new issues that before weren't really nothing but a thing. I could ignore racism because I could hide behind my white skin. I could shrug off jokes about Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and especially Jews. I could pretend that any sense of prejudice or discrimination or outright bigotry wasn't my problem. I personally didn't hold any negative feelings towards anyone, so therefore I could just go on about my business and forget it.

That was the first part of my White Privilege to go.

Then came having to re-evaluate my relationships with other people, especially my family. I couldn't just let them say random racist shit anymore, even if they didn't think it was racist. (Fortunately for me, most of my family never said much negatively about race in the first place.) I had to start telling off my friends when they made inappropriate jokes. I began noticing and becoming hyper-aware of how I treated other races, especially Black people. I thought over my interactions -- was I acting dismissive? Was I rude or impatient? Was I being accidentally paternalistic?

It was at that point when I realized I didn't know much about race in practical terms. I had hidden so long behind a facade of Whiteness that now coming out from behind has revealed to me my own shortsightedness and fear. Fear from what? From confronting the truth: that I can never hide. No matter how deeply I bury the prejudice I experienced as a child and teenager, no matter how much I pretend it didn't happen it will still exist and, more importantly, it will still exist for my girlfriend, who has to deal with it every day because she can't hide like I can... like I could.

So there's a crack in my wall of White Privilege.

But I also want to highlight what I've gained. What privilege -- if any -- I've received from being in an inter-racial relationship.

Besides the obvious benefits of being loved and in love with someone who makes my whole life so much happier than should be possible, I've begun to notice other positive changes in my life. For whatever reason, minorities seem more comfortable talking to me, particularly if they know about my girlfriend. I seem to "cross over" in such a way as to be "down". My work at the open-mic I run has gone from being almost completely white to a diverse mix that includes a huge jump in the number of Black people -- particularly Black women -- that attend.

Speaking of Black women, another "benefit" (I put that in quotes because it's not really a benefit, especially to my girlfriend) is that Black women seem to find me more... attractive. Even if they don't know I'm in a serious relationship with a Black woman!

After meeting my girlfriend's family, I got to experience a side of American life I had never seen before. I ate catfish (which is a bottom-feeder, so it's not kosher in Judaism). I listened to neo-soul and mainstream rap. I got to see myriad hairstyles, from relaxed to natural, and "good hair" versus "bad hair". I watched more movies that feature diverse or primarily Black casts.

Basically, by giving up my White Privilege, and place in a White-majority context, I was allowed entrance to a community that accepted me without reservations and without any awkwardness at my being Jewish. (Okay, not entirely true. There was a strange but funny conversation with my girlfriend's uncle about whether Jews built the pyramids or not.)

This is notable as something that not even my so-called neighbors behind the Orange Curtain did. Back home I was always Jewish, and it was always portrayed in a negatively-neutral context. Being Jewish was only good if I wasn't like "those other Jews". You know, the ones that are greedy, stingy, and kill 10 Palestinians before breakfast.

What else have I gained? I've gained a new understanding of race-relations in this country. I've always been on the outside looking in, but now I'm also on the otherside looking back at the face I used to hide behind. Sometimes what I see makes me flinch, and sometimes it makes me disgusted. America is not as fair as I was led to believe by my parents or teachers. And while that makes many of you think, "well, duh!", to me it means that my personal suffering is not a rarity that I could blame as bad luck, but part of an institution of prejudice that makes me concerned for the future.

But so it goes. Part of being Jewish is learning how to survive, even against adverse situations. The history of my people is written in our very survival. That we exist, when so many other peoples of this Earth are gone, is a testament to our strength.

So I don't care if I've lost my White Privilege because I've gained something much more better.

I've gained some self-respect.

24 footnotes:

Anonymous said...

It's "for all intents and purposes" not "for all intensive purposes."

Zek J Evets said...

thanks anonymous, but actually... i kinda prefer it my way: for all intensive purposes.

however, either way and the sentence still means the same thing.

Mira said...


As you probably know, identity is a complicated thing. In fact, it's not even a "thing", but a process, that is constructed over and over again.

It's also equally about how you see yourself and how others see you.

It's impossible to take one aspect of an identity (race, for example) and make just that one relevant, because that doesn't take into account other aspects of someone's identity, such as gender, religion, status, sexual orientation, etc.

Why am I saying this? Because there's nothing strange about being both white (or white heterosexual male) and Jewish. That is who you are, and many other things. However, people often see some aspects of identity as more important than the others.

You may see your Jewisness (is that even a word?) as more important than your race. This is understandable, especially given the fact other whites often don't see you as one of your own. However, you must accept (like you do, as far as I can tell) that others may see some other aspects of your identity as the most important. Blacks may see your whiteness as the most important, because Jewish or not, you get white privilege and in that aspect you as like any other white. ("you" may not mean you personally, but somebody in your situation, or a similar one).

What is good to see is that you accepted the facts others may see you differently than the way you see yourself. Accepting the fact you have white privilege maybe be the most difficult step (especially given the fact other whites often don't see you as one of their own).

So this is a good thing.

Black women seem to find me more... attractive. Even if they don't know I'm in a serious relationship with a Black woman!

Like I wrote elsewhere, I find this a bit confusing, but interesting. :)

PS-I didn't get the one about Jews and pyramids, though.

Natasha W said...


Yes, I think it's difficult for most whites to understand white privilege. For what it's worth, I think white privilege might be a bit of a misnomer because whites aren't really granted any privileges per se, just the courtesy of being treated civilly and feeling as though they belong.

My SO would only speak out if something was out and out racist, but for the most part, he was like you and just ignored it. After all, it didn't affect his life in any significant ways. But he's doing much better now. It's definitely a good thing that people are becoming more aware of white privilege.

P.S. My SO thinks Jews are definitely white. He jokes that there is nothing different about them except that they are supposed to follow a religion that most of them don't even really participate much in. But he's from the opposite end of the country, so he might have different experiences.

Zek J Evets said...

@natasha: honestly the phrase itself was the hardest part to grasp, because the idea of being privileged is something i only imagined belong to the super-rich -- not to random dudes like me!

@your SO: haha, i can imagine he'd think/say that. it's true that most jews in america are secular and hardly practice their religion enough to be a recognizable minority like they used to. but my personal experience has led me to accept that even conventional anti-semitism is rare, the forms of prejudice and stereotyping still exist. this is particularly true with regards to the rich, greedy, stingy, and cunning jew stereotype. even now, when i start talking about money people will say, "oh you're such a jew!" it was funny the first time because it didn't make sense, but after a few hundred times of hearing it i've kinda gotten annoyed.

the best experiment i can come up with for how people understand jews in the context of american socio-cultural politics is to ask yourself: how many jews do i know? do i have any jewish friends? what do i know about judaism and jewish history? have i ever made a jew-joke? do i ever ignore or diminish the jewish experience/status as a ethnic-religious minority? questions like these, when i've asked them to people i've met in san francisco had some astonishing answers.

perhaps the most interesting was a guy i knew said that he considered jews indistinguishable from whites, yet couldn't name any jews that he personally knew. when i asked him if he knew anything about judaism, the only thing he could come up with is that we don't eat bacon and don't celebrate christmas. pushing further, i asked him how he could say jews were indistinguishable from whites if, even in his limited experience, his only knowledge of jews was how they DIFFERED from mainstream white america.

at that point the crickets started chirping excessively.

Natasha W said...

Zek, yes, I do hear the Jew jokes from time to time. I always wondered how Jewish people took them, because most I know would just laugh it off or make a joke right back.

Hmmm, let's see how well I understand Jews:

"how many jews do i know?"

A lot! I even dated a very hot one and he was/is great. But I didn't know many of them were Jewish. I don't even know what most Jewish last names look like, so I'm not like SO, who immediately knows if a person is Jewish if they have a certain last name. But I'm picking up on it slowly: the Steins and Bergs.

"do i have any jewish friends?"

Yes. Jewish people have a special place in my heart. <3

"what do i know about judaism and jewish history?"

A little. When I was dating the Jewish guy he taught me a bit. We attended Shabbat and Yom Kippur.

"have i ever made a jew-joke?"

No. Jew jokes aren't common where I'm from (but jokes about other groups are). But I still don't think I would have made one if they were, because I don't think I've ever met a Jewish person I didn't like (but then there's that problem where I can never tell who is Jewish).

"do i ever ignore or diminish the jewish experience/status as a ethnic-religious minority?"

No, but I don't really know a whole lot about the Jewish experience. Most Jews I know don't talk about it. The only thing I know about the Jewish experience, period, is that some tend to have the zaniest parents (in a good way).

Mira said...

I think anti-semitism is similar to other forms of discrimination in a way it can get really, really violent or ugly, but it doesn't have to be like that to exist.

I bet many people who say "Oh, you're such a Jew" see that as a harmless joke. But shouldn't Jews themselves decide if it's so harmless and not a big deal? Would people who make those jokes enjoy listening day after day stupid jokes about their ethnicity or religion? That sort of jokes are harmful because they become labels and it's part of othering a group of people, which can turn into discrimination in no time.

Part of majority privilege (in this case, Christian) is that you don't have to deal with such jokes. Also, part of that privilege is to have your religious holidays fully respected and not seen as "weird" or strange. It's not a privilege in a way of being rich and living with no problems. It's a privilege of seeing yourself and your group as a norm, and all the other group as "different".

PS-Speaking of Jews, indeed, I don't know many (any?) But maybe they are so indistinguishable from other people where I live I might not even realize they are Jewish? (Is that the point of being "indistinguishable"). Anyway, I live across the street synagogue (or is temple preferred term?) and I never saw anybody who couldn't fit general population out there.

Zek J Evets said...

@natasha: i tend to laugh off jew-jokes and make my own because that's how i personally take the power back.

as for jewish last names, there are some which are pretty stereotypical, or even instantly recognizable, but not always. for instance, my (real) last name is actually often confused as being asian. (for the record, i'm not the slightest bit asian.)

the jewish experience is often not talked about anymore because for the most part jews are considered a "model minority" (similar to asians in many respects) and so forms of discrimination against them are often minimized due to their success as a group. but also, in part, because jews -- as a group -- have been effective in combating anti-semitism, which has led to less open forms of discrimination. (in my opinion.)

@mira: that's interesting how you say that jews where you live appear "indistinguishable" from everyone else. this is probably because most jews make an immense effort to be secular, and not stand out. this is especially true in most of eastern-europe, where pogroms (violent riots against jews, similar to lynchings in america) were very common. little known fact: during his time in power, stalin killed almost as many jews (over the course of his dictatorship) as hitler did. this is noticeable in my own life too. for instance, my grandmother refuses to condone my brother or i ever visiting ukraine, austria, hungary, russia, poland, or eastern-germany, for fear we will face some serious anti-semitic hostilities. after hearing about the widespread hatred of jews in those countries, especially during and preceding WWII, i can understand her position.

Mira said...

It is true most of the Jews here are secular and often have similar names and last names as everybody else. They also physically look like everybody else .

As for Eastern Europe, it is a bit different situation here, because we were never part of Soviet Union and we didn't have anything to do with Russians (they never ruled here). We did have our version of socialism, but it was always more opened to the west.

Also, talking about Hotler's killing was a major point and we all learned about it since the age of 2 or 3. We learned about the suffering of our people, and the position about Jews was along the lines of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". To talk bad about Jews was seen as praising Hitler, which was a forbidden thing to do in former Yugoslavia. But back in the days, all people were atheists (or encouraged to be) and considered themselves Yugoslavian. So it was different.

However, I must say this is slowly changing in the last couple of years. I do hear more and more anti-Semitic comments, and people blaming Jews for everything- which I find weird because there are not many Jews here so why would anybody see them as a threat?

So I don't want to diminish your grandmother's suffering or experience. But I believe anti-semitism became popular around here recently, not during WWII. For example, I don't know anybody who has a best friend who is Jewish or at least a good friend. While my grandmother's best friend was Jewish, and my parents had several Jewish friends. (Being friends doesn't erase anti-Semitism, of course, but what about my generation?)

PS- On a side note, my favourite domestic writers are of Jewish ancestry. I simply can't describe how much I like their work.

David Albahari

I also met him and he is such a nice guy.

Danilo Kiš

His "Encyclopedia of the Dead" is a masterpiece.

He was supposed to get Nobel prize in 1989 but he died shortly before winners were announced.

(I'm not talking about them in order to prove I'm not an anti-Semite, I just wanted to share these people's work).

Mira said...

My long and insightful comment was lost :(

Jasmin said...

Growing up, I didn't really know very many Jews. I went to public school until 8th grade, then Catholic high school, and the only person I remember self-identifying as Jewish was the only male teacher in my K-2 school, Mr. Merkin. In 1st grade, around Hanukkah, we got to go to his class and try matzo balls. I was one of the lucky few who got to try horseradish. :-)

I think I'm more attracted to Jewish White male celebrities than non-Jewish White male celebrities, though I didn't know many of them were Jewish until after the fact. I think Jon Foster and Ben Foster are my current favorites, but I also like Ben Feldman and James Franco. It's something about the nose, mouth and jawline that drives me wild. ;-)

Mira said...

The comment wasn't lost, after all!

There's no way I can tell which celebrities are Jewish (I am not familiar with differences in last names). Then again, I sometimes can't tell which celebrities are considered white (or black) in the US. :D

Natasha W said...

Jasmin, I hear you on Jewish male celebrities.

I must say, celebrity Jewish men are hot (although, of course I don't know if "Jewish" means much in terms of separating people since white Jewish people can be from all over Europe). I know my SO would be giving me some serious side-eye right now if he were here but it's true.

Jon Foster is mucho good-looking. True story: one of my best white guy friends from college is named Jon Foster. When I found out he (my friend Jon Foster) was Jewish, I was so surprised. He said "What?! You can't tell? I have Jewboy written all over me."

But back to celebrities. Jon Foster = *drool*. Even his Wikipedia photo looks good; you know you're hot if even your Wikipedia picture is amazing:

Again, *drool*. He is the kind of guy, I walk up to and say "Hi, I'm Natasha!" :D

But I can't forget the hottest of the hot, Adam Brody. He looks like he was sculpted, sculpted to perfection.

Zek J Evets said...

@mira: i'm glad your comment wasn't lost =)

it was long though! whew, damn! so sorry it took a while to get back to ya.

i know of danilo kis. his mom was montenegrin, but not sure if she was jewish too. i know his dad was a hungarian jew. i've read encyclopedia of the dead, but only in translation. is it better in the original?

it's interesting how you described yugoslavia, especially that everyone was encouraged to be atheists. is there no de facto religion then? what about catholicism or protestantism?

i'm glad to hear that anti-semitism wasn't as big immediately following the war. i remember hearing stories about families in poland (for example) who survived the camps, came back to their homes, and were killed by polish gentiles who had taken them over. very tragic.

and the easiest way to tell a jewish celebrity is by the nose and the last name, haha -- well, not really, but it's a good rule of thumb.

@jasmin: i KNOW you like you some jewish men -- in this case, jewish man ; )

Jasmin said...


Have you ever seen the silly (now-cancelled) "Accidentally on Purpose" on CBS? I used to watch it faithfully online because he would usually take off his shirt at least once per episode. I think he's next on my eye candy list (and I will look for gratuitous shirtless pictures). ;-)

Jasmin said...

Found one! (I wonder if this will get published--please baby?)

Jasmin said...

Adam Brody has that dark hair and that chiseled jaw that will just suck you in...

And yes I love you (like crazy), Jewish man. :-)

Mira said...

Girly stuff first, serious later :D

Natasha and Jasmin:

I didn't know about these guys! (Not about being Jewish... I didn't know they existed at all!) I did hear of Adam Brody but I know nothing about him and this is the first time learn about Jon Foster(beautiful eyes, btw). I like Natasha's theory about Wikipedia images.


I do know about recognizing Jewish people by last names. The problem is, I don't know many of them and I can't tell when it comes to celebrities. As for nose... Isn't that a stereotype that, like most of the stereotypes often isn't true? lol

Mira said...

This is going to be another long one, sorry.

i know of danilo kis. his mom was montenegrin, but not sure if she was jewish too. i know his dad was a hungarian jew. i've read encyclopedia of the dead, but only in translation. is it better in the original?

What do you mean better? It's wonderful the way it is! (I didn't read English translation, though). Two things to keep in mind about his work: he was a really cynical writer (and I person, I guess) and it sometimes shows in his work in confusing ways.

Second thing to keep in mind is that I find him really refreshing, because he, unlike many writers here, wrote about universal subjects (along with personal), and not just about the local problems (which most of the Balkan writers do- all they write is about our problems and while people outside Balkans love to hear such stories about Easter Europe it's tiring for me to read them). But Kiš did write about those subjects too, only in a refreshing way.

I believe his mother wasn't Jewish. Judging by her last name, she wasn't.

Kiš's real name was (or was supposed to be) Daniel Kon but his father changed the last name in Hungary.

Also, I recommend Albahari's work as well (if you guys can find it).
He wrote a lot about writing and war (the horrors Jewish people in Serbia/Yugoslavia faced). Sometimes in the same work ("Mamac"- "Bait" is a good example of it. On the outside, it seems like a story about his mother ("mama") but the book itself is actually a bait ("mamaC") because it's a story about writing.

it's interesting how you described yugoslavia, especially that everyone was encouraged to be atheists. is there no de facto religion then? what about catholicism or protestantism?

Religion was discouraged in Yugoslavia because of socialism. In some cases was openly forbidden, but it's usually discouraged because it was ridiculed. Many people born around 50s or 60s were raised as atheists- my parents included.

This was needed because Yugoslavia was a federation of several ethnicities, and there were originally three main religions: Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and Muslim.

So once socialism was broken everything exploded and people suddenly remembered their ethnicities and it became really violent pretty fast.

i'm glad to hear that anti-semitism wasn't as big immediately following the war.

I do believe it was better than today. If nothing else, anti-Semitic feelings were forbidden. In part because of Jews themselves, but in greater part because of the common enemy, the Nazis. I honestly don't remember hearing any bad thing about Jews and we talked about Jews a lot in school and even kindergarten (because we talked a lot about WWII). - not religion, of course, but the suffering during the war.

But today I hear anti-Semitic remarks fairly often. Well, not every day and not from most of the people, but you hear these things. Jews are not hated as much as the "common" enemies here (Croats, Albanians, Gypsies... homosexuals), but some people do mention Jews which is strange because there are so few Jews in Serbia (for a comparison, there are so few black people here and you rarely hear racist remarks- not because people are not racists, but because blacks don't live here and are not seen as a threat.)

Zek J Evets said...

@mira: haha, the stereotype of the jewish is probably not very true, BUT it is rather common. (hence it becoming a stereotype.) i think it was to do with the large amount of inbreeding in the late 1800's early 1900's among immigrant jewish communities. nobody was allowed -- or able -- to marry a gentile, so some physical traits ended up being passed on that were inherent in the whole community. curly hair for one, and larger noses for two, but this isn't always true. my nose is shaped like my brother's, except where his is HUGE and classicly jewish, mine is small-ish and makes most people surprised that i'm jewish. (i've heard, "you don't look jewish..." so many times in my life.)

last names are more difficult, but among the rich there are some basic ones: feinstein, finkelstein rosenberg, goldberg, cohen, etc. what's really interesting about these names is that they are all/mostly ASHKENAZI jewish surnames. in america the predominant view is that jews are only white (with rare exceptions) even though there are jews even among immigrant communities from around the world. there is a hispanic jewish temple (they're almost all converts) in san francisco, and you can find jews in kaifeng of chinese ancestry. there are more jews of color actually than white european jews. so while stereotypes obviously don't work, they are somewhat true if you talk about a relatively small group of jews.

i asked about whether the book was "better" in the original language because the english translation is supposed to be missing the flow that he creates in his work. i mean, any piece of literature is never going to be exactly like the original if it's in translation (duh!) but i often wonder what i'm missing besides just the difference in language between my version and the original...

Natasha W said...


No, I've never seen it. *goes off to Google*

My SO is not going to like you for showing me that picture...

Jasmin said...

Sorry Jay! :-P

Mira said...

nobody was allowed -- or able -- to marry a gentile, so some physical traits ended up being passed on that were inherent in the whole community. curly hair for one, and larger noses for two, but this isn't always true.

Hmmm... None of the local Jewish people I know or know of fit this description. I did hear "big nose" jokes in media, but I never got it. I did notice many Jewish men having beautiful hair (and I always notice a man's hair!) but there are also those with thin hair and receding hairline so I don't know how "Jewish" any of that is.

last names are more difficult, but among the rich there are some basic ones: feinstein, finkelstein rosenberg, goldberg, cohen, etc.

I know about those last names, but not many others. For example, most of the men we were talking about here (and elsewhere) don't have last names that sound Jewish to me. It can be because I know nothing about it, or because of toher factors.

It is, however, interesting to note that most of the super-recognizable Jewish last names are those of the rich. Sure, it can be because rich are often more prominent (in companies, for example), but it can also be because people are often fixated on "rich Jews" stereotype because it proves their anti-Semitic prejudices.

there are more jews of color actually than white european jews.

Hmmm, that actually makes sense in a way. It is interesting to trace their history and places they appear or ways they converted (if they were not originally Jewish). For example, Khazars. They are really interesting and enigmatic, and there are proofs that Khazars lived in today's Serbia in early Middle ages, but their history is still sketchy.

i asked about whether the book was "better" in the original language because the english translation is supposed to be missing the flow that he creates in his work.

Oh, I get it, but I wouldn't know. I haven't read the english version. (Might try to find it and tell you what I think). All I know is that he liked to maintain the sharp, almost journalistic style to make his writings seem like documenting real events (or like writing an essay on true phenomena).

Simcha said...

What a wonderful article. Thank you for writing it! Never let anyone tell you "what" you are.