Saturday, August 21, 2010
Posted by Zek J. Evets at 10:38 PM
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.