A few months ago, during a trip to Europe, I sat in a room with my husband and his cousin and friends. I was well aware that I was the only white person in the room (as I often am when I’m with my husband’s family). And, even though they all knew that I was Jewish, it didn’t really matter. I had privilege in this group (especially while traveling), and even used it to help them when they were discriminated against at their Airbnb. That discrimination, I knew, would probably not have happened had I been staying there with them — or at least it wouldn’t have been so obvious.
Among many conversations that happened that week, a big one discussed the struggles of people of color, racism in America, oppression, and, essentially, how much white people suck. At times, to assure everyone I was an ally and so I could contribute to the conversation, I often brought up the struggles of Jewish people and anti-Semitism to show not only did I understand, I was on their team.
I did what I could to show my husband and his cousin and friends that even though I couldn’t understand what it was like being discriminated against because of my skin color, I could understand to some extent what it was like to simply be discriminated against, period.
“I get it. We are oppressed and have been for thousands of years! White people have tried to kill us, also! Jews have been murdered, enslaved, and kicked out of every country we’ve lived in.”
To my surprise, that response wasn’t welcomed with open arms. How come my Jewishness wasn’t enough? Was I missing something? After all, I had already explained that Judaism is an ethno-religion, and Jews come in all colors, not all of which are white.
Shortly after this trip, my husband and I were watching the first episode of #BlackAF on Netflix. There was a scene in which Kenya Barris said to his Jewish assistant that he felt he was giving him the “white gaze,” and the assistant responded with, “Well, technically, Jews aren’t like, ‘white-white.’”
“See, that’s what I mean!” I nudged my husband, awaiting the next scene.
But then, the reply Barris gave was, “If some shit went down, you’re white.”
Damn. That was the point.
Now that anti-Black racism and, particularly, police brutality against the Black community has come to the forefront of discussions in the U.S. and around the world, I’ve realized all the more how Jewish struggles are not helpful nor relevant to bring up in this particular situation.
This was evident when, recently, I was on the other side, defending my husband and other people of color against my own family. In a difficult conversation with my family’s elders, in which a lot of racist and ignorant remarks were made about people of color, I was flabbergasted at how a group that’s also been marginalized could be so blind.
Some of the rhetoric I heard in response to my saying that all Jews need to stand with the Black community right now were, “Well, what about the Jews? We had to emigrate here, too. We were enslaved. We were murdered in the Holocaust. Our father’s whole family died. And yet, we got jobs, we followed the rules, we came here legally…”
At that moment, even if I felt like I knew better than my family, I knew my previous attempts to relate to my husband’s family and friends were not only not helpful, but quite insensitive.
While Jews may have been victims for thousands of years, and while, as some family members like to remind me, “the Holocaust was more recent than slavery,” it doesn’t matter, especially in the context of racism in the United States of America. Whether or not they call themselves white, Jewish people who present as white, like other white-passing immigrant groups, have been able to acclimate to American society in some way, at some point. Does this mean we’re free from bigotry and hatred? No. It also doesn’t mean we know what it’s like to be discriminated against because of the color of our skin.
For the most part, we white and white-passing Jews blend. We are accepted. We won’t be mistreated or abused by cops, or refused a job because of our skin color. We aren’t afraid to go for a jog in our own neighborhoods; we don’t live in daily fear of race-based hate. The same cannot be said for Black Americans, including Black Jews who face discrimination based on skin color not only in the world at large, but within our Jewish communities, the places where we are supposed to feel the most safe.
While the intentions might be good, white Jewish people need to stop using our own struggles as an attempt to relate to Blacks and other people of color when they have the floor. As I’ve said, I’m guilty of this, too — many of us are. But it’s time we realize that peppering in our own struggles as a way to vibe with others may not be as proactive as we intend it to be.
Jewish struggles are very, very real, and they still exist today. They may exist forever. We can absolutely use our own history of struggles and discrimination as a tool to empathize with others, and to fuel our commitment to social justice. But when it come to actually speaking with Black people and aiding in the fight to end systemic racism, we don’t need to bring ourselves into it. Being quiet and listening to the Black voices in our communities about their struggles now — struggles that Black people have faced in the U.S. for the last 400 years — does nothing to discredit anyone else’s experience. It just gives the floor to the people who need our allyship now.
If you can understand how Jewish people have generational trauma and anxiety from thousands of years of pogroms, exiles, and mass murders, then you are one step closer to understanding how to better use your Jewishness to listen to Black struggles instead of unintentionally hijacking the conversation. If these comparisons help you empathize with the Black community’s struggle, great, but once you’re ready to actually put in the work to fight racism, it’s time to put your own stories to the side and listen more deeply to the voices of others. It’s not about comparing oppressions or atrocities. It’s about being more sensitive because of them.
Header image by Artur Debat/Getty Images.