What Not to Say to Jews of Color Right Now

To my white and white-passing Jewish peers, here are some things to keep in mind when talking to Black Jews and other Jews of Color about race.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed the ways in which white Jews are engaging in dialogue about various forms of bigotry in America right now. Many folks have approached me as a Black queer Jewish woman for advice, or just as someone to talk to. While I appreciate many of the conversations I have been privy to, it has come to my attention that my white and white-passing peers are in need of some reading material on the intersection between race and religion because frankly, I’m tired of being their go-to source.

So, to my white and white-passing Jewish peers, here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare to engage in discussion with Black Jews and other Jews of Color right now. I don’t speak for all of us, but I am informed by my own experiences and the experiences of my peers.

Right now, you probably have a lot of thoughts and questions about race, and you’re thinking of asking your Jewish friend of color some questions. Here are some things you should know before diving in. Simply because it’s been a few weeks since the protests began, that does not mean that we are suddenly not in pain anymore. Black people are still being killed and imprisoned at a disproportionate rate, and their murderers continue to roam the streets, many still employed or suspended with pay. We are still in mourning. We are not always in the headspace to talk to you, so when beginning a conversation, start with something like, “Is now a good time to talk to you about _____?” Should your peer say no or not respond at all, respect their space and either talk to somebody else or research some resources on your own.

Better yet, do a quick Google search before coming to us. Black Jews and Jews of Color are carrying a heavy burden right now, and it takes an incredible amount of mental and emotional labor to answer all of our white friends’ questions. Not to mention, although we are members of the communities being attacked right now and we are living the JOC experience, it is not our job to be your mentors. Eliminate the expectation that we will be at your beck and call to teach you about how to shut down your racist aunt this coming Fourth of July.

This isn’t to say never reach out — just don’t expect us to jump at the opportunity to give you the A-Z on the intersection between systemic racism and anti-Semitism. For some key phrases to either use or avoid, see my first article for Alma. Oh, and don’t forget to compensate us for our time and energy, if you are able; being Black and Jewish is a full-time job (my Venmo is aviva-davis, just saying).

There are many white and white-passing Jews using their platforms to share information and educational resources about systemic racism and anti-Semitism and how one’s identities intersect and influence the way one is treated in society. This is great! Better yet, share resources created by Jews of Color (hint hint, nudge nudge).

And what you should never do is use your platforms to speak for us. The last thing we need is another white savior. You may quote us with our permission, but the minute you try to describe how we are feeling or what we are thinking, you are automatically assuming you understand what it is like to be us. According to Kimberlé Crenshaw, the philosopher and professor at UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School who coined the term itself, intersectionality is the ways in which different forms of oppression compound and overlap, creating new varieties of obstacles for those who identify with multiple oppressed identities. We may all be Jews, but the struggle of the Black Jew and the Jew of Color is an intersectional one that many of you will never have to shoulder and can never truly understand, so don’t pretend you do.

Throughout the past few weeks, I have noticed more race-based discussions and questions being brought to the table by members of the Jewish community. While these discussions are sometimes educational, often they are prompted by folks fishing for a heated debate in the comments section. This week’s topic appears to be how to categorize Judaism. Are we a tribe? Are we a religion? It’s certainly worth discussing, but let me make one thing perfectly clear: Judaism is not a race. One more time: Judaism. Is. Not. A. Race.

Firstly, race is a Western concept that post-dates the conception of the Jewish people. It was invented by white people to justify their superiority over all non-white peoples. For example, white Americans thought slavery to be perfectly moral because Africans are Black and are therefore inferior.

Secondly, the idea that Judaism is a race completely eliminates the existence of Jews of Color and Jews by choice, or converts. It suggests that if we do not share specific genetic, and by extension physical, characteristics, we are suddenly no longer members of the same community. By that logic, my mother, a Jew by choice, and myself as her daughter, are not Jews. Instead, I categorize Judaism as an ethno-religion; we pray to the same God, we abide by a certain set of rules created by our people, and we practice some version of the same customs.

Some white Jews like to argue that Judaism is a race so they can mark themselves as exempt from their whiteness and the privileges that automatically accompany it. All I can say to that is: please stop. Being white does not make you a supremacist in the same way that my being Black does not make me a threat. This isn’t to say that Jews of all colors have not had their fair share of oppression, but denying that one can be both a member of a race and an ethnicity erases the judgment non-white Jews face when trying to exist in primarily white Jewish spaces.

After reading this, some of you might be thinking, “Wow, it’s a lot of work to remember all of this.” Well, my friends, it’s a lot of work to give this spiel to every white and white-passing person I know. I don’t expect you to read this article and suddenly become an expert on the intersection between race, ethnicity, and religion. Rather, this is simply a stepping stone on a life-long educational journey. This article’s purpose is to give you an idea of the weight race and religion-based conversations carry for us as Black Jews, and to give us some relief that perhaps our peers will be better prepared for such significant and necessary dialogues.

Aviva Davis

Aviva Davis (she/they) graduated from Brandeis University in 2021. There, she studied Psychology, Hispanic Studies, and Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation (CAST). They work closely with Jewish nonprofit Be’Chol Lashon, contributing to dialogue about the history and experiences of Jewish communities of color around the world. You can find them on Titktok @adavis99. Aviva was a 2020-2021 Alma College Writing Fellow.

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