Mae-Lou Zaleski

White privilege and Judaism: Let’s talk

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White privilege and Judaism: Let’s talk

Mae-Lou Zaleski

“White Privilege” – it’s probably something you’ve heard a lot about in the past few weeks. Let’s ask ourselves: What is white privilege? We all tend to have different opinions on what white privilege is and whether it exists or not, but Wikipedia defines white privilege as: “The societal privilege that benefits white people over non-white people in some societies, particularly if they are otherwise under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.” Often, the term “white privilege” creates discomfort for many white people who are not used to being described or defined by the color of their skin.

You may be asking yourself, “I’m Jewish, how could I possibly benefit from white privilege?” The Jewish people have consistently been seen as “other” in terms of whiteness and race. Historically speaking, Jewish people have not been considered white. More recently, President Trump’s 2019 Title VI order claims that Jews would be defined as their own nationality or race, due to the fact that this part of the Civil Rights Act does not protect religious groups. But being white and Jewish is a much more complex topic than one may see on a surface level.

The most important thing to acknowledge is that white privilege only benefits people with white skin. Let’s get one thing straight: being a white person in today’s society is much easier than being a person of color, regardless of ethnicity or religion. People of color who are “white passing” also benefit from white privilege. White passing is when one’s skin tone is light enough for them to pass as a white person, even if they are mixed race or simply a person of color with light skin.

Although the Jewish people have often not been considered white, the fact of the matter is that Jewish folk with white skin, are in fact white, and therefore benefit from white privilege. There are stark differences between anti-Semitism and racism. The Anne Frank House simplifies the main difference between racism and anti-Semitism: “Conclusion: Jews are not a race … even so, some people still believe in the concept. If it is the basis for their hatred of Jews, it is undoubtedly racist.”

Those who argue that Jews are considered their own race and hate them based on this ideology are racist. However, it is important to understand that Jews are not their own race. Being genetically Jewish stems from thousands of years ago, when Jewish communities were forced to be segregated from other religions. Many Jews lived in small villages and towns, and rarely mingled with non-Jewish populations. Additionally, the Jewish people have had a tendency to marry within their religion and communities, especially when Jewish segregation was being enforced.

Jewish people are not their own race, but genetically Jewish people are their own ethnicity, which is defined as: “the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.” Sharing the same ethnicity includes having a common ancestry or language, history, society, or social treatment. Those who hate Jewish people based on their ethnicity suffer from ethnic-hatred, which is different from racism because it is not solely focused on the color of one’s skin.

Arguing that Jewish people are their own race is harmful and dangerous in many ways. Jews of color are specifically harmed, especially those who have no genetic connection to the Jewish ethnicity. I am a transracial adoptee – my mother is an Ashkenazi Jew and adopted me from Hunan, China in 2001. Although I was brought up Jewish, attended Hebrew school, celebrated a bat mitzvah, volunteered at my temple, traveled to Israel through Jewish programs, and continue to write for a Jewish newspaper, I will spend my entire life fighting against people within and outside the Jewish community who cannot accept the fact I am Jewish.

I am well aware of the fact when people within a Jewish setting notice me, they are taken aback by my presence. Even I, a Chinese Jew, am guilty of this internalized racism and bias. When I see other Jews of color at Jewish events, I take note of their race immediately and recognize them as being somehow different. However, I am not white, I do not look ethnically Jewish, and I have no genetic or ethnic ties to Judaism. My family may have these qualities, but I do not. This does not make me any less Jewish than those who are ethnically Jewish.

I recall the times I have been asked by people within the Jewish community, including a rabbi, how I could possibly be Jewish. It is extremely ignorant to assume anyone’s religion, no matter what their skin tone is or how that may look. Nowadays, interracial and interreligious marriage is more widely accepted, and many families choose to adopt specifically from countries of other races. We must educate ourselves by acknowledging our own prejudices and biases.

I have spent nights crying, and begging God to answer why my skin color never matched the beautiful women on the TV and in magazines. I spent summers avoiding the sun, so I did not look “too dark,” fully believing the idea that my golden skin was hideous because it was darker than my white friends. I cannot take off my skin. I cannot repaint my skin or change my facial features to fit the Jewish stereotype of being white with dark, curly hair and eyes. My skin color is not a tallit or yarmulke I can take off when the service is over. My skin color is not a surname that I can go to the court and change when I please. My skin color is not an accent that can be changed with speech therapy. My skin color is not a part of my identity I can ignore and leave behind me. I am much more than my skin color, but when others look at me, that is what they first see, and sometimes it is all they see.

White privilege has nothing to do with religion, ethnicity, or economic status. White privilege comes down to one thing and one thing only: skin color. White Jews will continue to face bigotry and discrimination due to anti-Semitism and ignorance, but they will not experience racism due to the color of their skin. I struggle to come to terms with how racism and anti-Semitism both impact me, especially when Jewish people are racist toward me and people of color are anti-Semitic. Although the Jewish people have been at a disadvantage within society due to religion, we must acknowledge it is not because of skin color or race. To deny your privilege as a white person, whether you are Jewish or not, is an ignorant and privileged mindset.

The Talmud tells us that all humans descend from one common ancestor, so no person can say that they are superior to another, whether they differ in gender, race or religion. We must continue to preach and follow the Torah, which tells us that we must accept all people without prejudice or bias: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman, but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Eternal” (Leviticus 19: 17-18).

Mae-Lou Zaleski, of Danvers, attends UMass-Amherst.

13 Responses

  1. This personal account has my sympathy. On the other hand, I don’t know that drawing conclusions about which is worse, racism or antisemitism – as this account implicitly does – is a constructive direction.

    For one thing, it’s worth noting that Ashkenazi Jews don’t always look all that white. In my own case, people typically think I am Hispanic (perhaps Italian). Many years ago I was in a crowded department store in New York City, and having pulled a blouse from a rack that I subsequently decided against buying, I figured I’d be a good doobie and return it to its distant location, which happened to be in the direction of the exit. My reward was to be briskly intercepted by the rosy-skinned store guard who wanted to know what the heck I was up to. Of the many people in the store, he clearly had had his eyes trained on me. This was one of a number of negative experiences presumably based on my appearance, non of them enjoyable nor forgettable. But my own attitude is one of acceptance. I do not believe that people can be “made” to change their reflexive feelings. I instead focus on the ample number of people who are not messed up in the head (this applies to antisemitism I’ve experienced as well). I also focus on maintaining equanimity regardless how others act.

    As to “white privilege,” I take issue with the concept despite personally knowing the downside to being brown. The majority population of the U.S. is white. Thus “white” is normative, and non-whites are minorities. This is a mathematical reality (in Asia, Africa, and S. America the math is different). The word “privilege” should not connote something that is normative. It should apply instead to small sectors of a population who are advantaged over the average, such as the very rich, beautiful, well-connected, etc. To tell the average person that they are “privileged” is manipulative. (Besides, Americans of *all* colors are materially privileged – mathematically – relative to the average world inhabitant.) Rather than trying to engineer how one “group” relates to another (a tricky matter even designating who belongs in what group, as in my case as well as Mae-Lou’s) we should stick to rigorously defending the relationship of each and every individual to the law…which is known as “rights.”

      1. that book has got to be the dumbest, innacurate amd most stupid piece of garbage i have ever read. correction: tried to read.

    1. Agreed. It’s inherently tone-deaf to give blanket statements on any ethnicity regarding privilege, likewise it is incorrect and unfair to give blanket statements on any ethnicity regarding how underserved they might be. We might make incorrect assumptions that let those with actual, measurable privilege be unaccounted for, while ignoring those on the fringes that truly need a helping hand. Unfortunately, some folx feel the need to try and demonize and divide certain ethnicities over others, which certainly does not help us in crafting a more equal and equitable society.

      Not to mention the fact that Jewish folx – that do not explicitly state their religion or ethnicity “out loud” and have the benefit of potentially identifying as BIPOC due to their skin color or otherwise mixed heritage – are not generally victims of antisemitism. I notice antisemitic rhetoric directed at light skinned Jews coming from Whites that consider Jews non-white, and from BIPOC that consider Jews non-BIPOC. It is unfortunate that there are sects everywhere that continuously pick us out of the crowd to belittle us and separate us from them. This is not to say that “non-white” seeming Jews are not victims of other forms of discrimination, which they most certainly do. Simply that antisemitism is, as another commenter has pointed out, directed at the clearly identifiable and religious Jewish groups, who often seem to be white-skinned. This is of course a symptom of antisemitic stereotypes and tropes that have been promoted again and again over time by people with very narrow minds. So privilege very much crosses all ethnicities and knows no boundaries, and is not exactly limited to simple concepts such as antisemitism or white privilege.

  2. Dear Julie, I found this article just now, after a heated debate on one of the FB groups about cultural appropriation. I was accused of being rasist and it’s the farthest from the truth as can possibly be. I grew up in Soviet Union and suffered from antisemitism (bullied, called names etc) for a good portion of my life, then I did Aliya and funny enough, was bullied and ridiculed as ‘Russian’ by Israeli kids. I know a lot about being different, not included, trying to find my past and present. I don’t consider myself to be a white privilege. I had to fight in my life to get to a place I’m I now, nothing was granted to me ever, even if my skin colour is relatively fair. I am glad I found your article, it gives me interesting view on a subject. Well done for following your dreams and aspirations.

  3. So, here’s the thing. Light-skinned people who *are* ethnically Jewish appear this way because of generations of displacement. Those genetic cultural histories you’re being so flippant towards mean something, and dismissively referring to an ethnically Jewish person – privileged or not – as “white” strips that person of their cultural identity. It’s funny how light-skinned Jews are so conveniently “white” to people who wish to group them with the privileged classes while simultaneously “not white” to the white supremacists who would see Jewish families become the mass-murdered victims of genocide. The term “white Jews” should not even exist in your vocabulary. Do Jews benefit from white privilege? As with all light-skinned or white-passing people, of course. That privilege often only exists, however, for as much as Jewishness is not perceived.

    Is there a ranked comparison to be made of the trials of antisemitism and racism? Not ethically, and frankly not intelligently. As one rightfully dominates the conversation, it should not ever be at the perceived belittlement of the other.

    It’s fine (and true!) to say many Jews frequently experience white privilege when they are light-skinned. It’s culturally-insensitive to call them white. We can pretend whiteness is only about skin color because it makes for a more convenient (and simpler) narrative, but we do so with extreme cultural and ethnic insensitivity. You’re clearly not an unintelligent person. This is a very complex issue, but I feel you can do much better than this.

    1. Ana, I love this article you posted. I do have a question: So being Jewish is both a religion and a race and it isn’t okay for a white Jewish man like myself to say I understand racism? Your article mentioned Anti-Semitism and Racism are two different things. Is one affected of a religious aspect and the other the color of your skin? I grew up my whole life knowing that being Jewish I’m a target of racism; therefore, white privilege sounds like Nazism to me. I apologize for any confusion but this is very new me.

  4. Hi Mae Lou, just want to to say there’s a lot I disagree and agree with you, but I do want to comet on how you felt about yourself not looking like everybody else, and it did seem like you were relating that to white privilege I can’t see how that anybody else’s fault, I do want to say that everybody feels that way about themselves in one way or another even that pretty girl in the magazine everybody has self-conscious feelings,v white people like to get tan, Asian people like to get white, people get plastic surgery, thats how we all feel sometimes, you’re a beautiful woman try not to care about what others Think so much it’s not as bad as what you may think. I also agree a lot about Judaism being a religion an not a nationality and does make a lot of sense and I never thought of it that way, until now keep up the good work

  5. Hello Mae-Lou, Thank you for writing your article. It’s great to hear perspectives other than my own. I was raised in a non-religious Jewish home. I know that I have had most of the advantages of white privilege. I’m able to go into stores without being followed around by store detectives. I can get bank loans, I can buy a house in a white neighborhood, and it is assumed that I am trustworthy because I’m not black or latin-x. But I am also insecure in myself about my whiteness – feeling it’s tentative, especially if I travel out of the main metropolitan centers. I have the classic “jewish nose” and frizzy hair and most people I deal with in my white neighborhood look nothing like me. I’ve always been self-conscious about my looks. It’s been ingrained in me since childhood that I look different and cannot expect to be treated wholly equally. My mother told me a story about long ago when she spoke out about racism in Texas, and she was told to “watch her mouth because she was practically not white herself”. So I am white, I know I have most of the privileges of all the other Euro-Americans. And yet, there is that feeling of not wholly belonging, and of being provisionally accepted as white. This is just my personal. perspective.

  6. You are so wrong. If you think you’re only seen as your skin color, Mae-Lou, you’ve never seen a pale Chinese person. They still don’t look “white” no matter how pale they are, and they still face racism. Check out a Chinese drama like Story of Yanxi Palace. You’ll find a lot of white-skinned East Asians there.

    Plus, lots of Ashkenazim really don’t look that fair skinned. Can’t imagine anyone from the northern areas of China, at least—though there’s still pale people in the south where she was adopted from—watching My Unorthodox Life thinking that everyone there was pale. Hint: They’re not and they look Levantine.

  7. When Jews are attacked on the street, the ones attacked are almost all white and all religious. Passing has its advantages. The author should check her own privilege. These articles are tiring, illogical and offensive

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