“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.