“I’m Not White, I’m Jewish” is the name of the song featured in the YouTube video above. The rap song has clear sociological issues. As the performing artist strums along to his guitar, the camera pans around the room of Jewish preteens. And every face in the room? White, of course. But hey, as the song claims, “I’m not White, I’m Jewish.”
It’s no secret that signs across the United States used to read “No Niggers, No Jews.” But at some point in time, Jews started to enjoy the benefits of white privilege in America. It is that same white privilege that the song attempts to deny. Who wants to be white when whiteness seems to equal racism? Who wants to be white if that somehow takes away from Jewish identity?
But things are much more complicated than that. At least, they are in America.
White is a race. Jewish is an ethnicity. Not all Jews are white. America has a complicated racial landscape. It insists on singular cookie cutter identities when people are actually enjoy rich swirls of racial and ethnic identification. There are white Hispanics and black Hispanics, because Hispanic is also an ethnicity. Still Hispanics across the board do not enjoy white privilege…unless, that is, they can “pass” for white.
Somewhere along the line, Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews started passing for white. And it is these Jews that enjoy white privilege. Though they’ll try to deny it. Why? Shame. The same shame that any self-respecting white person has about America and Europe’s history of racism. So, instead of associating themselves with racism at all, they deny their whiteness and their white privilege. If I went around denying that I was Hispanic or Jewish, would anyone take me seriously?
My husband and I read many books on racism together to try to understand where the other was coming from. My husband became irate when reading on particular book that focused on institutionalized racism. “What the hell is that?” He was infuriated by the idea that he was somehow complicit in institutionalized racism. It took years of being in an interracial relationship before he realized that in many ways, we are all complicit. He noted that institutionalized racism even comes in a Shampoo bottle that you see every day at the drugstore. It says that pin straight hair is “normal” and anything otherwise, is not.
White Jews, despite their whiteness, enjoy a privilege that other whites do not. Despite looking white, they are still considered the Other. They are not the Protestant Christians one thinks about when they picture “American.” They, like other minorities, identify as a hyphenate. They’ll announce…“Hi, I’m a Jewish-American,” the way I tell people I’m a “Latina-American-Jew.” Jews ARE different than other whites.
Still, it’s one thing to focus on one part of one’s identity. In the Hispanic grocery store, I’m a Latina first, an American Jew second. In synagogue, I’m a Jew first, an American Latina second. It’s quite another thing to deny part of one’s identity, “I’m not white,” because of discomfort or because one sees themselves as something else. Face it, in America, how one sees themselves is only part of the equation, how one is perceived is the other. That’s why in America, Barack Obama is just black, instead of the more politically (and biologically) correct term: “BIRACIAL.”
Also check out:
Stuff Jewish Young Adults Like: Denying that they are white
And the slightly more academic…
I’m Not White, I’m Jewish But I’m White by Paul Kivel
The songwriter speaks about what he hoped the song would accomplish: (Tune in at minute 5:20)
6 thoughts on “I’m not white, I’m Jewish”
Did you read Maurice Berger’s book (sp?) “White Lies”? It’s amazing!
I’m adding it to my Amazon wishlist. I am drowing in my booklist as it is but it sounds really interesting. Thanks for the suggestion.
I'd like to discuss this on a number of levels:
First, the Ashkenazi/Sephardi references…
I felt weird at first to see Ashkenazic used basically as a swap for Whiteness on your blog. I understood what you were saying, but it didn't click until recently that I was able to articulate why:
The branching of Ash. & Seph. aren't 'racial'. I mean, yes, Ashk. tradition is Eastern European & Seph is N. African/Middle Eastern/Spanish, but those aren't racial divisions. I've met Iraqi & Bulgarian Jews who would pass as baseline White, but are Sepherdic; and I've met African-Americans & Puerto Ricans who are Ashk. by conversion and descent. I have Jewish-Colombian cousins who look a lot like you and are Orthodox Ashkenazik Jews. My son is African-American, and is being raised in an Ashkenazik household… does that qualify him as 'White' in the context you're talking about? I mean, I can certainly pass, but he can't. But we're both Ashkenazik by theology and upbringing. I feel like if you're going to say 'White' just say 'White'. There are linguistic, theological, dietary, and cultural differences between Ashk. & Seph. — but to extend that to racial/ethnic feels like a sloppy definition.
As for 'Whiteness' among the European Jews, I understand what you're saying completely, both about passing in White society, as well as associated disdain for non-Whites. In New York, 'whiteness' is such an umbrella term (for everyone from Irish to Hasids to Albanians to Russians; etc.) that I never appreciated the nuances until I left. I considered myself 'white' until I lived in Cleveland for a few years, and got a very different sense of things.
Without writing my memoirs, I was rather harshly reminded of the distinction between Jews (no matter how pale) and Whites, by fellow minorities, by Ohio rednecks, and even by other Jews. I tend to frame it this way: do other 'Whites' think of me as there own? While I'm complicit in the existing power structure, do I have absolute legal access without prejudice (ie, gentlemens agreements, cross-burning, casual anti-semitism; etc.)? Could I attend a Klan rally with kippah and talit on and be treated as a White by White Supremists?
As you alluded to: race is a very complex structure, and identity is very much linked to context, both acute (like your example shopping), intimate (as mixed couples) and broad (how peoples reactions to me change when they find out I'm not Puerto Rican or Italian here in New York, or that I'm Jewish when I'm in DC, which is somehow soothing).
I'm pretty sure my response is f*cked with typose and run-ons. Typing in that little comment box sucks. Hope it reads coherently.
Understood you loud and clear. My friends who are Jews of color and I have discussed this. While I joke about being Sephardic because of my Spanish background, I'm really Ashkenazi, too. As are many of my biracial Jewish friends. So, no Ashkenazi doesn't mean white.
I think that in terms of “white privilege” in the Jewish community, what would be comparable is Ashkenazi Privilege because Ashkenazim are more “privileged” than other Jewish groups in many ways.
Definitely, Jews are not WASPs and think that's what you're elucidating. Definitely, Jews are a different religion and visibly so when wearing a kippah and tzitzit. But you could take off your kippah and blend into white America, I couldn't take off my skin and my hair. So there are certain kinds of privilege that you get that I don't.
I DO get some kind of “white privilege,” too, when compared to darker-skinned people of color. There are opportunities where I can and have passed. As I've mentioned before, my little sister who is “dark” would get followed around in stores while I would not.
It's a complicated issue that's much bigger than one blog post.
I've said dozens of times in the context of raising my son Jewish, is that he's not going to be able to pass like I am. He's going to be an outsider to White privilege from the outset, so Judaism is the only thing I can contribute as far as 'identity' in the broad American context. I certainly can't kick down my pasty complexion.
But on the issue of Ashkenazi privilege, I think because it's a sense of entitlement constructed around 'Whiteness' anyway, using the term White Privilege is fine — it's not like those targeted by the concept would shirk it. They'd probably shudder at the thought of being considered anything BUT 'White'. Hell, they'd probably be proud of it.
As far as those of us who DO make the distinction between 'White' and 'Jewish'… I mean, yeah. I'm both. There's no argument. But as Whiteness is built around uninhibited privilege and access, I know I'm not that, at least not in 2009, because Whites still make the distinction between All-American Apple Pie White McWhiteson Who Celebrates Christmas And Enjoys A Cheeseburger And Ham Sandwich Now And Then™ and those of us who do not. And erect barriers — informal or otherwise — to make sure that we know it.
The same way White Jews do to our Non-White brothers and sisters.
…now I've made myself sad.
I know. Sometimes the sadness is so suffocating, I'm not sure I'll be able to take it anymore. ;(