“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:
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)