Whiteness, Racial Prejudice and Racism (Part 2)

Part 2: What happens when you stop following whiteness’s unwritten rules

I am White.

That is inescapable. Unless White Supremacy ends during my lifetime, I will always be a White person born into and living in a world built to give White people extra privileges and to protect White people’s interests at the expense of everyone else.

In Part 1, I discussed how my race and skin colour likely influenced how I was treated by teachers and staff at my High School. The unfair advantages I was given then will have much longer lasting effects than the bullying I endured at the same time – the school gave me a good reference to get into college, when I then acted out in college I was given help and support because I had “no record” of bad behaviour… I have always been given the benefit of the doubt when others acting as I did would be branded “problem children”. Help and support to manage my learning and behavioural difficulties continues to this day.

However, since beginning to live publically as a Jew I have discovered something about White Privilege that should have been obvious to me before. It’s that tiny, tiny writing at the bottom of the metaphorical form for the white privilege I was signed up for at birth which says “Terms and conditions apply”. There are exemptions to White Privilege. There are terms and conditions you have to keep up with and if you don’t, your privilege and even your Whiteness itself can and will be revoked at any time.

One of those conditions? Don’t be Jewish.
Or rather, DO be Christian. Or at least an ex-Christian atheist. If you’re White and British, you *must* be Christian. If you insist on being Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Pagan or Sikh then at least look like you’re a White British Christian. Don’t wear strange clothes or jewellery, speak strange languages, eat strange foods, refrain from British foods, celebrate strange holidays and go to strange places of worship. DO celebrate Christmas and Easter, dress like a native, eat British foods and generally stay quiet about the entire topic of religion so people never have to confront their unspoken assumption that all White British people are, by definition, Christian. If you’re not White or you’re an immigrant, feel free to practise any religion you like, even Christianity. But if you’re Christian, you’d best make it obvious because people will spend your whole life looking at your skin and making the snap second judgement that you’re not.

Since I began publically living as a Jew, by wearing a yarmulke, keeping kosher(ish), celebrating Jewish festivals and refusing Christmas cards, giving tzedakah, not working on Shabbat and reciting Hebrew blessings occasionally during the day, people have suddenly started asking me where I’m from. And specifying that they mean what part of Israel (or Poland or Lithuania) did my parents come over from and how long have they been living in Britain? People have been complimenting my English. Asking me if I know Adam Finkelstein. People have on numerous occasions *literally refused to believe that I was born in Britain and so were my parents and their parents*. I am White but not Christian so I cannot be British.

Alternatively, I am British but not Christian, so I cannot be White. I am allowed to be British but only on the assumption that my family hasn’t been living on these Isles for more than 50 years. I am allowed to be British as long as I am grateful for being “allowed” to exist here at all. I am allowed to be British at the price of reassuring White British Christians that “Anti-semitism isn’t that big a problem now, is it?” If I can be a walking Encyclopedia Judaica, yet still absolve White Christians for treating me as one. If I accept that “Jew” or “Ashkenazi” is my race now (complete with commentary about my nose, my skin, my eyes, hair..) then maybe I can be British.

The combination of White, British and Non-Christian is erased constantly. Those actions of erasure literally try to erase ME by asking me to either deny, hide or exceptionalise my lived experience as someone who is all three.

I am told that I am not from around here. I am told to my face that I am not white. I am told that I “don’t look Jewish” and spoken over when I protest that there isn’t one way that Jews “look”. People are shocked when I turn down Christmas invites or won’t go out on Friday Night. People stare at my yarmulke in the street and stop to whisper loudly if I’m heard to speak Hebrew. People invite me to their Bible Studies classes so they can learn from me without asking, nevermind answering, the question “But how does that help me?” I am used as “the good Jew” by people whose politics agree with mine and the “self-hating Jew” by those I disagree with. I am taken as spokesperson for all Jews everywhere frequently. People make false assumptions about my body, my background, my finances, my education, my skills, my interests, my politics… because I am a Jew first and an individual human being second.

And there is a simple way to get back the fullness of that unearned White Privilege that I was born into. I could stop wearing a yarmulke. I could whisper my prayers under my breath. I could come up with other excuses for not going out on Shabbat. I could stop mentioning antisemitism. I could quietly let “Jewish” become just a box I tick on a form and not a vibrant and vital part of my life and something intrinsic to who I am. I could assimilate into White British Christianity: where you don’t have to actually be Christian but you can’t be actively something else.

I won’t assimilate. I would lose too much of who I am and gain only unearned advantages I should never have been given in the first place.

Anti-semitism is a strange beast that has become a constant companion to me. It seems to be, in part, a mix of xenophobia and racism and just distilled hatred based on the perceived failure of White Jews in the Diaspora (or, at the very least, in Britain) at being White *properly*. I see the same hatred at work against Travellers, Eastern Europeans and White Turks. We are White but not performing Whiteness adequately. We look like White people but we act like people of colour. To the eyes of a racist, we must look inferior. Anti-semitism of course also contains a hefty component of fear and hatred of Judaism but it seems to me often to be a hatred of Jews as a whole. We are seen as outsiders and infiltrators, bringing our strange languages and foods and customs and clothing into Britain – no matter how many centuries we’ve been here. We are always “not from round here”.

People of Colour in Britain can’t escape being forever seen as “Not from round here”. If, like me, they have names that White British Christians might have, then like me they might get invited to the interview only for a White British Christian to get the post. They may be asked to speak for all people of their race, like I am asked to speak for all Jews. Where some people get to be “the Black friend”, I sometimes find myself “the Jewish friend”. Society treats me like “Jew” is my race, my nationality and the whole of who I am. White privilege opens doors for me, antisemitism shuts them in my face. I feel like I have more in common with People of Colour than White people yet I know that what I get is but a shadow of the racism some of my friends face every day.

I’m not sure how to conclude this except to say that I could be wrong. I’m coming at this talking about my experiences as one person living in one part of Britain. I lived here as a Gentile and now as a Jew. The difference is huge and only many years of reading great writing from people of colour about their experiences of racism came anywhere near preparing me for it. I know that,to an extent, this too is escapable (I can pass for a Gentile if I need to and there are places in the world where Jews are more common and accepted than Britain) and that my White skin still signifies a certain level of respectability, trustability and authority that I am given over POC whether I deserve it or not. I am committed to dismantling the structures that place me unconsenting above my POC friends *as well as* those (similar? linked?) structures that place those who appear to be White British Christians above me.

A poem about depression

Trigger warning: depression, mental illness, suicidal ideation

I’ve been living with depression for at least 11 or 12 years now. That’s almost half of my life. And it’s a very long time to have been ill.
Here is a poem I wrote about the two different “phases” of my depression: one in which I actively want to die, the other in which I feel that life is terrible but want to stay alive.

Depressions

Wanting to die was easier
A want can be answered with deliberate denial
No matter whether bravery or masochism,
It was a choice I made
I kept myself alive.

I no longer want to die
But living is harder
Changed from active choice
To something thrust upon me
By outside forces.

Wanting death and pushing it away
Took strength
This feels like weakness
Taking what I have been given
Want it or not.

Trick of the Light

This complements my last post on bisexuality and biphobia pretty well. Whilst mine was a lot about internalised biphobia, this one looks more at what non-bi people say to and about bi people.

Switch Studies

We’re not invisible. We’re just not real.

Bisexuals are a trick of the light. There we are, the B of LGBT. We’re acknowledged, included, magnanimously held up by the Ls and Gs as part of the queer family. It’s hard to complain. We’re embraced with far more enthusiasm than transfolk, after all. We get a letter, which is more than can be said for a number of other sexual minorities. Unlike “genderfluid” or “asexual” or “intersex”, if you say “bisexual” in conversation everyone knows the word.

Or do they?

We’re a trick of the light. People make assumptions. They try to translate us, but there’s no word for us in their experience. “Bisexual” too often gets erased from our identities and replaced with something else.

What does bisexuality look like, through the lens of hetero- or homosexuality? What does it mean, not to be gender-exclusive in a world where gender…

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I could pick a side… but I won’t

I am bisexual. I can and do become attracted to women, men and people of other genders. I find it incredibly, ridiculously hard to actually say so.

Because I have a whole tonne of internalised biphobia. Because despite evidence to the contrary, I’m forever looking for clues that I’m somehow “really” hetero or “really” gay. Because I live in a world that bases sexual identity on the relation between someone’s gender and the gender of their partners and then tries to fit everyone into “straight” and “gay”.

Gender preferences don’t seem to be a fixed thing for me. I very, very consistently find people with darker hair more attractive than people with blonde hair. I very consistently find other autistic people more attractive than neurotypical people. I currently seem to find men generally more attractive than women but this has changed rapidly and I fully expect it to change again.
Yet I never quite feel “bi enough” to call myself bisexual. Even when I was dating a man, a nonbinary person *and* a woman, I didn’t feel “bi enough” because I was mainly attracted to women. Now, I’m attracted to a lot of men and in a long term relationship with a woman I am very much in love with and very, very attracted to. And I don’t feel “bi enough”.

I think this has a lot to do with the constant pressure, both overt and covert to “pick a side”. The world around me and a heck of a lot of the people that comprise it make it very clear to me that I may like either women or men. Pick one. I may be straight and if I can’t be straight then I should be gay. Pick a side. Circle one option only.

And as I’m bisexual, then I could choose to be straight. Both the straight community and the LG community push the message that no one would ever choose to be gay if they had the choice. Yet both tell me that I do have the choice. Pick a side. The conclusion is obvious. I’m supposed to “choose” to be “straight”.

Leaving aside the difficulties cis people have with understanding how gay and straight work for trans people such as myself (put simply, any relationship I have with a cis person will be seen as “gay” by a large number of people) what would it mean for me to pick a side and choose to be “straight”?

I know I can’t force myself to stop feeling attracted to other men. I don’t imagine I could force myself not to fall in love with them, either. I could, at least in theory, choose not to pursue relationships with men. I could stop flirting with men. Stop checking them out. Stop smiling at pretty guys. Maybe. It’d take a whole heap of effort on my part. It’d hurt.
And I know I can’t see gender identity. I’d have to avert my attention from anyone I thought *might* be a man. I’d have to hypocritically dump any partner who discovered themself to be another trans man.
I’d become distant in my friendships with other men. I’d probably leave the LGBT community out of fear of “giving away” that I am bi. I’d become more anxious, expecting mannerisms or too-long glances to give away that I like men. I’d feel constantly under surveillance and detached and alienated from straight male friends.

More important than even all that though, I’d resent myself. I’d know that I was cutting myself off from wonderful people and for what? So people around me can feel comfortable about boxing everyone into “gay” and “straight”?
I would miss out on relationships I could have had. Picking one side means rejecting the other side, after all. There may be men out there who could love me immensely. Men who could show me the world in ways I have never seen it before. Men who could inspire me to be the very best person I can be. There may be men out there who could share awesome sex with me. Men who I might never want to stop kissing. Men who would hold me while I cry and just as willingly help me choose what to make for dinner. Men who I could love and trust and respect and care for. There are women like that too, of course, but choosing to pretend to be straight would cut me off from those men and deny them and me a chance to love each other. I cannot help but see it as an act of great emotional violence to ask me to do this to myself and to those men.

And it would be similarly harmful to ask me to choose to be “gay”. To deny that I love and have loved and can love women. To steel my heart and avert my eyes from people I could love just because my perception of their gender says I *ought* to choose not to love them?It’s an unthinkably terrible thing to do to yourself.

And that’s what “Pick A Side” means. It means denying yourself the possibility of relationships with people because you’re afraid of “looking gay” or of “stealing straight privilege”. It means being so afraid of people thinking you’ve “changed sides” that you let yourself lose out on potential happiness just to look consistent. Just to hold up the very system (monosexism) that is crushing you.

Bi people are much, much more likely than lesbian, gay or heterosexual people to have anxiety problems. Some people think the constant covert and overt pressure to “pick a side” is part of the reason why. I already have anxiety problems. I don’t want to add “What if people think I’m gay?” to them, thanks very much.

I am bisexual. I’m still struggling, 7 years after coming out to myself, to accept that and be okay with it. I am saying, here and now, that I will never ever choose to “pick a side”. There are too many wonderful people in the world who I could love and who could love me. I will not deny myself a chance to love and be loved by someone simply because of their gender.

We’re here, We’re Trans, Expect Us

Dear cis people,

Please start to expect us. Please actively expect that sooner or later you’re going to meet someone who is trans and you need to know the basics of trans etiquette before you do. That’s what I most need from you. Expect there to be people like me in your life.
This goes double if you work in a job that involves meeting people. If you work in a hospital, a school, college or Uni, if you work in social care, if you answer helplines, if you see people and talk to them as part of your job: Expect trans clients, customers and co-workers. Learn how to respectfully address people no matter what their gender and no matter how that gender relates to the one they were originally assigned.

You don’t need to understand why some people are trans. You don’t need to know the medical processes that some trans people might make use of in their transition. You don’t even need to know which people in your life are trans and which aren’t. Just please know that you are going to meet trans people and it’s your responsibility to be prepared.

You need to learn some basic trans terminology like “gender assigned at birth”. You need to make sure you know what “trans man” means, what “trans woman” means and what “nonbinary person” means. You need to know that some words used to refer to trans people are transphobic slurs and not to use them (Hint: if mainstream porn uses a word to describe a trans person, that word is probably a slur). You need to know that “trans”, “transgender” and “transsexual” are adjectives and never nouns. You need to learn and use the word “cis” or “cisgender” to describe people who are not trans. You need to already know that “You look just like a real man!” is almost never taken as a compliment.

You need to expect us. And not to expect us to educate you about trans people. It’s your responsibility as a human being to try your best to treat other human beings with care and respect. So once you know to expect that there will be trans people in your life, the responsibility to make sure you know how to treat us with care and respect is obvious.

I know it sounds like I’m asking a lot but I’m really not. The resources are out there. Ask in the comments if you need some links.

It all boils down to some very simple things you need to make sure you know:

  • There are trans people and there are cis people. It doesn’t matter why but there are.
  • Trans people’s genders are just as valid as cis people’s genders.
  • Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and care.
  • Treating people with respect and care involves acknowledging the validity of their genders by referring to them with the names, pronouns and gendered words they would want to be used for them.
  • Appearance, genitals, internal organs etc do not decide people’s genders for them. People are who and what they say they are.
  • You won’t always know if someone is trans or cis and this is okay.
  • If you need to know things about a person’s genitals, medical history or trans status, be polite, kind and sensitive in how you ask and make sure you actually do *need* to know.
  • Trans people aren’t obliged to educate you or to do so nicely. If you need to ask a trans person something about trans terminology or etiquette, be polite, kind and sensitive and make sure you are clear that they do not have to answer you. It is not their fault (or the fault of trans people generally) that you don’t know. It is not their responsibility (or that of trans people generally) to educate you. No one is born knowing this and everyone has to learn it. It is the fault of society as a whole that you don’t know this stuff – and part of changing our society into one where people are taught to show respect and kindness to all people is for you to do your best to learn this and to pass it on to others.

I know it feels much, much easier to just wait until you’ve got an out trans person in front of you and ask questions then and apologise when they wince at how you phrased something or be shocked when they tell you to fuck off. I know that seems easier. But please imagine for a minute what it is like to be regularly expected to explain your gender and how to respectfully treat you to almost every doctor, teacher, social worker, carer, nurse, bank clerk, pharmacist, new friend, new partner, class mate, cleric, lawyer, MP…etc… that you meet. And to smile and be nice about it and never show that you resent having to do this over and over again because so many people didn’t spend a few minutes online finding this out for themselves. I can explain what a trans man is and what it means that I am one in under a minute *because of the sheer frequency that I’ve had to do it*.

Help make this into a world where I and others like me will not have to constantly explain ourselves as an entry price for being treated like human beings.

Please educate yourself. Because you expect us.