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.