this is what my face looks like. in new york city, i am unmistakably jewish. here, outside boston, i am asked with absurd regularity whether i’m irish-italian. either way, you can see that i’m a white person. my family came from eastern europe four generations ago, and most has been in new york ever since.
i was not socialized to think that i was white; my mother recently told me that she was horrified to hear my sister and me define ourselves as such, as she had worked so hard all our lives to instill a positive jewish identification in us. she told me she feels like every time she checks a box that says “white,” she feels like she’s lying; she feels erased because there is no box that says “litvak.” it was only when i was called “white bitch” by a latina girl in my elementary school bathroom that i knew i had to be more than jewish. it’s complicated, but also not that complicated. for me, and for those of ashkenazi descent who make up most of the jewish population in the united states, jewish and white are not mutually exclusive definitions.
so when “swastikas and white supremacist slogans" - that both vague and specific description which our university approved - are spray-painted onto campus, i know i am both target and beneficiary. it is a reminder that i am white until proven jewish. i walked home last night feeling as safe as i ever have - for to be a woman is to expect violence when one walks alone at night - because even though my ethnic/religious identity is being threatened, my whiteness is only being protected and reified.
when the vandalism appeared, one of my first gut reactions was a dread that some dominant-jewish-narrative-race-avoidant people were going to write something along the lines of “see, we jews are oppressed just like people of color! we are basically people of color!” some news reports have already removed the violence on bodies of color from the story, referring to the vandalism solely as “anti-semitic.” it is not, especially in medford, ma, where the royall house slave quarters still stand; white supremacy is a violence on all of us, in different ways on different bodies, but it affects and implicates all of us. i want the conversation, the anger and the healing that come out of this to be as complex as the violence, and that means that as white jews on this campus, in this region, in this country, we have to understand how we are both white and jewish.
there were periods of history in the united states where these categories were mutually exclusive. and there are, certainly, jewish people in the U.S. and in the diaspora who are not white; but since 1940 when the census changed so that native and nonnative whites were no longer distinguished, opening up space within previously WASP/nordic-only whiteness to include irish, italian, jewish, slavic, etc., “ethnic” whites have access to the resources, education, status previously excluded to them.
of course, i am not trying to deny the brutal histories of global anti-semitism, especially as these swastikas appeared on holocaust rememberance day. we have been violently expelled and slaughtered all over the world, but we cannot conflate our life in the united states with that of people of color in the united states, of chattel slavery, of genocide, of subjection. as james baldwin wrote in 1969, “one does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering. It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t from the very tone in which he assures you that it is.”
the histories and legacies of racism and anti-semitism have moments of overlap, but they are distinct. we can only stand unified in the face of hate if there is specificity about where we stand.