Sometimes I don’t know which side of the wall I’m on.
—Wladylaw Szpilman, The Pianist
On numerous occasions, I have attended the annual National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s “Creating Change” conference, bringing together grass-roots activists from throughout North America as well as other countries around the world. At one of the conferences in the early 1990s, I was a participant in a well-attended workshop titled “Activists of Color/White Activists Dialogue” facilitated by two highly-respected activists: a woman of color and a white Christian man.
When the workshop began, the woman outlined the agenda for the next one-and-one-half hours: the workshop would concentrate on the concepts of “race” and dialogue across racial divides, and include two separate panels of participant volunteers: one composed of four people of color, the other of four white people. Panel members were to each, in turn, answer four questions put to them by the facilitators, first the people of color panelists followed by the white people panelists. The questions were: 1. “What do you love about being your racial identity?” 2. “What has been difficult for you growing up this racial identity?” 3. “What do you never want to hear said again about or seen done to people of your racial identity group?,” and 4. “How can people of other racial groups support you and be your allies?”
As she explained the intended focus and agenda, great confusion came over me: Should I volunteer? Well, maybe, but I really can’t because I’m not sure if either of the categories on which the panels are organized include me. I know for certain that I am not eligible to volunteer for the “persons of color” panel. But, also, I feel as if I somehow don’t belong on the “white persons” panel either. Maybe I should just listen to the panelists, which I did.
But, what caused my bewilderment? What got in my way of self-defining as “white”? From where was this feeling of not-belonging on either panel, or my feeling of in-betweenness coming? Thinking back, I came to realize that it stems, I believe, from both personal and collective experience.
On the personal level, one day, when I was very young child, I sat upon my maternal grandfather Simon (Szymon) Mahler’s knee. Looking down urgently but with deep affection, he said to me through his distinctive Polish accent, “Varn, you are named after my father, your great-grandfather, Wolf Mahler. I lived in Krosno, Poland with my father, Wolf, and my mother, Bascha Trencher Mahler, and 13 brothers and sisters, and aunts, uncles, and cousins.”
Simon talked about our mishpocheh (family) with pride, but as he told me this, he revealed an obvious sadness on his face. I asked him if our family still lived in Poland, and he responded that his father and most of the remainder of his family were no longer alive. When I asked him how they died, he told me that they had all been killed by people called “Nazis” except his mother, Bascha, who died of a heart attack in 1934. I questioned him why the Nazis killed our family, and he responded, “Because they were Jews.” Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.
Looking back to the historical emergence of the concept of “race,” critical race theorists remind us that this concept arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification and rationale for conquest and domination of the globe beginning in the 15th century of the Common Era (CE) and reaching its apex in the early 20th century CE.
Geneticists tell us that there is often more variability within a given so-called “race” than between “races,” and that there are no essential genetic markers linked specifically to “race.” They assert, therefore, that “race” is discursively constructed – an historical, “scientific,” biological myth, an idea – and that any socially-conceived physical “racial” markers are fictive and are not concordant with what is beyond or below the surface of the body.
Though biologists and social scientists have proven unequivocally that the concept of “race” is socially constructed (produced, manufactured), however, this does not negate the very real consequences people face living in societies that maintain racist policies and practices on the individual, interpersonal, institutional, and larger societal levels.
In Europe, by the late 19th century CE, Judaism had come to be viewed by the scientific community as a distinct “racial” type, with essential immutable biological characteristics – a trend that increased markedly into the early 20th century CE. Once seen as largely a religious, ethnic, or political group, Jews were increasingly interpolated as members of a “mixed race” (a so-called “mongrel” or “bastard race”), a people who had crossed racial barriers by interbreeding with black Africans during the Jewish Diaspora. If Jews were evil as thought by many, this evilness was genetic and could not be purged or cured. Jews converting to Christianity as once believed by some Christian leaders, therefore, could no longer be a solution to “the Jewish question.”
In European society, according to social theorist and author Sander Gilman, Jews of Central and Eastern European descent (Ashkenazim) were thought of as the “white Negroes.” By the end of the 19th century CE, the popular image of the “Jewish type” (portrayed invariably as the Jewish male), according to Sander Gilman in his book The Jew’s Body, “consisted of a hooked nose, curling nasal folds (ali nasi), thick prominent lips, receding forehead and chin, large ears, curly black hair, dark skin, stooped shoulders, [weak flat feet, deflated rump,] and piercing, cunning eyes.” In addition, the gaze of the Jew was said to be pathological, searing, cunning, cold, and piercing.
The U.S. writer, Madison Grant (1865-1937) codified this supposed “racialization” of the Jews in his influential book, The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis for European History (1916), in which he argued that Europeans comprised four distinct races: The “Nordics” of northwestern Europe sat atop his racial hierarchy, whom Grant considered as the natural rulers and administrators, which accounted for England’s “extraordinary ability to govern justly and firmly the lower races.” Next down the racial line fell the “Alpines” whom Grant referred to as “always and everywhere a race of peasants” with a tendency toward “democracy” although submissive to authority. These he followed with the “Mediterraneans” of Southern and Eastern Europe, inferior to both the Nordics and the Alpines in “bodily stamina,” but superior in “the field of art.” Also, Grant considered the Mediterraneans superior to the Alpines in “intellectual attainments,” but far behind the Nordics “in literature and in scientific research and discovery.” On the bottom he placed the most inferior of all the European so-called “races”: the Jews.
The Nazi’s accepted and advanced the “scientific” view that European-heritage Jews, in fact, all Jews of every so-called “race,” constitute a separate and lower “race” as justification for extermination as if we were vermin. The Nazis asserted that Jews polluted the so-called “Aryan race,” and they ordered Jews to wear yellow Star of David patches on their outer clothing to signify “race pollution.” In Adolph Hitler’s 1925 book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), in addition to “racial” justifications, he also forwarded religious arguments for his eventual genocidal treatment of Jewish people: “Today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
Following Hitler’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, Nazi troops isolated all 2071 Jewish residents of my ancestral town of Krosno into a strictly demarcated area of the town, frequently took large number into the surrounding woods where they forced them to dig their own mass grave until Nazis shot them. Eventually, troops ordered those who remained in the town to board packed and virtually airless train cars for shipment to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Belzec concentrations where virtually all perished. None of my Krosno relatives survived. I have since returned to Krosno many times to recover the missing pieces of the jig saw history of my ancestral past.
So for me, anyway, it seemed to have taken somewhat longer than, for example, many European-heritage Christians to come to an acceptance that by dint of my skin color, hair texture, facial features, and most importantly, my European genealogy, U.S. society grants me a host of privileges denied those constructed as “persons of color.” My initial and continuing questions for years arose as, “In European society, my mishpocheh, in fact, all Jews then and in many areas still today, were and are still not considered ‘white.’ If this is so, if the Nazis ruthlessly murdered my Polish and also my Hungarian family because they were not white, then how can I have white privilege?”
Once constructed as the “Other” in European society, Jews and “Jewishness” – while certainly not fully embraced by the ruling elite as “one of their own” — became a sort of “middle” status, according to Biale, Galchinsky, and Heschel, “standing somewhere between the dominant position of the White majority and the marginal position of People of Color.” And this change in Jewish ethnoracial assignment has occurred only within the last 70 or so years.
While I and other European-heritage Jews clearly understand that we have been accorded white privilege vis-à-vis minoritized “racial” communities, we also understand the history and legacy of anti-Jewish persecution and, yes, how dominant groups have racialized us as well. And I believe at this point in history, individual Jews would answer the question, “What is my race?” in very different ways.
I have my own opinion on this question. I draw my conclusion by looking both where U.S.-American Jews are currently constructed on the ethnoracial continuum, and recalling the historical cycle of anti-Jewish prejudice.
Depending on our multiple identities, society grants us simultaneously a great array of privileges while marginalizing us based solely on these identities. Inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s pioneering investigations of white and male privilege, we can understand dominant group privilege as constituting a seemingly invisible, unearned, and largely unacknowledged array of benefits accorded to members of dominant groups, with which they often unconsciously walk through life as if effortlessly carrying a knapsack tossed over their shoulders.
Though we can never fully quantify privilege, by discarding the bifurcated polar perspective while charting privilege along a continuum taking into account context and identity intersectionalities, I believe we will come to a fuller and deeper awareness of issues of power and privilege, marginalization, and oppression as we work toward a more socially just society and world.
“Race” then must be seen constructed not as a binary with “white” on one side and “people of color” on the other, but rather as a continuum. I envision a continuum because “race” arises and is maintained as a social construction, one that changes with the variables of time and place, one that positions identity categories within a hierarchy of domination and subordination according or denying each category upon this hierarchy unearned privileges in various degrees.
As a visual organizer, imagine a vertical line dissected by a short vertical line. Below the left side of the vertical line, write “People of Color,” and below the right side, write “White.” Now imagine how your society constructs or places identity groups upon the top side of the vertical line, including such groups as, for example, English American Protestants, Irish American Catholics, Italian American Catholics, Greek American Christian Orthodox, Polish American Catholics, Mexican American Catholics, Puerto Rican Catholics, Argentinian American Catholics, Afro-Caribbean Americans, Cuban Americans, African American Protestants, African American Jews, recent African immigrants to the United States, Native Americans, Chinese American Catholics, Indian American Hindus, Jewish American Ashkenazim, Jewish Ethiopian Americans, Jewish American Sephardim, Iranian American Muslims, Iranian American Christians, African American Muslims, Honduran American Atheists, Atheists of any ethnicity, and so on.
I see Ashkenazim primarily constructed in the U.S. today on the “white” side of the horizontal line upon the vertical continuum, and I contend that we definitely have white privilege vis-a-vis all the groups placed on the left side of the horizontal line of “people of color.” I argue, however, that we do not have the degree and extent of white privilege in many sections of this country as white mainline Protestants, or other white non-Jews. In fact, in some countries, for example, in Eastern Europe still today, we are not constructed as “white.” Obviously, so-called white supremacists believe this as well in the United States.
With these lingering questions, with the occasional acts of anti-Jewish violence, within many contexts outside major metropolitan areas in which only a few Ashkenazim may live and where they are seen by other white people as “different” and as “other,” with the continued categorization of Jews as “racially inferior” and as so-called “mud people” (along with people of color) by extremist white racist groups, and possibly because I continue to carry a collective memory of the long history of anti-Jewish persecution, I chose, therefore, to plot our current placement as “off-white” on the U.S.-American ethnoracial scale as it is currently constructed: placed close to the right side of the horizontal line.
This commentary is extracted from a larger essay appearing as:
Blumenfeld, W. J. (2015). Inside and outside: How being an Ashkenazi Jew illuminates and complicates the binary of racial privilege. In Everyday white people confront racial & social injustice: 15 stories, E. Moore Jr., M. W. Penick-Parks, & A. Michael, Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, pp. 129-139.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).