Speaking about racism in black and white terms ignores the Jewish experience

'While Jews are an ethnic minority, we don’t sit easily in that category; we sometimes don’t feel welcome there'

June 25, 2020 10:45

When the world is being divided into those who have white privilege and people of colour, where do those of us who are white, half-white or white-passing sit?

This should be a time when people are talking — really talking — about race. But we seem to be glossing over real discussion for Instagram “blackouts”, pulling statues down, hashtags saying #blacklivesmatter and rowing over whether to take the knee.

Meanwhile, at one BLM march in Paris the “anti-racists” chanted “dirty Jews” and on social media we are being labelled white supremacists. I don’t think we should ignore that, even if this debate isn’t about us.

I’ve been thinking about where white Jews like me sit, literally, because of a fascinating new two-part Channel 4 documentary series which started on Thursday in which a group of 11-year-olds are taught about race.

The School That Tried to End Racism, follows a three-week experiment in which pupils were split into two groups according to the colour of their skin to talk about race, first separately and then together.

One girl, whose mother is white and father Sri Lankan, doesn’t know which room to sit in. Her skin is the same olive colour as mine, but while she plumped to sit in with the black and ethnic minority group, I would probably have sat with the white kids. While Jews are an ethnic minority, we don’t sit easily in that category; we sometimes don’t feel welcome there.

The show is an uncomfortable watch for several reasons. Many of the young kids in the non-white group have experienced heart-breaking racism. One black boy was thrown out of a shop when his white friends were messing around in it — he was the only one asked to leave. The girl with the olive skin talks about how she told her parents she thought she could never be beautiful because she isn’t white enough. Meanwhile, in the whites-only room, the conversation is stilted. They have never experienced racism — and their biggest fear is of inadvertently saying something racist.

One of them cries because he feels so guilty about his white privilege.

That pain is compounded when the whites in the group are given presents, while their friends from the black and minority ethnic group are ignored. They also win a “privilege race” which sees them walk forward a step if, for example, no one from their family has been stopped by the police because of the colour of their skin.

Having kids cry on TV is uncomfortable at all times. This feels even worse. Should white children feel blameworthy for their perceived privilege, particularly when skin colour doesn’t necessarily denote the whole story?

It ignores the issue of class, sex, and community. It says that whether you are a Holocaust-surviving Jew, or a working-class child from a broken home, an Eastern European immigrant, or a Traveller, you still have more privilege.

It is true that if you had a white kid and a black kid from exactly the same family, the pale one would face less prejudice. But I worry that seeing it simply in — to coin a phrase — black and white terms means that inbetweeners like us get stuck outside.

Many of us, particularly those of us who are secular, may feel in a privileged category; as a community we’ve come up from the inner-city slums to a middle-class suburban utopia. But we’ve changed our names, taken off our religious clothing, straightened our hair to fit in. Many of us will have experienced antisemitism — last year we feared an antisemite may become our Prime Minister — even while we recognise things could be worse for us, as it has been throughout our history.

That we all need to talk about race is clear. That there is systemic inequality partially due to the colour of your skin is also clear. But the idea that white Jews, or anyone who is white, should feel guilt, isn’t helpful. Taking action, learning history and listening to one another to tackle discrimination of every kind is a better way forward.

Nicole Lampert is a freelance journalist

June 25, 2020 10:45

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