Mansplainer #8: My Relationship With Race – “It’s Complicated”

Tal Fortgang’s uninformed screed “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege” has been making the rounds on social media this past week and apparently causing quite the furore. There already have been several well informed take-downs that articulately dissect and refute his arguments much more clearly and directly than I ever could. But there’s one aspect of Tal’s piece that I’d like to address that I think has been largely glossed over or just not delved into.

You see, Tal isn’t white.

*gasp*

Now before I clarify, let me just assure you that I’m in no way trying to claim that Tal doesn’t benefit from white privilege. Or male privilege. Or any privileges. He does. So do I. He’s just clearly very confused about the concept of “whiteness” and how he fits in to it.

Tal, I hear you bro. I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there. Well, not Princeton. But I’ve been in a place where I didn’t understand what “whiteness” was and how that affected me. I didn’t understand the concept of race and had trouble navigating the conflicting messages I was bombarded with in culture, media, and academia. You see, Tal, just like you, I’m also Jewish. And just like you, my skin is pretty white looking. In the summer it gets a little more olive, but stick me in a room full of white people, and I’ll blend right in (more on that later).

Being Jewish can be confusing. We’re told it’s a race. It’s also a religion. “White” is also a race. And we’re also told that we’re white. Until we’re not. We’re told a lot of conflicting things. We’re caught between our understanding of identity and our historical and present oppression.

I thought like you did. I assumed I was white. There was lots of evidence indicating such. And I thought like this for most of my life. It was very hard for me to understand or accept concepts of white privilege or white supremacy when they seemed to fall apart when I’d apply them to myself. But the reason they’d fall apart is that I was operating under the assumption that I was white.

So let me let you in on a little secret that has helped me sort this all out. That pesky concept of race that’s been integral in oppressing people for hundreds of years? It’s not the same thing as skin colour. Not even close. Rather, race is a social construct used to divide humans arbitrarily. Yup. Arbitrarily. Because when you try to break things down on a genetic level, these distinctions don’t actually hold up.

So let’s talk about these privileges that you don’t want to apologize for.

Your entire argument against the concept of privilege is that because your family history (like my own) is firmly rooted in genocide, and that you still experience oppression based on your race, the concept breaks down because your privilege has not protected you from these things. You think of yourself as the exception that disproves the rule. Tal, bro, you’ve got it backwards.

The ongoing oppression that you and I face, the prejudice, the racism, the constant “othering”… that’s white supremacy. And just because it’s working against us doesn’t mean we’re not benefiting from white privilege.

I can turn on the TV and see positive role models that look like me. I can walk into a store without being followed by the clerks because of the colour of my skin. I can assume that a cops first instinct won’t be to shoot me because of the colour of my skin. I can safely assume that my CV will gravitate to the top of the pile because of the colour of my skin, and because of my gender (you’ve got no excuse for denying your male privilege, bro). I can enter a jewellery store in the rich part of town wearing a toque and a windbreaker without having the door locked on me. All of these, some big, some little, all of these privileges, they add up. And what it amounts to is that in a lot of ways, I have it way easier than my darker skinned friends.

And so do you, Tal. So do you. This is called “white-passing“. As white-passing Jews, you and I get the benefits of white privilege, but the setbacks of white supremacy.

You see, “whiteness” isn’t a cultural or genetic bond. It’s a system of power. It’s a system of power that we are all complicit in, and all participate in. It is the system that both privileges us because of our skin colour, and oppresses us because of our race. And it’s a system that the social justice movement has been trying to dismantle.

I feel for you, Tal. I really do. Wrestling with racial oppression while being confronted with our privilege is difficult. It’s hard to let go of things like “whiteness” that seem to be working in our favour in the short term. But for all the benefits that white passing has, it’s still reared the ugly head of white supremacy. Apart from the basic erasure of my cultural identity that happens each time I’m assumed to be white, that assumption can lead people to expose their prejudices in ways that they would normally not if they thought there were non-white people in the room.

I have been told to my face that Hollywood is entirely run by Jews, that 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy, and that there is a special cauldron in Hell for the Jews with a lid to keep them from helping each other to climb out. Because, you know, “normal” people pull each other back in while trying to save only themselves, while Jews stick together in order to persevere, apparently to a flaw. Go figure.

So this is me, in that cauldron, reaching down an arm to help lift you out. ‘Cause that’s what we do, right?

In the meantime, acknowledge your privilege. Learn how it affects you. Be nice to other people. And learn how race and gender give us advantages we neither earned nor deserve. And then keep learning, and maybe we’ll figure out how to dismantle this concept of “whiteness” together.

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