There is a loose conglomeration of Facebook groups, for and by Jews, that for varying degrees of community and discourse are known collectively as “Jewbook”. And last monday the community imploded on itself in an unprecedented wave of racist comments in response to an editorial by Nylah Burton, a JOC (Jew of color). I highly recommend reading the article. It’s smart, sharp, and very well reasoned. I myself have used white-passing in the past and it has brought up points I had not considered and I have changed my stance on the term. I’d also recommend a few other articles for any Jews and (to a lesser extent) Jewish allies who’re reading this post. The Forward has coverage of the implosion, and Alma has as a round-table discussion of a number of JOCs discussing issues at large. Last, heading back to the Forward, you can read about what some JOCs have lost with the Jewbook debacle.
The responses to the original article came fast and sometimes furious. The minority were outright hostile, but it was still a shockingly large number of replies. Many were openly supportive, but I would say a very large portion of comments were well-intentioned yet defensive, including my own. I cut myself off because no matter my qualms with some minor points in the editorial, it quickly became apparent that the tone had turned and this was no longer a place for a productive discussion. I wouldn’t have said anything at all except that the author had asked for feedback. I’m not going to parse all my quibbles here either. Instead I want to look at what I hope is a more productive point regarding the conversation, as well as why so many well-meaning members of the groups so quickly jumped on the defensive rather than took a moment to self-reflect. I will also look at the English language itself and how we’re locked into a problematic language before we even begin a discussion.
The editorial is not wrong in any specific point. There are things about it that may have irked me in how they were presented, however, the content is all sound. I have been convinced not to use the term “white-passing” for those who Nylah Burton calls white Jews. It is a term for people of color and for those who are not people of color to take it and to police it is absolutely a problem. Her usage of “functionally white” is a good one. It’s not perfect, but it begins to touch on the strange place Jews occupy in the complex world of racial issues. But this is only a starting point, and I believe that is why so many people who are not POC began to push back immediately. Being Jewish in the contemporary US is an increasingly dangerous position to be in, and with the liberal left quietly growing its anti-semitism as well, it’s an increasingly isolating place to be as well. When someone comes along and beings to chip away at what was an easy way to claim a place among “other”ness it can cause a bit of fear. If the political right and the political left are becoming hostile to Jews, and suddenly Jews of color are taking something back, it seems like an attack from all sides, outside as well as within.
But for JOC it must be so much worse. To be a Jew now is potentially dangerous. To be a person of color is actively dangerous, and becoming all the more so each day. So to be a minority in a minority, to be dealing with racism from the right, anti-semitism on the left, and also open hostility from within the Jewish community- I can’t imagine how utterly frightening and solitary that must be. So to come out and try to carve out a space that was already hers with a clear and reasoned article, well, it was incredibly brave of Ms. Burton and she was met with what I can only imagine were the pessimistic results she could have predicted. So for the group members that replied with well-meaning but defensive responses, myself included, we were nervous about the implications but didn’t take the time to think about the human cost we had exacted by taking the term from POC. And for that I am sorry.
The point I wrote in the comments was:
I think part of the problem is our limited and imprecise language when dealing with race. There’s no term to describe the niche of conditional white privileges depending on the situation and appearance of person, without implying being a POC. Like, what’s the term for “white when pulled over, but not when driving in the southern US, but also white when applying to jobs, but a crap shoot when running for office”? For some, “white-passing” may not be so much of a good choice of words as much as a least-worst option.
And I believe that is still generally true, though I now think that “white-passing” is not quite the least-worst. The least-worst option is to drop it and use either “functionally white” or “conditionally white”. And that takes me to the language we have at our disposal and how we often lose before we even begin to speak. The point I was grasping at is that there’s no easy term for someone who’s not a person of color but yet also not a person who can truly qualify as “white”. And that is, at least in part, because we are using inherently white supremacist language when discussing race. When we use the term white it generally is in reference to how one is perceived by society and/or certain privileges and rights afforded them. Our usage of the term white is intrinsically tied to a superior place in society. That’s because white supremacy is systemic and it is built into the systems of society. Everything from zoning to bank policy, drug laws to immigration enforcement, social services to advertising, all of these things have a preferential bent toward white people. In short, white people benefit and therefore it is seen as beneficial to be white. Which means the contrary must be true; that not being white is unfavorable and therefore it is unfavorable to not be white. But the system in place is also what generally defines whiteness. Those people that Nylah Burton calls white Jews have only been legally white since roughly the mid-20th century. Not only were Jews not accepted as white by default for a while, we were actively excluded from the definition of it. Of course, once “white Jews” became white it came with a whole slew of benefits, and it’s hard to turn away from privilege. And that’s a significant point in the development of racist undercurrents in the American Jewish diaspora. The US tends to frame moving one’s station up in society as coming at the expense of someone else. And so Jews moved up, with all that implies.
But still we only have people of color and white as the two clear-cut categories when discussing race. Conditionally white Jews are in a strange liminal space where we’re too different for white supremacists and too white for people of color. “White passing” allows for the acceptance of white privilege without the acceptance of whiteness. “Functionally white” and “conditionally white” both place the person in question into a subset of white, and that can be upsetting to those who don’t see a white community as a safe place to be (✋).
The takeaway people should have for the issue of white passing/functionally white should be that white should be that white/POC aren’t the only two things one can be in the discussion on race. It’s much more complicated than that, and the definitions are liquid. Being functionally white doesn’t make you more white than white-passing, but it does leave that term for people who are white-passing POC and that’s whose hands it belongs in. Race isn’t a binary thing. It’s literally not black and white, and leads me to the larger issue…
The takeaway I would like people to have for the large issue of defensiveness and hostility when dealing with complaints from POC is to step the hell back. If you’re in a position to be arguing about your whiteness ()or lack thereof), then you’re in a more privileged position than most POC. And while that doesn’t mean you should instantly concede every point, it does mean you can afford the time to shut up and actually look at the merit of what POC are saying. If you can function as a white person in society, even just for the moment, then you absolutely should use that moment to take in what is being said by someone who does not have that ability and all the perks it comes with. So if you’re functionally white, either by dint of being actually white (whatever that means) or conditionally so, shut up and listen. You’ve likely missed something. And on the off chance you haven’t you can still take the time to listen and think rather than instantly defending your position without consideration.