Naming the Nebulousness: Reflections on being White and Jewish in the Racial Justice Space after Attending the 2016 Facing Race National Conference

Screenshot: photo by Brian Palmer, Facing Race National Conference 2016
Screenshot: photo by Brian Palmer, Facing Race National Conference 2016

By Cheryl Pruce

Uncomfortable. Uplifted. Confused. Held. Frustrated. Supported. Disheartened. Inspired. These are some of the things I have been feeling before, during, and after attending Facing Race: A National Conference the past three days in Atlanta. On the one hand, I have immense gratitude for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and any other sponsors of the Repair the World conference delegation for being able to attend. On the other hand, I have I have been struggling. With many things.

***

I have been struggling with the concept of being a white Jew. If you were to ask me to name the top ten dimensions of my identity, being ethnically Jewish would be high on the list. It’s a core part of who I am and how I see the world. It grounds me in values of justice, pursuing truth, and taking care of our fellow human. Nowhere on that list would be my whiteness. And I am aware, especially during this horrifying time of a Trump president-elect, that my anti-Semitic enemies don’t see me as white. To them, I am a filthy Jew.

Yet, at the same time, I acknowledge the privilege my white skin has afforded me. By privilege I mean the benefit of the doubt I have received and the opportunities I have been afforded. I don’t look threating to the white power elite the way my sisters and brothers of color do. So I guess in some ways I am a white Jew, and I do often refer to myself that way, especially in racial justice spaces. But I’m still not totally comfortable with that term. Just because I have acknowledged my whiteness doesn’t mean I have bought into the myth of my whiteness. So I am a confused maybe somewhat sort of white definitely strongly-identifying Jew.

***

I have been struggling with being white at the Facing Race conference, and being white in the racial justice space. I didn’t feel uncomfortable being in a racial minority at the conference. I was proud to be in a space that was centering and uplifting the voices of women, blacks, Latinas, Asians, Muslims, Native Americans, documented and undocumented immigrants, trans people, queer people, and people with physical disabilities. It was important for me to be there, as a listener, supporter, ally, and fellow sister facing hatred and threats to my life because of who I am.

What did make me feel uncomfortable is that even though I came into the conference thinking that multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition for racial justice included white people, it felt like others did not include whites in that coalition. It felt like many were saying explicitly or implicitly that my purpose as a white person was exclusively to talk to other white people. It felt like they didn’t want to talk to me. And they don’t need to. I can’t imagine the frustrations and burden of people of color talking through structural racism with white people. That is not the obligation of people of color. As a white person I feel a strong sense of obligation to talk through white racism and prejudice with other whites. I have and will continue to fight that part of the fight.

But I also came to the conference with a sense that I was part of a coalition of many different kinds of people. I come to the racial justice space wanting to talk with many more people than white people. So it felt alienating. I stand in the racial justice camp but I am not sure others are standing with me. I am not sure the extent to which I was viewed as separate from the oppressive white supremacist whites even though I am as scared of them as many of my friends of color. So I was standing, but I wasn’t sure where I stood.

Here’s what I am sure of. I didn’t ask to be white. I didn’t choose to be white. But I DID choose to stand in the racial justice space. Because I am disgusted at how blacks and others have been treated in this country and I will spend every day of my life fighting for educational opportunities for low income youth and youth of color. I am not asking for my voice to be centered. I prefer that it not be. But I think if we are serious about being inclusive, then we should acknowledge that there are whites fighting this fight. There are whites who have died fighting this fight. Thank you Chris Crass for speaking on behalf of white anti-racist activists and showing your passion for the cause.

Not because whites need acknowledgement in order to continue our work. We will keep on no matter what because we believe so deeply in what we are doing. But because it’s better for the cause in general to be as united as we can be. I don’t want to, nor will I, apologize for the skin I was born with. America has made clear to me that my skin isn’t the “right” kind anyway, with its paleness and freckles. I am no less serious about being in this fight because I was born with that skin. I am not an awkward white person apologetic for my whiteness. I am a strong, confident, soulful, sexy, white woman who is standing by my brothers and sisters of color, proudly.

***

I struggled with being a Jew at the conference. I never once heard anti-Semitism be included in the challenges of white supremacy. I asked myself why anti-Semitism, which is very real in many parts of America and especially pronounced in Europe, was not only not highlighted but not even mentioned. That hurt. Because white supremacists want to rid the world of Jews as much as any other vulnerable group named at the conference. The one exception was keynote speaker Roxane Gay’s mention that former skinheads shouldn’t be given a gold star for not being anti-Semitic.

I wondered if this omission, glaring to me, was because people think of Jews as white. I realize that many Jews in America are white, but that doesn’t take away our struggle, our history, and our very tangible fear about an America under the direction of president-elect Trump. It also negates the large and increasing population of Jews of color that face racism as much as any other person of color. I am comfortable going to a conference like Facing Race and feeling invisible as a white person. I am not comfortable going to a conference like Facing Race and feeling invisible as a Jewish person. Jews overwhelmingly voted for Hillary in the election. We made clear that we stand against racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. Are others in the racial justice space standing with us?

I wondered if it was because people think of Jews as fascist Nazi oppressors of Palestinians. I realize that many of us in the racial justice space have a lot of thoughts about the Israel-Palestine conflict. But that hasn’t stopped me from standing alongside my Muslim friends. When an eloquent Iraqi woman told the conference attendees she didn’t wear her hijab for the first time after Trump got elected, I was overwhelmed with sadness and pain. If one of my Muslim friends was threated or attacked, I would be out for blood. Period. Being Jewish doesn’t mean we stand against Palestinians. Many of us Jews have been wanting an economically and politically viable Palestinian state for as long as we have understood anything about Middle East peace efforts. Many of us Jews stand against the killing of innocent Palestinians as much as we stand against the killing of innocent Israelis. Many of us are standing in the racial justice space alongside our Muslim and Palestinian partners. Are others in the racial justice space standing with Jews when swastikas are graffitied on synagogues, Hillels, or other Jewish spaces, or when people with Jewish head coverings are harassed or assaulted?

***

Despite my struggles, the conference provided a space for me to confront these feelings head-on, and to also find my voice as a white Jew in this racial justice space. During one of the breakout sessions on developing a personal theology, we had a chance to reflect on our values, how our faith sustains us in our racial justice work, and how we want to invite others into the racial justice space with us. I scribbled a few thoughts down quickly and when the facilitator asked for someone to share, for some reason my hand shot up despite barely being able to read the scribbles on my paper. I think something deep within me needed to share my white, Jewish voice. I was called on. And I stood up. And, shaking, I spoke my truth:

“I stand in the racial justice space because it is the right and just thing to do.
I engage in the racial justice space because as a Jew whose grandparents survived the horrors of Hitler fascism, it is my obligation to promote peace and understanding.
I work in the racial justice space because we need to fight together, regardless of our racial, ethnic, or faith identity.
It matters that Jews join me because we need to say FUCK YOU to Hitler.
It matters that whites join me because we need to bolster white voices challenging white supremacy and dismantling systemic racism.
I will leave here and continue my interracial, interfaith race dialogue work.”

Cheryl Pruce, a Fulbright scholar with degrees in Urban Studies and Sociology from Stanford University, works as a quantitative education policy researcher in Washington DC with areas of expertise in educator quality and educational equity. Pruce founded and operates the Minyan of Thinkers to convene groups of young professionals in their 20’s and 30’s to dialogue about contentious community challenges through the study and discussion of scholarly texts. The most important thing she does is work directly with academically struggling middle and high school students in a tutoring program run by For Love of Children.