Jewschool is proud to be a media partner for the first ever Jews of Color National Convening on May 1-3 in NYC and to host this series written by Jews of color about their movement for greater racial justice within and by the American Jewish community. These articles represent their authors and may not reflect the views of sponsoring organizations. Read the full series here.
[pullquote align=right] Would a more diverse congregation have prepared our white, liberal, and colorblind community to address the realities of racism for Jewish youth of color like myself?
[/pullquote]In addition to my own mother, “Linda” was the only other Asian American woman at the Reform synagogue I grew up attending. It was a friendly, liberal, and white Jewish space in our affluent New England suburb, a space where I often felt welcome while always, at some level, aware that I could count the number of people of color in our synagogue on one hand. That didn’t stop my indomitable mother from becoming more and more invested in our Jewish community. But amidst her drive and commitment to her adopted community was a twinge of cynicism: when she became our temple’s president, she joked that she only did it so that people would finally stop confusing her with Linda.
I wonder — would our temple peers have been better able to decipher my mother’s “foreign” face if there were simply more of us? Would a more diverse congregation have prepared our white, liberal, and colorblind community to address the realities of racism for Jewish youth of color like myself? To prepare my youth leader to unpack why El Al security singled me out for questioning during my 9th grade trip to Israel? Or to provide my white Jewish peer with the language with which to challenge the Hasidic man who questioned her of my presence on our flight there?
[pullquote align=left] “Diversity” means people of color can be included in white-dominated spaces, so long as we don’t rock the boat.
[/pullquote]It’s been six years since I left my childhood synagogue. During that time, I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to the language and lens with which to unpack my childhood experiences of inhabiting a racialized Asian body in predominantly white and/or white Jewish spaces. During that time, I’ve had the honor to learn, build, and organize with other Asian Americans and other communities of color in movements for racial justice. Relatedly, in those six years I’ve rarely re-entered Jewish spaces outside of my family, and when I do it is with the trepidation with which one dips a toe into a potentially frigid pond.
It’s with that same trepidation that I approached a friend’s suggestion to get involved with Jews for Racial Economic Justice (JFREJ). But when I learned that JFREJ’s Jews of Color Caucus was building a space by and for Jewish people of color, a space closed to our white Jewish allies, however well-meaning, my interest was piqued. I hoped I had finally found a space in which I could inhabit my multiple diasporic, marginalized, and misunderstood identities — free from judgement, exotification, or tokenization.
[pullquote align=right] This is why I question the value of diversity for diversity’s sake in the Jewish community.[/pullquote]I found a community I’m proud to be a part of. JFREJ’s Jews of Color Caucus (and our overlapping Mizrahi and Sephardi Caucus) is doing the important work of challenging our Jewish communities to move beyond the language of diversity and inclusion. Such language, as Kyra at Model View Culture writes, is dangerous because it prevents oppression from being named and challenged and thus allows it to be perpetuated. “Diversity” means people of color can be included in white-dominated spaces, so long as we don’t rock the boat. Diversity might have meant more people like my mother and Linda joining my childhood synagogue, but it wouldn’t mean questioning why members of that community were socialized to see their faces as indistinguishable in the first place.
What I hear when people of dominant identities talk about diversity is this: “we” will allow “you” into our spaces. But we will not change the way we operate. This is the guise of multiculturalism, the system that allows a black man to ascend to the presidency but nonetheless continues to systematically degrade and destroy black lives. Multiculturalism couches the affirmative action debate in how diversity benefits white students, rather than in terms of reparations owed to the descendents of those on whose labor and land the country’s most storied institutions of higher education were built. Multiculturalism has two Latino Republican presidential candidates insulting each other’s Spanish skills while debating who would deport more immigrants if elected. It is a system that here in New York City allowed a black District Attorney and a Korean judge to provide leniency for a Chinese NYPD officer found guilty of shooting and killing an unarmed black man in the stairway of a public housing unit. Multiculturalism allows us to climb the ranks within a system that continues to oppress us; it is an olive branch of upward mobility that obscures the possibility of liberation; it is white supremacy operated by black and brown faces.
[pullquote align=left] The relatively marginalized position of Jews does not erase the reality of Jewish participation in white supremacy.
[/pullquote]This is why I question the value of diversity for diversity’s sake in the Jewish community. As Jews living in the United States, we are constantly bombarded with the messages and mechanics of white supremacy, messages which those of Ashkenazi European descent are most susceptible to internalizing and reproducing. In a racist society, especially for those able to access the privileges and power of whiteness, there is no such thing as neutrality. That is why this week’s Jews of Color National Convening challenges predominantly white Jewish communities and institutions to do more to interrogate their complicity with the U.S. and its racist power structure.
To do so means having tough conversations about the historically tenuous relationship between Jews and whiteness in the United States. Yes, the foundations of power in this country are solidly white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, and it is within living memory that explicitly anti-Semitic scientific racism, eugenics, and immigration laws dictated popular thought and public policy here in the US. But the relatively marginalized position of Jews in the United States does not erase the reality of Jewish participation in the processes of white supremacy. We must make space for the contradictions of Jewish histories of trauma, displacement, and genocide with the realities of Jewish American experience. Once slaves in the land of Egypt, as our Passover tradition teaches, Jewish Americans participated in — and profited from — American enslavement of kidnapped Africans and their descendents. Once confined to the tenements and slums of the Lower East Side, today some of New York City’s most notorious “slumlords” are members of our Jewish community. Once a people yearning for a home, the American Jewish lobby now funds Congress’s near-unflinching support of the Israeli government — no matter how heinous its violence and displacement against Palestinians becomes.
[pullquote align=right] My rejection of diversity for its own sake is a rejection of this invitation.
[/pullquote]I admire my mother’s tenacity and her ability to thrive, and lead, in spaces in which she is “the only one.” But it’s an ability that I don’t possess, nor one that I wish to. I believe my apprehension in entering Jewish spaces is justified: I’m simply not interested in being included in Jewish spaces that don’t actively work to challenge racism and white supremacy, work which in white liberal circles is so often diluted and conflated with simply getting more people that look like me in the room.
Though this week’s convening was supported in part by the labor of white Jews working alongside us in solidarity, the space will be closed to all but self-identified Jewish people of color. To me, this isn’t reflexive tribalism or identity politics: it is a political statement that we, as Jews and people of color living at the intersections of anti-Semitism and racism, will speak for ourselves — building new spaces for ourselves and our politics outside of the confines and limitations of existing white and white Jewish structures.
Too often, the promise of diversity is linked to the presumed inevitability of assimilation: assimilation into dominant cultural practices, and into structures of power and privilege. My rejection of diversity for its own sake is a rejection of this invitation. If our Jewish communities take anything from the unprecedented convening of Jewish people of color this week, I hope it is to stop questioning how to get more of us into the room, and instead ask whether a room that perpetuates white supremacy is one that any of us should be occupying in the first place.