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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.