Identity, Justice

When "Chainz" Open Up Old Wounds

Why do frum white Jews adopt black culture when they want to rebel against their religious upbringings? And what does that say about my existence?

Those that engage in this practice are telling me that involving themselves in what they perceive to be the representation of “Black Culture” is a complete departure from being a religious Jew, or Jewish at all for that matter. In essence they are saying that being “Black” is being “Not Jewish.”

– Elisheva Ester Rishon, “Cultural Appropriation in the Frum Community”

A virus has been infecting the Jewish community for years, and it is spreading: the fetishizing, appropriation, and monetization of black culture. Let’s fast-forward through the appropriation vs. appreciation debate and get to the point: t-shirts like those pictured above send the message that being black is so separate and foreign from being Jewish, the idea of melding the two together is naturally hilarious. Being black (or pretending to be) IS the joke.

And it’s not just Modern Tribe, the source of the t-shirts pictured above. Tipsy Elves and other “outrageous” entrepreneurs (that’s how Tipsy Elves describes their business model) are guilty too:
Phrases used in these designs like “bling,” “turnt,” and “holla at ya girl” originated in black communities. They were adopted (appropriated) by white people who wanted to sound cool (so sassy!), then were turned into Jewish puns and sold for giggles.
I am a white Ashkenazic Jew with the maiden name Greenstein. Frankly, I don’t know what it’s like to not feel a sense of belonging in Jewish spaces based on my race or ethnicity. And that’s all the more reason to call others out when we are wrong.

To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians.
– Amos 9:7

The Tanakh might argue that Ashkenazic Jews and those of African descent are the same, but we differ in one significant way: privilege. White Jews are a minority, but we have the shield of our whiteness that protects us from being seen as dangerous or uneducated when we use African-American Vernacular English or wear cornrows. Instead, we seem edgy and exotic. [Full disclosure: I wore my hair in cornrows most of my senior year in high school. I’m so sorry. We’ll save that for another blog post.] We harm the black community – Jewish and not – when we appropriate black culture. We reinforce the idea of black culture as a commodity to be sampled, mocked, and tossed aside when we’re finished. We take advantage of being able to experiment with blackness without having to live with any of its consequences.
So yes, they’re just shirts. And I get the joke. But when people are making “O Llamakah” sweaters (which, for the record, don’t harm anyone, especially not llamas), do we really need to dabble in racism for a laugh?

One thought on “When "Chainz" Open Up Old Wounds

  1. Thank you! I really appreciated this article, as I see a lot of appropriation within the Jewish community. I also appreciate you naming the privilege that we as White Jews have in America.

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