Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
Trying to Write After Charlottesville

(The begin­ning of this post has been edit­ed because I acci­den­tal­ly post­ed the wrong draft.)

I’ve been try­ing to write some­thing in response to Char­lottesville for the past two weeks, but I’ve had a hard time find­ing the words. It’s not that I’ve been unclear about what hap­pened there or who was to blame for the vio­lence of that day or for Heather Heyer’s death, or about not-only-Trump’s moral cow­ardice in equat­ing those who com­mit­ted vio­lence against the white suprema­cists and neo-Nazis—whether that vio­lence was in self-defense or not—of equat­ing those peo­ple with the neo-Nazis and white suprema­cists them­selves. It’s that so many peo­ple with plat­forms much, much larg­er than mine have already said most of what I would have said, and it has been dif­fi­cult to keep up. Bet­ter to ampli­fy those voic­es in the small ways that I can, it has seemed to me, than to engage in the clam­or­ing for atten­tion that putting my own voice out there would have been. So that’s most­ly what I’ve been doing, sharing/forwarding/talking about/planning to teach what have seemed to me the nec­es­sary and worth­while things that oth­er peo­ple have said.

I was able to pour some of my out­rage into the state­ment about Char­lottesville that I wrote for my fac­ul­ty union, but that state­ment is by def­i­n­i­tion not a per­son­al one, and so, while writ­ing it helped me feel I’d done some­thing worth­while, it didn’t actu­al­ly do much to help me fig­ure out what I want­ed to say. I’d thought a lot about the inter­sec­tion of racism and anti­semitism in my own life as a white Jew dur­ing the sum­mer of 2016, when I wrote a series of let­ters that Jonathan Pen­ton pub­lished as “The Lines That Anti­semitism and Racism Draw1 in Decem­ber of that year in his online jour­nal, Unlike­ly Sto­ries. (I post­ed one of those let­ters to my blog ear­li­er this month.) Again, how­ev­er—here, here, here and here, for example—others were already writ­ing about being white and Jew­ish mov­ing­ly and per­sua­sive­ly, and they were doing so in more or less pre­cise­ly the terms I would have cho­sen. What they weren’t writ­ing about, how­ev­er, was where I end­ed up in the let­ters that I wrote to Jonathan, and that is per­haps some­thing I can add to the con­ver­sa­tion.

The Lines That Anti­semitism and Racism Draw” con­sti­tutes my response to a Face­book mes­sage Jonathan sent me while he was read­ing through sub­mis­sions to a spe­cial issue of Unlike­ly Sto­ries called #BlackArt­Mat­ters. Con­ceived in har­mo­ny with the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, #BlackArt­Mat­ters was to be, “a cel­e­bra­tion of the incred­i­ble con­tin­u­ing con­tri­bu­tions of Black artists to the glob­al dia­logue.” Black artists were wel­come to sub­mit their own work. Peo­ple who were not Black were invit­ed to sub­mit crit­i­cal arti­cles about or appre­ci­a­tions of Black artists. I had hoped to write an appre­ci­a­tion of June Jor­dan, my first poet­ry teacher, but my sched­ule did not per­mit it, and so I told Jonathan I would have to pass. Then, in ear­ly August of last year, as I was sit­ting in the air­port wait­ing with my fam­i­ly for our flight to Scot­land, where we’d be spend­ing the first of three weeks in Europe, I received a mes­sage from Jonathan that said, in part, this:

So [Ros­alyn Spencer, the woman who edit­ed #BlackArt­Mat­ters, is] going through the [pool of] sub­mis­sions[.] Lots of fine stuff from black folk, lots of fine stuff from non-black folk. There is, how­ev­er, only one sub­mis­sion from a Jew­ish aca­d­e­m­ic, who [in a crit­i­cal arti­cle about James Bald­win] starts talk­ing about how, since he’s Jew­ish, he knows how black peo­ple real­ly feel, except only par­tial­ly, but total­ly black­ly.

Jonathan’s irony notwith­stand­ing, I trust­ed his descrip­tion of that academic’s racist pater­nal­ism because it is very famil­iar to me from when I was younger and find­ing my way more and more deeply into both the Ortho­dox and Con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ish youth move­ments. How­ev­er, when Jonathan asked me, “one Jew­ish writer to anoth­er,” to sub­mit some­thing, any­thing, so that academic’s work would not be the only piece in the pool of sub­mis­sions to rep­re­sent us—Jonathan did not pub­lish it—I had to say no. Still, I couldn’t get what that aca­d­e­m­ic said out of my head, and so, ear­ly in the morn­ing of our first day in Edin­burgh, while my wife and son were still sleep­ing, I start­ed what became a series of six let­ters that I wrote from three dif­fer­ent countries—four, if you include the last one, which I wrote after we returned to the US. It’s this last one that I want to share with you now. Not because I think it says any­thing defin­i­tive about racism and anti­semitism, but because where it ends, when I wrote it, sur­prised and even fright­ened me a lit­tle, feel­ings I have learned to trust as a sign I’ve hit on an idea that needs to be explored fur­ther. And because I think the desire for that explo­ration is some­thing that what hap­pened in Char­lottesville, and that every­thing packed into what hap­pened in Charlottesville—past, present, and future—should com­pel in us. The let­ter, slight­ly edit­ed, is below.


 

Wednes­day, August 24

Dear Jonathan,

We’ve been home for a cou­ple of days now, and we’re final­ly set­tled back in enough that I can take this time to write with­out feel­ing guilty that I should be doing some­thing else. Tomor­row, I need to begin prep­ping for the new semes­ter, which starts in about a week, so this will have to be the last let­ter I send you.

Not too long after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Dar­ren Wil­son, some­one start­ed the hash­tag #Crim­ing­While­White. It seemed at first like a mar­velous idea: white peo­ple tweet­ing sto­ries about times they’d been stopped by the police and been treat­ed polite­ly, kind­ly, even indulgently—the pre­cise oppo­site of the kind of treat­ment all-too-many Black peo­ple have come to expect from law enforce­ment. The more I read the #Crim­ing­While­White tweets, how­ev­er, the more skep­ti­cal I became. Yes, there were plen­ty of 140-char­ac­ter-long sto­ries that fit the hashtag’s pur­pose per­fect­ly, and, yes, the effect of telling those sto­ries one after the oth­er was to high­light the fun­da­men­tal unfair­ness of how cops all too often treat Black peo­ple. High­light­ing that unfair­ness, how­ev­er, seemed to be about as deep as the hash­tag could go. Don’t get me wrong. Fair­ness is impor­tant, but, as a frame­work for deal­ing with white priv­i­lege, it has def­i­nite lim­i­ta­tions.

This default focus on fair­ness was why I didn’t post my own #Crim­ing­While­White sto­ry, despite the fact that it matched the hashtag’s intend­ed mes­sage. Basi­cal­ly, a cop pulled me over because my rear license plate was miss­ing, and then he let me go with just a warn­ing that I should replace it as soon as pos­si­ble. He didn’t even write me a tick­et. The full nar­ra­tive of that encounter, how­ev­er, is far more com­plex than this brief sum­ma­ry sug­gests, and Twitter’s 140-char­ac­ter for­mat would have meant the loss of that com­plex­i­ty. So I tried instead to write the sto­ry as an essay in itself, but noth­ing I wrote did jus­tice to what I thought I was try­ing to say, so I put it aside. I want to tell you the sto­ry now because I think it’s rel­e­vant to what I’ve been writ­ing in these let­ters.

About thir­ty years ago, I was dri­ving my girl­friend home late one night along an oth­er­wise desert­ed stretch of the North­ern State Park­way. From behind us, a patrol car’s all-of-a-sud­den flash­ing lights illu­mi­nat­ed the dark. At first, I didn’t think the lights were for me, so I moved over into the right lane to let the car pass. It, how­ev­er, moved into the right lane behind me, and a voice came over its loud­speak­er telling me to pull over, which—confused about why I need­ed to; I knew I wasn’t speeding—I of course did.

As I watched the offi­cer approach my car in the rear view mir­ror, I was fran­ti­cal­ly but­ton­ing the inner plack­et of the shirt I was wear­ing, which my girl­friend had play­ful­ly undone while I was dri­ving. The design of the shirt—with two sets of plack­ets, one inner and one outer—made it look like I was wear­ing two shirts, and I was just start­ing to but­ton the out­er plack­et when the officer’s knock on the driver’s side win­dow inter­rupt­ed me. I rolled the win­dow down. “Please step out of the car,” he said. I could see he was white. “Bring your license and reg­is­tra­tion with you, and come around to the pas­sen­ger side.”

He watched me take the reg­is­tra­tion out of the glove com­part­ment, then walked over to where he want­ed me to stand.

Who’s in the car with you?” he asked when I got there, tak­ing my license and reg­is­tra­tion from me.

My girl­friend,” I answered.

What was all that com­mo­tion I saw in the front seat after you pulled over?”

I was but­ton­ing my shirt,” I told him, and I reached to open the out­er plack­et so he could see what I was talk­ing about.

Stop!” the cop said very force­ful­ly. “Do that slow­ly.”

What?” I asked, a bit of a chal­lenge in my voice, since I didn’t at first under­stand why he’d so sud­den­ly changed his tone.

Open both sides at the same time,” he instruct­ed, “one with each hand, and lift the shirt up.”

Now I under­stood. “I don’t–” have a gun, I want­ed to say, but he inter­rupt­ed me. “Just do what I told you!”

I glanced quick­ly around and noticed that his part­ner, whom I could not see clear­ly, had stepped out of their vehi­cle. I don’t remem­ber if they had their guns drawn, or if their hands were at their hol­sters, or if maybe one had his gun out while the oth­er was poised to draw if he had to. Or maybe their hands were nowhere near their guns. I real­ly can’t recall. What I do know is how sud­den­ly afraid and even more con­fused I was that they were now treat­ing me as if I might be armed.

I held the front of my shirt open and up, while the offi­cer shined his flash­light on me. “Keep the shirt up,” he said, “and turn around.” I did as I was told.

Where are you dri­ving this late at night?” he asked, his voice con­sid­er­ably more relaxed now that he knew I didn’t have a gun tucked into my pants.

I’m tak­ing my girl­friend home,” I said as I straight­ened my shirt.

Where does she live?”

She goes to Adel­phi Uni­ver­si­ty.”

Where do you live?”

In Stony Brook. I’m in grad­u­ate school.”

Whose car is this?”

Mine.”

How long have you had it?”

A cou­ple of years. I got it from my grand­fa­ther.”

He exam­ined my license and reg­is­tra­tion very close­ly, shin­ing his flash­light once or twice so he could see my face as he did so. Then he asked, “Did you know your rear license plate was miss­ing?”

No, I didn’t,” I said, and he took me to the back of the car to show me.

Car thieves, he explained, take the rear plates off the vehi­cles they steal so the cars can’t be iden­ti­fied from behind. “That’s why we stopped you,” he said, return­ing my license and reg­is­tra­tion. “There’s a ring of car thieves oper­at­ing around here. We thought you might be one of them.” Then his voce grew a lit­tle stern, “Just make sure you get that license plate tak­en care of as soon as pos­si­ble.”

I will, offi­cer,” I said. “Thanks!”

That was the end of it. I got back into my car; he walked back to his vehi­cle; and he and his part­ner drove away. As I said before, he didn’t even write me a tick­et.

As soon as I buck­led my seat belt and put the key in the igni­tion, my girl friend, who was also white, start­ed teas­ing me. “You should have seen your­self,” she smiled. “You were so scared. You should’ve stood up to them more.”

You do real­ize they thought I might have a gun on me, right?”

Don’t be ridicu­lous,” she said. “You didn’t have a gun. They weren’t going to shoot you.”

I don’t know what they would or would not have done,” I said. “What I know is that they could have, and I’m glad noth­ing I did made them think they had to.” I turned the key, the engine turned over, I pulled back out onto the park­way, and I drove her home.

Not once—and if this is not a sign of white priv­i­lege, I don’t know what is—not once in all the years since that inci­dent took place did I think about it in racial terms. Indeed, I always thought about it in terms of gen­der, what would have hap­pened if I’d tried to be more of a man, like my girl­friend sug­gest­ed I should have, and what it meant that she would make that kind of sug­ges­tion in the first place. Then I saw the #Crim­ing­While­White hash­tag, and I under­stood that this was a sto­ry I could con­tribute to that effort, but that’s not what made me want to tell you the sto­ry now. Rather, I am telling you this because of how I felt when I heard on NPR—I was dri­ving home from work a few weeks before my fam­i­ly and I left for Europe—the audio of Phi­lan­do Castile’s girl­friend talk­ing to Castile, and to the cop who shot him, as Castile sat in the seat next to her, and she couldn’t do any­thing to stop him from dying.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties between my sto­ry and his start­ed to haunt me almost imme­di­ate­ly. I was dri­ving with my girl­friend; so was he—and their daugh­ter was in his car was well. He was pulled over for a bro­ken tail­light; I was pulled over because my rear license plate was miss­ing. In each case, the cop believed a rou­tine traf­fic stop might turn into some­thing vio­lent and dead­ly. Jeron­i­mo Yanez, the cop who stopped Castile, said that Castile resem­bled a sus­pect in an armed rob­bery; the cops who stopped me thought I might be a car thief. Castile told Yanez that he had a licensed gun in the car; the cop in my sit­u­a­tion want­ed to make sure I did not have a gun tucked into the waist­band of my pants. Phi­lan­do Castile died because Yanez thought Castile was reach­ing for his gun, not his wal­let; the cop who stopped me gave me the chance to prove I didn’t have a gun, and I walked away with my life. Castile was Black, I sat in my car think­ing after I’d parked and turned off the radio. I am white. Is that fact the only rea­son I’m alive today? Do I lit­er­al­ly owe my life to the col­or of my skin?

The ques­tion may seem melo­dra­mat­ic at first. After all, my being white might have had noth­ing to do with the fact that those offi­cers did not shoot me; it’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that they would have treat­ed a Black ver­sion of me in the same way. What makes the ques­tion a valid one, how­ev­er, is that there’s no way to know for sure. To take it from anoth­er, less dra­mat­ic per­spec­tive, ask your­self why the cop who spoke with me didn’t write me a tick­et. My guess is that your first impulse would be to say because he and I were both white. Again, to be fair to him, there’s no way to know for sure. He might have cho­sen not to write the tick­et because I was young and he want­ed to cut me a break, and it is cer­tain­ly with­in the realm of pos­si­bil­i­ty that he would have made the same choice for a young Black man. I’ve always won­dered, how­ev­er, if he didn’t write me the tick­et because he didn’t know I was Jew­ish. Because, in oth­er words, he didn’t know he had before him a chance to give a “cheap Jew” at least some small mea­sure of what all cheap Jews “deserve,” i.e., to be made to pay.

I have no doubt that most peo­ple who aren’t Jew­ish will say that I am being melo­dra­mat­ic, and maybe even some Jews will too, at least at first. I’d be will­ing to bet, how­ev­er, that if you asked those Jews a sec­ond time, most of them would say some­thing like, “There’s no way to know for sure, of course, but I wouldn’t be sur­prised to learn that Richard is right.” Because Jews know about anti­semitism what Black peo­ple, and all peo­ple of col­or of course, know about racism, that it is not mere­ly an unhap­py acci­dent which some white peo­ple escape and some don’t. Rather, it is a mean­ing­ful and func­tion­al part of our cul­ture that lives in every­one who calls our cul­ture home. Every­one. The only real ques­tion is where you posi­tion your­self in rela­tion to the lines that racism and anti­semitism draw.

When that Jew­ish aca­d­e­m­ic claimed to know what Black peo­ple feel, I think it’s clear he was try­ing to declare his own dis­loy­al­ty to white priv­i­lege. How­ev­er, by assert­ing his Jew­ish­ness as that which gave him access to Black people’s feel­ings, he was also assert­ing that a line exists with­in him beyond which, because he is Jew­ish, and despite the fact that he was born into a white body, he ceas­es to be white. To put it anoth­er way, he was claim­ing that, because he is oppressed as a Jew, he does not experience—the full impli­ca­tion is that he has nev­er experienced—what white priv­i­lege feels like, i.e., that phys­i­cal sense of being at home in and with the col­or of your own skin, while at the same time doubt­ing that any­one who isn’t white can ever have that same expe­ri­ence

To give white­ness a body in this way—and for my pur­pos­es here, I don’t think it mat­ters whether you believe white­ness to be con­struct­ed or to sig­ni­fy a genet­ic race into which peo­ple are born—to make it not just about ideas, but about feel­ings, is to give it also a meta­physics, an ontol­ogy, and an epis­te­mol­o­gy. It is to pro­pose, in oth­er words, that white­ness both asks and offers answers to the ques­tion of what it means for white peo­ple to be in the world; of what white peo­ple can know about that world; and of how we are able to know it. In a book called White, Richard Dyer argues that white­ness roots the answers to these ques­tions in the medieval Chris­t­ian idea that a body’s val­ue is defined by the qual­i­ty of the spir­it that inhab­its it. The souls of men, for exam­ple, were under­stood by the Church to be supe­ri­or to the souls of women, and so men’s bod­ies were val­ued much more high­ly than women’s. Sim­i­lar­ly, the souls of Chris­tians were under­stood to be far supe­ri­or to those of the Jews, and so Chris­t­ian bod­ies had more val­ue than Jew­ish bod­ies.

Dyer asserts that this abil­i­ty to imag­ine dif­fer­ent bod­ies as being dif­fer­ent in essence, not just in form, is a pre­req­ui­site of the racist imag­i­na­tion, and he lists some of the ways Chris­tian­i­ty has imag­ined such dif­fer­ences in racial terms:

the per­sis­tence of the Manichean dual­ism of black:white that could be mapped on to skin colour dif­fer­ence; the role of the Cru­sades in racial­is­ing the idea of Chris­ten­dom (mak­ing national/geographic oth­ers into ene­mies of Christ); the gen­til­is­ing and whiten­ing of the image of Christ and the Vir­gin in paint­ing; the ready appeal to the God of Chris­tian­i­ty in the pros­e­cu­tion of doc­trines of racial supe­ri­or­i­ty and imperial­ism.

Dyer does not argue that Chris­tian­i­ty is itself racial­ly white, point­ing to the Black church in the Unit­ed States and the growth of Chris­tian­i­ty in Africa and Latin Amer­i­ca as obvi­ous evi­dence to the con­trary. Rather, he insists that Chris­tian­i­ty “has…been thought and felt in dis­tinct­ly white ways for most of its his­to­ry.” This notion, that white­ness, and there­fore racism, can­not be under­stood apart from its roots in the same Chris­tian­i­ty from which anti­semitism emerged sug­gests to me a new avenue for under­stand­ing the rela­tion­ship between these two forms of hatred. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, though, I do not have the time right now to walk down that avenue even just a lit­tle bit, As I said, the new semes­ter starts very soon, and I need to prep my class­es.

I know, Jonathan, that these let­ters were not the kind of response you were ask­ing me for when you mes­saged me about that Jew­ish academic’s sub­mis­sion. Nonethe­less, I am hap­py and grate­ful that your mes­sage to me about him moved me to write. The let­ters have forced me to push my think­ing about race and anti­semitism fur­ther than I have pushed it in the past, and I have learned some things about myself in the process. I hope you have found the let­ters thought pro­vok­ing and use­ful as well.

Best,

Richard

  1. If the white-on-black text of Unlike­ly Sto­ries is hard on your eyes, I have post­ed the let­ters as a sin­gle doc­u­ment on Acad​e​mia​.edu. []

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