(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 Draw”1 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
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?”
“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.
- If the white-on-black text of Unlikely Stories is hard on your eyes, I have posted the letters as a single document on Academia.edu.