Why I Will Never Call Myself White Passing Again

When I was in college, one of my best friends looked around the bar we’d just entered and said he wanted to leave.

We’d both been waiting for this bar to open for months. And here it was… all shiny and new, with smiling  faces and Run D.M.C. playing and 3 dollar pitchers of margaritas.  I didn’t get it.

“Look around.  I’m the only brother in here.” He said.

It was true.  He was the only African American guy in the bar.  But, what did that matter? I often went with him and our other friends to dance clubs where I was the only white girl and I never felt uncomfortable.

I begged him to stay for just a few minutes.  We chose an inconspicuous corner in the back, shared a few drinks and then left.  That was it. No drama.  And, yet, the impact his discomfort made on me lingered.

Growing up as the only Jewish, only Middle Eastern kid in a white Conservative town, I’d grown accustomed to thinking of myself as “other.” And, if for one moment I forgot, there would be someone burning my hair on the bus, or telling me I killed Jesus to remind me.

And, so, when I got to college, I gravitated to other young people who felt “other.” There were the African American kids who’d grown up in white neighborhoods, the Latino guy who was raised by a white family, the Taiwanese girl who was the only minority in her small town.  We had all grown up feeling like outsiders. But, together we were at home.

For many years, I didn’t see myself as any different from my black or Asian friends. Hadn’t I too grown up being discriminated against?  Wasn’t I also a minority?

But, after that incident in the bar, I began to think about things a little deeper. Yes, I’d had a rough childhood, but when was the last time I’d been harassed for being Jewish?  Yes, I felt more comfortable in spaces that were diverse, but did I ever feel unsafe in an area that was predominately white? Yes, sometimes people made strange remarks when I told them I was Jewish, but did anyone ever assume I was Jewish without me telling them?

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I began to wonder if somehow, I had gone from being “other” to part of the white majority.

After that moment, I started to listen a little harder, to pay more attention.  I learned that my black friends were pulled over by the cops much more often than I was, that my Latino friend was sometimes followed around the store, that my Taiwanese friend was often treated as a fetish instead of a human being.

I started to become aware of my surroundings… to notice if the room was predominantly white, to make it a point to smile and talk to people who were different or looked uncomfortable. To ensure that no one around me was ever made to feel “other.”

I know there has been a debate raging about whether Jews are white passing or not.  And, I understand the confusion. We are only a few generations removed from the Holocaust. Our wounds are still fresh, our fear is still on the surface.  We know all too well that we are only one bad leader away from devastation.

But, there is a difference between the potential for trauma and actually living through it.  Yes, there are isolated incidents of antisemitism, but the system is not stacked against us.  There is no mass incarceration of Jews or government created ghettos.

I admit that in the past I have used the word “white-passing” to describe myself on occasion.  It felt accurate, right, fitting to my Middle Eastern heritage.  My maternal family is Egyptian and Libyan, and many of my cousins have dark skin and tight curls.  Calling myself “white” felt like a slight to my non-white relatives. But, in recent weeks I’ve read articles by Facebook friends who are Jews of color saying that it hurts them when light skinned Jewish people use that term. So, I’ve stop using it.  Because, as much as I try to be aware of the concerns of people of color, not being one myself, I will always have blind spots, things that I miss. And, I am grateful for friends who are open about the things that make them uncomfortable to help me learn.

The truth is, I can’t guarantee that I won’t continue to make mistakes or to miss instances where I could have been a better ally. But, what I can be sure of is that I will keep listening to my friends, whether it’s about what words hurt them or what bars they feel uncomfortable in.

And, maybe, at heart, that’s what it’s all about.  When we care about people, we are much more likely to listen and to change our behavior. So, I’ll keep taking all those opportunities to get to know people of all different backgrounds. I’ll keep making new friends and listening to the ones that I have. Because I really believe that only when we care so much about the “other” that their concerns become our concerns will real progress be made.