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I’m Jewish and Don’t Identify as White. Why Must I Check That Box?

This intellectual error was compounded by a second, moral error: The system came with commitments to racial hierarchy. Those hierarchical ideas coalesced around the idea of white supremacy, the thought that the white race was superior, not just in the sense that its members supposedly had qualities superior to those of other races but also in the sense that they were therefore entitled to better treatment. The intellectual and the moral problems compounded each other. If, like Thomas Jefferson writing in 1785, you were committed to the intellectual error, you could suspect “that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” And if they were inferior, what could be more rational than treating them as such?

As so often, though, while making an intellectual error, Jefferson also made the key moral argument against drawing the wrong conclusion. Writing to the Abbé Grégoire in 1809, he observed that “whatever be their degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights.” And he went on, “Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.” Jefferson saw that if you denied rights to Black people because you thought the average Black person was intellectually inferior to the average white person, you would have the same reason to deny rights to white people you thought were below average. Despite his own prejudices and participation in slavery, he grasped that that wasn’t how rights should work.

Now, you might think that the trouble caused by these ideas over the long life of this republic could be made to disappear if we all stopped thinking of ourselves in racial terms. Black consciousness can be enlisted in the struggle against racism, but it wouldn’t be so obviously attractive if we could get rid of racism. And white consciousness, too often, operates in the service of racism.

So I understand your impulse: There are good reasons for white people, in particular, to want to abandon whiteness. One, which you mention, involves the intellectual error. In massing together so many different experiences — including the distinct experiences of white Jews and white gentiles — the system treats unlike cases alike. The experience of anti-Semitism is one reason many Jews have a deeper sense of the harms inflicted by racism than do white people who have not been victims of it. Indeed, Jews in Eastern Europe neither identified as white nor were identified as white when they arrived at these shores in a wave of migration that began more than a century ago. Lothrop Stoddard’s best-selling “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy” (1920) made it very clear that Jews were to be considered “Asiatic elements.”

A second reason is that, because the category “white” was developed in large measure to deny social and political equality to Black people, identifying with that category seems to put you in the business of maintaining white supremacy. That is a reason based in the moral error. Many progressive scholars, mindful of this troubled history, have indeed called for white identity to be disowned or abolished.

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