Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Privileges

Julie's checklist of Gentile privilege makes for excellent reading. If there's one angle through which this Feministe thing wasn't a debacle, it's in the meta-discussion it's generated. The stuff going up at Alas, a Blog, It's All Connected, and Modern Mitzvot has all been excellent.

And in the comments to Julie's post, a link was given to this checklist of White privilege in a Jewish context (the blog itself, "This is Babylon", looks fabulous as well). Particularly in America, the idea of Jews-as-White is very heavily enforced, both within and without of the Jewish community. I think it's bad for the Jewish community as a whole, as it contributes to this image of the Jew (anywhere, including Israel) as part of this lily-White hoard, but unfortunately it is imagery that is very, very common amongst Ashkenazi Jews as well. So it's definitely a good thing to get out into the open.

19 comments:

chingona said...

David, I don't know how to contact you privately, but this at least seems to be a limited public (no offense). If you want to just delete this after you read it, that's fine. That last comment you left at It's All Connected is the most human and likeable you have come off in this whole thing (which is not in any way to fix blame solely on you - there is blame a-plenty to go around). Richard's right. You need to stop over-intellectualizing and speak from your heart (yes, I eavesdropped at Modern Mitzvot). Not everything worth saying needs to fit inside some grand theoretical structure or include grand rhetorical flourishes to be worth saying. Good luck. I've been at the bottom of the dog-pile, and it's a miserable place to be, but life does go on. And sometimes we even learn something.

PG said...

chingona,

David's email is in his Blogger profile.

I see what you are saying about "speaking from the heart," but given that

1) David has been personally criticized for trying to relate his personal experiences to larger events in the world, and

2) That he *does* want to talk about the "grand" stuff like anti-Semitism beyond just his own personal experience of it (as that personal experience of it probably wouldn't be enough to explain where we get Zionism or Israel as a Jewish state),

I doubt there is a way to do this to please everyone, especially those who seem to presume bad faith. Perhaps he should just write what and as he can, and put a warning label: Please do not comment here unless you are willing to offer the writer a presumption of good faith.

I have been mulling in my own head a post about good faith, and about whether making ourselves vulnerable -- which speaking from the heart generally does -- is a kind of hand-press of good faith: I will be sincere in what I say.

I had an experience several years ago where I realized that it's difficult to walk the line between giving the hand-press of good faith and using one's experience to substantiate a policy point:

An acquaintance (one who was a summer roommate, and the only one in a group of four who was male and didn't identify as politically liberal) and I were discussing how vigorously the church-state line ought to be policed, particularly in public schools. I favor keeping religion from being institutionally favored in any way, whereas he thought there was too much worry about it.
We were getting a little heated, and I raised the problem of religious discrimination among schoolchildren as a reason to avoid institutional favoring of religion. He said such discrimination was simply part of being a kid; it was no worse than being the unathletic kid always picked last for a team. I described how I had been taunted, insulted and picked on as a member of a religious minority and as a geek, and why the former had been particularly difficult because it made me feel shame for my family's identity. He said, "Oh, it couldn't have been that bad."

Because I had made myself vulnerable, that dismissal just put me in tears and I stormed away (I hate crying in front of people worse than anything). In retrospect, I think it was wrong and unfair for me to do that, because I was demanding that he give special credit to my story as one that must be true, and made him feel bad when he regarded it with the same disbelief that he (impartially!) gave all such stories. A policy debate was the wrong place for that story.

But that's the thing: if you ask me to be vulnerable and speaking from the heart, not just in grand theories, I have to be able to ask you to assure good faith and some measure of sympathy for my story (even if you don't think my story is enough to change your mind about something larger than an individual experience). Otherwise, it's natural not to want to put myself out there to get torn up for no good purpose.

chingona said...

But that's the thing: if you ask me to be vulnerable and speaking from the heart, not just in grand theories, I have to be able to ask you to assure good faith and some measure of sympathy for my story (even if you don't think my story is enough to change your mind about something larger than an individual experience). Otherwise, it's natural not to want to put myself out there to get torn up for no good purpose.

You're right. And I can't assure that because Feministe isn't a space I have any control over. I didn't mean to make it sound easy.

Do what you think is right.

David Schraub said...

Thanks guys (I mean it).

PG kind of nailed what I wanted to say on the head (she has that effect a lot). It's not that I don't see the space for stories and "speaking from the heart" (though I do quite often actually "think" in intellectual terms -- I'm the sort that relaxes by reading a good University Press book). But that particular comment PG was referring to really did struck me, because it indicated that "speaking from the heart" would be the exact worst thing I can do for some people.

I mean, imagine I wrote a post about how I relate to Israel-talk, right now. The examples would almost certainly relate to the commentary on Gaza -- and the reaction I think would be furious that I would focus on the discomfort I feel about a lot of the ways Israel was discussed in the midst of what Palestinian civilians are going through. If anything, I'd bite harder into the near-unanimously made critique that I was appropriating the tragedy there for my own ends. Intellectualization was a (failed) attempt to try and avoid the charge that I was making it all about me, personally.

So I can see both ways. I do sometimes write more introspective, "personal" posts, and I definitely see the value in them, and I'd like to think they'd meet a friendly audience. But there is, I think, just as much risk that they will spark a pile-on as there was when I was intellectualizing, and if anything I imagine it'd be even more painful because it's a greater vulnerability.

Richard Jeffrey Newman said...

"I have to be able to ask you to assure good faith and some measure of sympathy for my story (even if you don't think my story is enough to change your mind about something larger than an individual experience). Otherwise, it's natural not to want to put myself out there to get torn up for no good purpose."

Non-narrative writing, intellectual writing, also requires a leap of good faith on the part of the audience. David's experience at Feministe demonstrates that quite clearly. The problem is when the more intellectualized writing ends up obscuring the core of what one has to say--and this is not a criticism of David, but a general statement of principle--just as the problem is, the other way around, when the relating of one's personal experience to the world becomes self-centered, i.e., not that that my experience relates to the world, but that the world relates to me; it's all about me.

To take David's imagined post about Gaza as an example; and of course I am imagining this as well, so it's not supposed to be anything other than an example: a post which talked about his ambivalent feelings about talk about Israel in the wake of the Gaza invasion but which argued that, whatever else might also be true, and talked about what that "whatever else" was in detail, such talk had the effect of removing or obscuring or whatever the humanitarian focus on Gaza--which I think it did--would be a way of broadening what was said enough to allow the personal and the strictly political to coexist in a single piece.

Were to David to have written that piece, he still might have taken some lumps from readers; there is always the possibility that you will take lumps from readers; but he would have said fully what he had to say.

And please, I don't want to get into a whole discussion based on imagining this post that was not written; my point is much more a writerly one than it is anything to do with how people respond to talk about Israel, etc.

Richard Jeffrey Newman said...

David:

A question in the privileges post on Alas to chew on, that I think you would have something valuable to contribute on.

Whit said...

Hey, thanks for the credit! I really appreciate it when men go out of their way to make sure that women get the credit they deserve.

Anonymous said...

Why dwell on the negative? You can just as easily write a list of jewish privilege: (of course it doesn't apply to all cases, only averages)

1. growing up in a household of wealth and remarkably well educated parents.

2. your parents probably weren't alcoholics

3. you probably had both your parents at home

4. you probably grew up in a very nice neighborhood with little crime and lots of well educated and happy neighbors

gentiles fall well behind jews in all of these categories don't they?

so why focus on the fact that some bigot might make an ass of himself by thinking you're stingy because you're jewish?

PG said...

1. growing up in a household of wealth and remarkably well educated parents.

2. your parents probably weren't alcoholics

3. you probably had both your parents at home

4. you probably grew up in a very nice neighborhood with little crime and lots of well educated and happy neighbors


Because none of those have squat to do with how people treat Jews? They all apply to me, at least for a narrow definition of "neighborhood," and I'm not Jewish, didn't know anyone Jewish until I was in high school, and learned almost nothing about Judaism until college. My specific ethnic group probably has a similar average in these areas compared to Jews, yet we're not Jewish at all.

You're not talking about Jewish privilege, you're talking about a socioeconomic privilege accessible to people of all ethnicities. I know people of just about every race and religion who fit this.

Anonymous said...

Well, duh. But if I'm sitting behind the veil of ignorance and I have to choose a group of people of which I will be randomly assigned one person in that groups life, the group "jewish american" would be very close to the top of my list and certainly well-above "white american."

I take your point that if you control for things like socio-economic status and parents education and that sort of thing that maybe the picture changes. But, first, I'm not sure why we should control for those things if we're going to talk about the "jewish experience" or "gentile privilege." I guess I'm just not sure it's possible to parse out the various things that make people who they are. And second, even if we do choose to look at it that way, it still seems to me that being jewish is still a pretty sweet deal. But that's just me.

chingona said...

Anonymous, are you Jewish?

Anonymous said...

I'm not. Which I suppose makes my point of view a bit unimportant.

David Schraub said...

Not unimportant, just uninformed.

Jews say "hey -- many aspects of our life: being viewed as demonic, money-grubbing, world-dominating, worthy of expulsion, murder, and/or genocide -- really stink".

You say, "No way! As far as I can see, it'd be awesome to be a Jew!"

But you haven't been a Jew, and we have, and we're trying to say, it ain't all cocktails at the banks and parties in the media buildings. There is a lot of trouble that comes with being a Jew (even an affluent Jew -- and not all of us are), that non-Jews don't have to experience and often don't even recognize as being part and parcel of our experience.

So when we ask "are you Jewish", what we're saying is, a little epistemological humility would seem to be in order, no?

Anonymous said...

You're right, I am certainly uninformed. So I guess I'll just ask a question instead: Is the average jewish american more or less privileged than the average gentile american?

My uninformed self thought that the average jewish american was more privileged, but I'm certainly open to changing my mind. And if thats true isn't a bit of perspective in order? Although, here I wonder if I'm still missing the point: that, yes, perspective is important, but it's inappropriate to scream "perspective! you fools!" when someone is just trying to delineate the various ways that jews can be unjustly discriminated against and perceived.

Although, now I think maybe I get that second point. Sorry if I was unintentionally inflamatory.

David Schraub said...

I appreciate the apology.

I think it can be unproductive, though, to try and holistically assess "who is more privilege" across all axes. It's also tough to discern who is the "average" American (or Jew, for that matter): for purposes of this exercise I'll say the "average" Jew is a Ashkenazi, male, heterosexual Jew of moderate observance and at the median income (amongst Jews), and the "average" American is a White, male, heterosexual Christian with a median income (amongst all Americans).

The Jew is probably wealthier.

The "American" is less likely to be victim of a hate crime. And if he becomes wealthy, it'll be less likely to be seen as the product of malfeasance.

How much additional income is "worth" more risk of violence? What is the relative weight of your wealth being treated as being honestly gotten? I don't know, and I have no idea how one would go about finding out. It seems rather silly to me.

So rather than trying to "rank" oppressions, I think it's better to think of them as irreducible to one another. There are things about being Jewish that are really bad. There are things about, say, being from Appalachia that are really bad. They're bad in different ways, in they're bad in ways that are incommensurate with each other. And we should try and fix both.

Jack said...

The other thing is that the fact that that your "average" Jew is more likely to be wealthy doesn't mean that that wealth is a product of any privilege the Jew has vis-a-vis the non-Jew. The fact that set of Jews has a relatively wide intersection with the set of those who are wealthy and well-educated doesn't necessarily tell us anything about Jews qua Judaism. Its similar with atheists... in fact American atheists really are disproportionately well-educated white guys. If you take a random set of individuals from that group you'll probably end up with some of the least oppressed people in the world. But that doesn't mean those people aren't still oppressed religiously. So we can also talk about class privilege which maybe a lot of American Jews have... but just because they have class privilege AND they're Jewish doesn't mean they have "Jewish Privilege.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what exactly the link is between Judaism and wealth. (Now doesn't that sound like the start of a post by a crackpot?) With atheism it seems the plausible story is one of wealth indirectly causing and being correlated with things that cause atheism and not the other way around. So, for example wealth causes and is correlated with high levels of education and urban and suburban living, both of which may cause atheism.

With Judaism I think it probably runs the other way. Again, I'm uninformed, but I would guess that there is something like a cultural emphasis on hard work and education in the Jewish community that then in turn causes wealth. We can be pretty sure that the story here is one of Judaism causing wealth rather than the other way around simply because the alternative story where relatively large numbers of wealthy people convert to Judaism just doesn't seem to be true.

But I think the point of the list wasn't to talk about privilege in the abstract so much as to talk about certain forms of prejudice and oppression (although I don't much care for the latter term) that Jews face and gentiles don't.

Alas, (get it?) this may be the closest I've ever come to being a troll. It feels gross.

chingona said...

Well, it sounds like you very nearly figured out for yourself, with a small assist from David, that you had missed the point of the exercise, which isn't something a troll would do.

PG said...

With Judaism I think it probably runs the other way. Again, I'm uninformed, but I would guess that there is something like a cultural emphasis on hard work and education in the Jewish community that then in turn causes wealth. We can be pretty sure that the story here is one of Judaism causing wealth rather than the other way around simply because the alternative story where relatively large numbers of wealthy people convert to Judaism just doesn't seem to be true.

As a comment suggesting an addition to Julie's list points out, the tendency among Jews to emphasize education may itself be a product of oppression:
"My family wisdom does not include the insight born of personal experience that 'at any time everything can be taken away from you -- except education.'"