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Am I woke yet?

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OCTOBER 01, 2018

Updated 7/13/21: This article has been updated to remove the photo of an individual whose personal safety was under threat. 

What’s whiter than a 4-month-old jar of mayonnaise? An Ashkenazi Jew.

It’s always amusing to me when people express their shock that I, a woman paler than Casper the Friendly Ghost, am ethnically Middle Eastern. My grandmother has dark(er) skin, as does my mother. I just happen to be whiter than a suburban, blonde girl ordering a pumpkin spice latte in October.

Judaism and whiteness are often considered synonymous. Reality runs contrary to this presumed truth, however — this assumption means that the nuances of Jewish identity are often dismissed. Peoples’ identities get reduced to their whiteness or lack thereof.

I know that white privilege exists and that as a white-passing Middle Easterner, I benefit from it. I am not subject to the discriminatory practices in the U.S. that impact Middle Easterners of color. The only thing I am subject to is routinely bad Tinder messages — “You israeli cool” is not the way to my heart, fellas. People of color contend with many struggles I will never have to experience. It is still incredibly frustrating, however, to have my identity delegitimized because I don’t fit into people’s preconceived notions of what my community looks like.

There is colorism and discrimination even within the Jewish community — seemingly bizarre behavior for a community that has experienced the indelible stains of oppression and atrocious vitriol. To understand the inequalities that Jews of different ethnicities face, one must first familiarize themselves with the different groups. There are four substantial populations of Jews: Ashkenazi Jews (central and eastern Europe), Sephardic Jews (Spain and Portugal), Mizrahi Jews (Levant, North Africa and Central Asia) and Ethiopian Jews (Eritrea and Ethiopia).

Ashkenazim, as predominantly white Jews, experience the most cultural and societal privilege in comparison to other Jewish subgroups. The discrimination targeted toward different subsects of Jews parallels the different discriminatory institutions that target people of color in the U.S. This oft-discussed topic, of course, made its way into the ever-intellectual collegiate sphere.

In my “War in the Middle East” class, we were discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict. I brought up the prevalence of bomb shelters in the Middle East and defense systems such as the Iron Dome.

After the class, one of my fellow students approached me. She admonished me, telling me that I shouldn’t speak on the experiences of people in the Middle East as a white American. She was coming from a place of “wokeness.” I understood where she was coming from — some white people often interplay themselves into experiences that are not relevant to them. She was likely standing up for all the times she’d witnessed people comment on a phenomenon about which they are ignorant. But her identification of me as just another ignorant, white girl discussing a deeply complex issue that she once read about in a Vice article was offensive.

I am white. I am American. But is that all I am reduced to? Am I not allowed to speak about certain experiences because I don’t reflect the phenotypic preconceptions that a person holds for a region? Does asking these rhetorical questions just make me sound like an angry Redditor?

I have a problem with identity politics. There is intersectionality within every person and group. Ignoring these intersections creates a marginalizing, delegitimizing culture. It is important to acknowledge my white privilege; I don’t have to worry about police brutality or job discrimination or myriad other issues. My whiteness does not detract from the experiences I have, however, because these experiences aren’t as race-based as they are ethnic-based.

Gatekeeping shouldn’t apply to ethnic identity. Yet it is applied to it. I have white Muslim friends (because Libyan and Moroccan Muslims exist too, y’all) who have had similar encounters as I did with “white, woke girl.” They’re not “allowed” to comment on Muslim experiences, because what do they know? They’re white! Sure, they have had family members who died in the Arab Spring, but they don’t look like they’d have knowledge or personal insight into these matters, so their experiences clearly aren’t relevant.

The U.S. is fixated on skin-deep perceptions of race, looking at everything through a racial lens and often subsequently overlooking intersections of ethnicity and other identities. When we view all tensions through a racial lens, nuances and intersections of identity are in our blind spot.

The subsequent cross-examining of people’s ability to speak on issues is inherently invalidating.

America has very specific conceptions of race. And this makes sense, as race is a driving force for political, social and cultural discussions. Not everything falls into neat racial categories, however. Relying on phenotypes to lend credibility to one’s experiences is inherently problematic. It ignores the complexity and nuances of a person. The marginalization of identity is common and frustrating for both sides of the “woke” scale. Perhaps the focus on identity politics is more discussed than the actual issues at hand.

Identity marginalization can come from a place of benevolence — you want to be politically correct! You want to acknowledge the racial oppression that pervades U.S. culture. Yet, by striving to be a woke queen through dismissing the experiences of others, you’re less an agent of social justice and more a promoter of invisible systems of oppression.

Melody Niv writes the Monday blog on her experience as a Jewish and Israeli-American.Contact her at [email protected] .

JULY 13, 2021