Were We White—or Not?

Thought of as “swarthy” and foreign, Jews didn’t become “white” until the mid-20th century. Neither did Italian-Americans. Even Irish-Americans. And yet they checked the “white” box on census forms. They went to “white” schools in the segregated South. They were placed in “white” military units.

Which was it? Were they—were we—white, or not? There were real and entrenched job discrimination, quotas for admission in colleges and universities, and restricted clubs, but at the same time Jews and others were accorded enough of the privileges given to white people that they could slowly lose even the social designation of “not-white.” 

It’s this process, one that has allowed different groups to reap the tangible and intangible benefits of whiteness—access to high-paying professions, a widespread assumption of competence and trustworthiness—that was part of the impetus for scholars to begin studying what has come to be known as “privilege.”

 “Privilege” is something of a catchall term these days, and it encompasses more than just race. Men have historically fared better than women. The rich have always had it better than everyone else. Youth is valued more than age. Eventually, talk of privilege seeped out of academia into the popular domain, which is where Phoebe Maltz Bovy picks it up in her new book, The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99). 

Maltz Bovy gestures at the careful academic discourse of privilege, but she is far more interested in how talk of “privilege” functions on Facebook and in comment sections on the internet. What she is most concerned with is “call-out culture,” in which strangers on the internet accuse one another of having things too good for them to understand, well, anything. 

Beyond academia, the ostensible point of the investigation of privilege is to allow people to admit to the ways in which they have it pretty good. White? More likely to get a job, or not be followed around in a store by employees fearful of shoplifting. College educated? Gives you a leg up in terms of lifetime earning (or it used to). Male? See above. The exercise of “checking your privilege” is supposed to increase empathy and enlarge our understanding of the benefits of what often amount to accidents of birth.

Maltz Bovy’s book makes important points: focusing on what the lucky have rather than what others don’t inverts an important discussion about inequality; talk of privilege blurs distinctions, stripping some—including Jews and Asian Americans—of their experiences of discrimination in the name of some greater claim to disadvantage; Maltz Bovy also shows how both right and left engage the discourse of “privilege” to advance political claims of disadvantage. 

The author is at her strongest when she points out the ways in which calling out privilege ends up maintaining the status quo, because examining privilege isn’t the same thing as changing the system. Vast discrepancies in wealth, persistent prejudice, unequal health outcomes, and so much more continue to proliferate. Those in power hold onto their positions while the rest of us are distracted by the scrabbling over privilege down below. 

These are points worth considering, but there is a danger when academic subjects become grist for the mass’s mill. To her credit, Maltz Bovy points this out. But, like those she critiques, Maltz Bovy tends to take an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, seeing talk of “privilege” where it doesn’t apply. She also follows a line of thinking that ends up silencing all critique: if we don’t talk about racism or other forms or inequality—even the micro varieties— we cannot address them.

Regardless, it’s worth considering what Jewish feminists should take from the discussion of privilege. Most Jews are white. A majority are highly educated. We make up a visible presence in the media and other high-profile industries, such as entertainment and government. Jewish women still bump up against the glass ceiling, but we have entered the ranks of the professional class in droves. It’s hard to claim that we are suffering. 

And yet, anti-Semitism and misogyny are as prevalent as ever and, in the age of Trump, they’ve come out of the shadows and have the potential to influence policy. We are reminded almost daily of how precarious our hard-won advantages are.

Rather than be fearful, Jewish feminists can view this as an opportunity. On social media where people release the worst of themselves, calling out privilege may be a circular, self-defeating exercise meant to pull people down. We can do better in our lives. We can use our own luck, imperfect as it is, to pull others up.


Michal Lemberger is the author of After Abel and Other Stories. She lives in Los Angeles.