Sisterhood Blog

Acknowledging Privilege, Surrendering Struggle

By Sarah Seltzer

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I recognize Caroline Rothstein’s tears. So, probably, do a lot of well-meaning progressive Jews. Those tears of guilt and misunderstanding are the outward manifestation of an inner struggle to accept, as she writes, being both inside and outside: oppressed and privileged.

Today, Ashkenazi and some Sephardic Jews in America are white. We weren’t always, but then, well, we ascended into the white supremacist hierarchy, leaving people of color out in the cold.

At the same time, Jews’ collective experience and memory of oppression informs a rich social justice tradition for many of us, one in which we don’t just sympathize but strain to empathize. We were strangers, so we advocate for immigrants. We were relegated to ghettoes, so we fight poverty and racism. That’s why when we’re reminded of our own role in contemporary racial or socioeconomic oppression — or how we’ve benefited from those ills — we can get upset in a very personal way.

Sometimes, I think, progressive Jews’ stance of advocacy can shield us from confronting our own privilege. This widely-circulating Salon article by Myisha Cherry explains why that contradiction persists

If acknowledgment of privilege challenges you to no longer be complicit, it also holds you accountable. It forces you to give up the “bootstrap” myth because in reality, you are not solely responsible for your success. Privilege not only gives you better boots than others; it may also give you a few extra paces in the climb to success. To accept privilege is to squash the egotistical notion that you made it there on your own. For some, that can be hard to let go of.

For progressive Jews in America, it’s practically mandatory to stand up for others. But giving up the bootstrap myth about ourselves means rewriting a major part of our identity. It can cause tsuris to reexamine, both collectively and on a personal level, how much of our achievement has been our own sweat (and we did sweat) and how much we’ve benefited from the color of our skin — even when we experienced anti-Semitism. Such an examination leads to some uncomfortable questions about issues from gentrification at home to occupation abroad.

The Applied Research Center’s Rinku Sen, a major thinker on race, recently wrote a piece about two levels of awareness of racial disparities in light of the Trayvon Martin case and its appalling verdict. One level is an “implicit bias” that we don’t consider, system 1: comfortable, complicit. System 2 is where we reconsider our assumptions and interrogate our fears. Sen writes,

To make your System 2 kick in and ask, for example, “Do I really need to clutch my bag/call the police/pull out my gun because a black man is walking toward me?” requires a decision, a desire to push System 1 aside.

Sen notes that this is a more involved, difficult level of thought. But I want to argue that it can also be liberating to let go of what Cherry calls the “egotistical notion.” When I say liberating, I don’t mean: “Whee! I’ve coasted along on my socioeconomic, gender, and racial advantages while others have faced discrimination!”

Instead, I mean the liberation of taking the blinders off and seeing the truth. For me, that ongoing process began the day I arrived at my Ivy League school and began to meet many other Jewish girls who, like me, had edited their high school newspapers in well-to-do communities. At first I panicked at the idea that I wasn’t nearly as unique and special as I thought. I wanted to think of myself as deserving and justly rewarded. Yet the evidence indicated to me that merit made up a much smaller part of a Harvard acceptance (and all kinds of other advantages in life) than advantaged circumstances of birth and upbringing did. My ego and my intellect were battling, and that battle caused a lot of handwringing, guilt and denial. But once I accepted the facts, I was free to move on to other terrain: figuring out who I was as an adult, fighting for inclusion and fairness for everyone without pretending our experiences were exactly alike.

When we actively deny our privilege in the face of reality, we’re maintaining an exhausting disconnect. So when we finally acknowledge our privilege, or as Sen would put it, when we move over to system 2, we may have to scrutinize ourselves harder, but we can also give up the effort that fighting off the truth requires. And then we can be better allies for social justice, better listeners, and better students in the school of solidarity.


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