I have spent the last ten years grappling with what it means to be categorized as white in a society built on white supremacy and anti-blackness. During my time as a doctoral student at Columbia University’s School of Social Work (CSSW), I have studied whiteness and help white master’s students build the capacity to have conversations regarding their own race and racism.
In “The anti-Semitism intersectionality gap,” written by a fellow CSSW student, the author expresses feelings of dismissal and isolation explicitly connected to her Jewish identity. These feelings are exacerbated by the Pittsburgh shooting and killing of eleven Jewish people. In the piece, the author’s mother offers impactful advice: “It’s okay to feel sad.” I genuinely validate and echo this sentiment—seeing as I can only imagine how it must be to feel shut down when attempting to convey her experiences with anti-Semitism. I appreciate the author for bravely sharing her perspective.
As the author states, there are consequences to conflating Jewishness with whiteness. Many people of color who identify as Jewish do not benefit from access to structural whiteness due to their race. However, identifying as Jewish does not negate a white person’s relationship and access to structural whiteness.
Throughout my experiences with other white people, it has become apparent that we struggle to engage with our complex positionalities. We are made up of sociopolitical components which do not cancel each other out, but rather shift how we are situated in relation to institutions, systems, and one another. For example, I am categorized as a white man who has a lower socioeconomic status. The oppression I experience because of my socioeconomic status does not neutralize my access to whiteness and patriarchy. However, it does position me differently than if I were to have greater socioeconomic access as well. Similarly, being Jewish does not eliminate access to structural whiteness, but it does shift one’s positionality. White people who deny our relationship to structural whiteness—the relationship through which we are most publicly seen—cannot perceive this shift.
In her piece, the author, perhaps unintentionally, misuses some central terms in her arguments: race, racism, and intersectionality. The author’s definition of intersectionality as “the interrelation between race, class, and gender” is incorrect. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor here in the Law School, coined the term intersectionality and presents it as the ways in which systems of oppression interlock and overlap—creating compounded experiences of structural oppression. Through this definition, anti-Semitism is a form of oppression that cannot be separated from white supremacy and anti-blackness. Failing to acknowledge the history of intersectionality while not engaging with one’s own whiteness can generate a discourse that is inappropriate and harmful to others, namely, people of color (e.g., Jewish people of color).
By seemingly misappropriating terminology and separating herself from her whiteness, the author fundamentally reinforces the very systems she is suggestively trying to upend—essentially erasing Jewish people of color. To illustrate this point, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) states, “As long as white Jews remain tacitly invested in white supremacy—though it may benefit them in the short term—they leave in place the ideological roots necessary for the re-emergence of violent anti-Semitism in the future.” JFREJ engages an intersectional analysis of the reinforcing relationship between antisemitism and white supremacy—an analysis which cannot be performed if one does not believe the relationship to exist.
In many ways, “the anti-Semitism intersectionality gap” represents a grave failure by white people at CSSW—faculty, administration, students, and myself. We fail to create spaces for students to learn frameworks for confronting and unpacking complex experiences with our unique, intersectional positionality to structural whiteness. We continue to neglect the work necessary to understanding the way racism functions in our lives and how we (un)wittingly perpetuate it. Furthermore, white faculty and administration do not seem to engage in the emotional and institutional labor required to challenge and support white students who are actively opposed to uprooting their relationships to whiteness.
We are living in a time when connections to whiteness are often used to uphold white supremacy. We must own our connections to other white people in order to acknowledge our relationship to white supremacy and work towards its abolishment. We, as white people, must collectively create spaces to grapple with our unique position within whiteness, including the ways we may be marginalized through other systems of power. This process involves targeting whiteness while acknowledging other aspects of our intersectional existences—our relationships to anti-blackness, patriarchy, capitalism, settler-colonialism, imperialism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, and anti-Semitism.
In my own life, it involves holding my socioeconomic exclusion and exploitation, while acknowledging my own access to structural whiteness. In the case of the author, it involves holding space for the tension between her oppression through anti-Semitism and her access to structural whiteness.
We need to create collective communities of white people to hold each other accountable. Only then will we begin to answer the ever-present call for justice by those we continue to ignore. If the spaces we as white people create do not address relationships to all forms of structural power, they are not intersectional, and we will continue to seek separateness and self-interest.
I invite the author, white students, faculty, and administrators to join me in building collective accountability. We must work toward internally and externally abolishing the ways we perpetuate white supremacy and anti-blackness on interpersonal, institutional, and structural levels within CSSW and beyond.
The author (he/they) (@williamrfrey) is a doctoral student studying whiteness and technology at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. He maintains and curates the Uprooting Whiteness [Supremacy & Domination] Syllabus.
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