Privilege: The World Doesn’t Owe You

I’m Jewish but I’m perceived as white. I don’t usually identify with white culture because white culture in America to me means white Christian culture (a divide exacerbated with the holiday season). Yet, I have white privilege and I’ve been reminded of it more and more in recent weeks.

I volunteer at an organization fighting poverty and I had a conversation with a black man who mentioned that I’m white. His comment struck me because that’s now I would identify myself, but it was his perception (and I’m sure many people’s perception) of who I am and where I’m from.

And I began to think that this might be a normal rock of the boat for someone with white privilege: when you’re white no one needs to mention your race because you are the norm.

I’m coming to realize that no matter how I work through my Jewish identity, I have white privilege. I have white privilege because every day I need to remind myself that the world doesn’t owe me anything for the accidental color of my skin. This is an even more difficult pill to swallow than being reminded that I appear white, because I need to police myself and my own thoughts.

The first step to eliminating white privilege and working toward an anti-racist world is seeing your own white privilege. The second step is knowing what your white privilege means.

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Saying it Simply

As from an earlier post, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a teacher, an educator, a mentor or whatever you wish to call a job working with young people.

While driving a few students back to the high school, one young man played a song on his i-pod for the car and the lyrics came down to: women make up rape, don’t believe them.

I wanted to tell him this was rape culture, that he is perpetuating a system which tells the world women lie and dismisses sexual assault as just another way women seek to harm men. And for about thirty seconds I tried to formulate this thought.

But the student is a sophomore in high school. He doesn’t know the term rape culture and I realized I didn’t want to lecture him or turn the car ride into a space to shame him for something he most likely just doesn’t understand yet.

Instead, I said, “Do you mind if we listen to something which doesn’t say women make up rape? It’s making me really uncomfortable.”

He immediately turned it off, apologized and we asked the other students in the car what they wanted to listen to.

And while I’m not sure he understood why I was offended, he respected the fact that his choice was harmful to others. I’m very proud of his maturity. I’m also proud of myself because I didn’t defer to academic language or language only people within the feminist community know. A few months ago I would have used terms like rape culture and tried to explain as if I am the expert. But I’m not.

It’s not that academic language and important terms like rape culture cannot be discussed with high school students and I don’t believe I was dumbing something down for him. I believe I was making a choice to say what I needed to say simply so it could be understood by everyone.

What good is social change if it is not accessible to all?

Books By Women: The Red Tent

indexI read The Red Tent (1997) as a first year in high school and I didn’t understand any of it.

The novel by Anita Diamant is a feminist biblical retelling of the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. In a male patriarchal narrative, all we know of Dinah is that she is raped and her brothers decide to welcome in her rapist’s family into their own tribe, circumcise them and then kill them.

We do not hear Dinah’s version of the story.

And then there is The Red Tent, first a novel and now a miniseries (2014).

In this novel, Dinah is the first person narrator. She tells not only her story, but begins even earlier: telling the stories of her mothers Leah (her birth mother), as well as Leah’s three  sisters, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah who all marry Jacob.

This is a novel celebrating and exploring the voices of women. As Dinah says in the first chapter of book:

If you want to know about any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully.

As a reader, you do listen. Diamant does a phenomenal job at taking biblical women and crafting real and complicated people. Leah and Rachel are so distinct and so beautifully flawed in their reality as women, I almost feel I could meet them today, despite the vast cultural divides that separate their world from ours.

The most interesting cultural element is the theme of the incoming patriarchy. The goddesses Dinah’s mothers worship are goddesses which value women and hold menstrual blood as sacred, not profane. To bleed is a woman’s entry into adulthood and it is a time of joy. The red tent is where women go when they are menstruating, where they relax and tell stories and live as women unencumbered by the lives and world of the men around them.

Reading the novel in 2015, there is a definite cis understanding of womanhood and I hope a new edition of the would include an introduction  by Diamant, welcoming transwomen into the fold of womanhood the novel creates. I can only hope.

My one other critique is that while the female characters are fleshed out and envisioned with subtleties and skill, the male characters, especially Dinah’s lovers, are flat and bland. Oddly enough for novel rich in cultural nuance, sexual love is almost fairy tale like with love-at-first-sight syndrome. And while I believe Dinah deserves happiness, I struggle to believe her love because of how uncomplicated it is.

Still, I would recommend this novel. I would also recommend having a basic background on the original biblical story so you do not read blind as I did entering this text as a fourteen-year-old. But with a bit of background and an open mind to believe in the power of women’s stories and hearing women’s stories, the novel is a great read.

Keep reading!