I don’t know exactly how I became white. I can’t pin point the precise moment. But here’s the story as best I understand it…
My ancestors were Eastern European Jews who fled from religious persecution in their homelands to find a better life in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century. They did find better opportunities in the U.S. and yet they also encountered anti-Semitism here.
Before our family became white we had to become Greene. When my grandfather sailed to the U.S. from his native Poland the ship’s manifest listed his last name as “Grinbaum” and his ethnicity as “Hebrew”. After he arrived at Ellis Island he joined his older brothers who had emigrated before him and were settled in upstate New York. Grinbaum was considered a Jewish name, so my Papa’s older brothers had changed their name to Greene, a nice safe English name. To avoid being so easily identified as a Jew, my Papa also shed his family name and became a Greene.
In her article, “How Did Jews Become White Folks?” Karen Brodkin explains that Jews were not considered “white” until after World War II. Somehow I must have missed the memo that bestowed whiteness on my family because when I was growing up in the 1960’s I understood that whiteness was reserved for WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). In fact, I thought that “Jewish” was not just a religion but a race. I didn’t understand why there wasn’t a checkbox for Jewish right along with White, Negro, Chinese, and Japanese.
My family identified strongly as Jews and carried generational memories of oppression, discrimination, and violence because of that Jewish identity. Like so many immigrants before and after them, when they came to America they assimilated into the mainstream of American culture. They traded their Yiddish language for English and worked hard so their kids could get a good education and improve their economic status.
My grandparents hid their Jewishness behind an Anglicized name. As for me, I was glad I could “pass” as a non-Jew because I didn’t have a big “Jewish nose”. I felt in my bones that being Jewish was not safe.
“Becoming a white American is to simultaneously shed one’s ethnic heritage and to agree to the privilege and protection that whiteness ensures. This is not something I think individuals or families have done consciously or intentionally – it is an unspoken, unwritten understanding that whiteness is what equates power in our society.” (Strength of Soul, Naomi Raquel Enright)
I became white unconsciously.
Now it’s time to wake up from that unconscious complicitness with a racist system that has ravaged the soul of our country.
In her essay “Waking Up from the Mind of Whiteness”, Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams writes, “…just as the ego-mind is a construct that constantly reinforces itself, building structures & systems of control and develops attitudes & views that maintain its primacy and sense of solidity so that it can substantiate its validity, so, too, does the construct of whiteness. one could think of it as the Mind of Whiteness. you live inside that Mind, such that you cannot see—yet—outside of the reinforcing perspectives that affirm and perpetuate the White Superiority Complex. that complex would disintegrate if it could view the vastness of the presence of racial bias.”
I write this not as a confession of white guilt. I write this to bring light to what has been in the shadows within myself and within our culture. I write this in service to my personal awakening and to the awakening of humanity.
If you have benefitted from being seen as white, will you join me in waking up from the mind of whiteness?