A Gentile Privilege Checklist

I know most of us have pretty much said what we need to say about the Feministe debacle, but there’s one more thing I want to address before I try to put it behind me.

There were a few bloggers and commenters who, when responding to David’s reference to gentile privilege (a concept that immediately made sense to me), stated, explicitly or implicitly, that they didn’t believe it exists. In doing so, they broke one of the fundamental rules of anti-oppression work: you never, ever dictate to a group what its own experience looks like. If you haven’t lived as a member of that group, you simply do not have the right to tell them how they are or aren’t oppressed. This, for me, was the most hurtful aspect of the whole debate. If you don’t think you need to understand anti-Semitism in order to understand why Israel launched an outrageous and inexcusable attack on Gaza – fine, I’m glad you’ve got it figured out. If you feel you have the energy to learn about Palestinian oppression or Jewish oppression, but not both – fine, I’ll see you at half the meetings. But I think it’s clear here that if you’re not acknowledging the existence of gentile privilege, then you’re not acknowledging the existence of anti-Semitism. Oppression cannot exist without corresponding privilege. It’s just not possible, folks.

I feel like I should be inured to it – after all, it’s not like it hasn’t happened to WOC, the disabled, Muslims, and countless other groups who thought that social justice meant justice for them, too – but it’s been bothering me for days. Indeed, looking over my last post on the subject, I’m reminded that I mentioned it there, too. I didn’t think for a second that the concept of gentile privilege would, in a feminist, anti-racist space, be controversial. I should have, though. (No wonder so many activists I know just don’t read comment threads at all.)

So: a checklist. I wrote this based on my own experiences, so what you’re seeing is gentile privilege among American liberals and radicals from a white Ashkenazi point of view. That obviously means that it’s a work-in-progress and hopefully a collaborative effort, since I lack the expertise to write about Jews in conservative or apolitical communities, Jews in other countries, and American Jews of color. (I also think it’d be very useful to write up checklists on Ashkenazi privilege and male privilege within Jewish communities.) Because gentile privilege often operates in tandem with white and Christian privilege, I’ve included a sort of “prologue” of instances of white and Christian privilege that happen to apply to Diaspora Jews (items i-vii). It doesn’t make sense to look at complete lists of white or Christian privilege when talking about Jews, since most European Jews have white privilege and many Jews identify as secular or even Christian, so I’ve only included instances relevant to the intersection of the various identities that comprise Jewishness.

There were certain aspects of anti-Semitism that I couldn’t quite articulate as a form of privilege. Does that mean that they fit into one of the items I’ve already written? Take, for instance, the non-Jews who insist that since anti-Semitism is an inaccurate term, we Jews shouldn’t have a specific word for our oppression at all. Is that a function of denial (8)? Of mistrust (11)? Is it a separate kind of privilege that I’m not getting at yet – or does it happen simply because people don’t know that anti-Semitism operates differently than other types of oppression? Also, how do Jewish women factor into this list? Everything I wrote resonates with me – but at the same time, I’ve been keenly aware of the fact that, with the notable exceptions of the JAP and the Jewish Mother, Jewish women remain largely invisible in both Jews’ and non-Jews’ perceptions of Jewishness. Does what I wrote resonate with me because I genuinely feel it, or because, lacking my own solid identity, I’m forced to siphon it off of Jewish men?

If a “final” draft of this list is ever produced, it’ll probably be very messy and complicated – more like multiple lists connected under the umbrella category of gentile privilege. I think this is the only way it’ll accurately reflect the various interconnections and distinctions of Jewish cultures around the globe. Or maybe this list will just serve as a brief and limited addendum to David’s essay. I’d be happy with that, too.

Quick note: I’m one person with a short history of anti-oppression work and an even shorter history of Jewish activism, so constructive criticism and collaboration will make the list better. But I’d like non-Jews to please remember that you are not an expert on Jewishness. If you see an item in the proper list that would be better placed in the prologue – awesome, thanks. But what I do not want to see is people who have never walked around as a Jew, never opened a book on Jewish history, or never heard of terms like “blood libel” lecturing me on how I’m whining and how a disagreement about Zionism or Gaza or the rhetoric in an essay excuses everything they said in the Feministe threads and how I obviously misunderstood what they meant in this thread or that post. If you’re not familiar with one or more of these items – some of them are pretty esoteric – April Rosenblum’s The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere is a great place to start, and has a good bibliography. If you read it and still have a question about one of the items, I’ll gladly answer it, but don’t start from the assumption that I pulled it out of thin air.

The Gentile Privilege Checklist (Liberal and Radical Edition)

White/Christian Privilege

i. My religious and cultural holidays are national holidays. Even if my job requires me to work on some holidays, generally speaking, I and my community members don’t have to explain ourselves to employers and teachers, request time off to celebrate and/or worship, and risk falling behind or losing pay when we take that time.

ii. Even if I “pass” for a member of another group, I can advertise my identity through my appearance, language, or other markers without fear of discrimination, harassment, or assault. Revealing my group identity has never felt like “outing” myself.

iii. I have never felt pressure to alter my body – chemically, surgically or otherwise – or engage in displays of strength or violence to compensate for perceptions of my group as ugly or weak.

iv. I can visit my place of worship or a community building without fear of injury or death.

v. Even if I’m in a sparsely populated area, it is never difficult to find other members of my group.

vi. Generally speaking, my community is not targeted for hate crimes or threats.

vii. When other members of my group commit violent crimes, I will not be held personally responsible for it, expected to explain or condemn their actions to members of other groups, or punished for continuing to identify as a member of my group. Others do not use those crimes to justify instigating or ignoring assault and harassment against me.

Gentile Privilege

1. If I achieve success in my career, it will not be attributed to a predisposition to cunning and greed, or my group’s supposed control of the field, community, government, or world.

2. If I save money, accept money, or don’t spend as much as others think I should, it will not be attributed to a predisposition to stinginess or miserliness.

3. If I am angry, upset, or worried, my emotions are not attributed to my group’s supposed neurotic or infantile tendencies.

4. If my group suffers a monumental, culture-altering tragedy, no one speculates or tries to prove that I have exaggerated or fabricated the tragedy for material gain.

5. If I am robbed, it is not because the thief assumes, based on my group identity, that I am unusually rich.

6. When other members of my group commit violent crimes, I am not regularly portrayed as a monster that engages in demonic, inhuman acts.

7. In liberal and radical circles, It is not widely believed that my group has caused its own oppression, and I am not viewed as selfish or hypocritical for speaking about my oppression. It is generally accepted that fighting my oppression is not tantamount to endorsing the oppression of another group.

8. In liberal and radical circles, the very existence of my oppression – in any form or in any part of the world – is not routinely called into question or denied.

9. If, within a liberal or radical discussion, I feel that an individual’s criticism of members of my group is problematic, it is not immediately and universally assumed that my objection is delusional or a deliberate attempt to halt discussion. While it is acknowledged that one can “play the X-card,” legitimate instances of my oppression are given more attention than false accusations.

10. When economically oppressed groups organize to fight poverty, racism, and other injustices, they do not scapegoat me for those injustices.

11. When I work with liberals and radicals who are not members of my group, they do not view me with suspicion, require that I prove my loyalty to their cause, or wait for me to distinguish myself from the “bad” members of my group before they decide to trust me.

12. I can speak out against, or work to put a stop to, activities that promote hatred of my group without confirming beliefs that I am controlling the media or using a position of uncanny power over the community, government, or world to quell freedom of speech.

13. If the country in which I happen to live – or a country that is an ally to my country – goes to war, I will not be blamed for starting it.

14. If the country in which I happen to live – or a country that is an ally to my country – loses a war, I will not be blamed for sabotaging it.

15. No one assumes, based on my group identity, that I am physically deformed. Upon meeting me, no one violates my privacy by asking to see that deformity, nor do they violate my bodily autonomy to search for it.


(Cross-posted at Alas, A blog.)

21 Responses

  1. A good list. I would add that someone who is white & Christian doesn’t have to wonder how white/Christian public figures, famous or infamous, will be interpreted as representative of all white/Christians. Nor do they have to explain why they don’t light a menorah at Hanukah even though lots of people do so who are secular and don’t celebrate the religious aspect at all.

  2. I missed this Feministe thing entirely and your link is broken – would you mind fixing it?

  3. thank you for this.

  4. My very own debacle. I’m touched (I don’t disagree, either). The broken link is kind of symbolic too, in it’s own sort of way.

    This is a very good post. I know we don’t agree on everything — in fact, I’m reasonably sure you found a lot to dislike in the Feministe post. But I know at the end of the day you’ll treat me fairly, and you’ll back up my right to speak when people are shouting me down. And that transcends a lot of differences.

  5. David, I hope you didn’t think I was shouting you down… one reason I went off to start my own thread was because I hate the “gang-pile” thing when I see it happening. I’ve been there!

    Julie, as I said on Alas, good list, but I quibbled with #ii. And my example about Pharyngula was real, during a similar gang-pile.

  6. Gahh – I don’t know why I can’t get that link to work. The html keeps disappearing the moment I post it.

    David, I realize my wording was pretty bad. By debacle, I was referring to the comment thread, not the actual post!

  7. Daisy: It’s less I thought you were shouting you down (there are … other … persons I had in mind when I wrote that), than that I just didn’t understand where we were disagreeing, given that we both seem to see the Christian Zionist influence as quite pernicious (as I understood the difference, it’s that I see it also as pernicious for Israel and for Jews, notwithstanding their “good intentions”).

    I’m sure you can sympathize that when you’re at the bottom of the pile on, you become a lot more sensitive to perceived misconceptions of what you’re trying to say, even by people who aren’t trying to throw elbows.

  8. Well, the comment thread was inspired by the post, so I still see it as my debacle. After the first day, I emailed someone (I forget who) and said that it was an utter catastrophe. And from a personal standpoint, it really kind of was — I didn’t feel like I learned anything or anyone learned for me — I just added a lot of yelling and anger into the world. That’s unbelievably painful to me.

    I think the ancillary and meta-discussion that it has inspired, though, has been very good. This post, what RJN’s been doing, some of the other stuff on AAB. So I guess something good grew out of it, and I am thankful for that.

    But I get nervous (I mean, physically nervous — I have anxiety issues in general) even going to Feministe now for any purpose, and that kills me because they do such good work. And I feel boxed in between wanting to continuing to post there (which I’ve promised I would to others, and which I feel is necessary lest some folks I find quite risible claim “victory”), and not wanting to feel that crushed again.

    I’ve been writing, scrapping, and rewriting the whole deal for days, and I’m totally paranoid — every time I finish something I can see where the daggers are going to come from and it’s unbearable. Richard said I’m overtheorizing and need to just speak from the heart, but some things I’ve been reading by some of the participants indicate that this would be subject to just as much venom (“using this as an opportunity for personal growth”, “navel-gazing”) as anything else. I don’t see a way out.

    It is a terrible situation to be in.

  9. Great list!

  10. David, I’ve found those threads at Feministe terrifying and heart-breaking, and I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be on the bottom of that pile.

    Julie, I like this list. I’m headed over to Alas to see Daisy’s quibble with #1, because as soon as I read the first phrase, I was nodding my head.

  11. […] A Gentile Privilege Checklist « Modern Mitzvot There were a few bloggers and commenters who, when responding to David’s reference to gentile privilege (a concept that immediately made sense to me), stated, explicitly or implicitly, that they didn’t believe it exists. In doing so, they broke one of the fundamental rules of anti-oppression work: you never, ever dictate to a group what its own experience looks like. If you haven’t lived as a member of that group, you simply do not have the right to tell them how they are or aren’t oppressed. (tags: privilege antisemitism judaism beinganally) […]

  12. Firstly, Jay – I agree with you that the Feministe threads aren’t good, and some of the comments are awful. We all have a long way to go on this.

    I have some quibbles with some of these points. I’m assuming that these things mean that if you are not Jewish, you will NEVER experience it. I am a Jew and I have never experienced some of these things on your list, but I think they still apply because there are always some Jews who do. However, I don’t know about #iii – I know Jews are stereotyped as wimps, and I have felt the effects of that stereotype, but I’ve never heard of anyone altering their body in any way due to it.

    Also, I think other minorities do experience some of these things you place as Gentile privilege, i.e. #6 – blacks are stereotyped as violent, and if a black man is seen on the news committing a violent crime others may associate random blacks with that person, or use the story to confirm their stereotypes.

    Other than that, it’s a pretty good list I think. #7 and #8 really strike me as important – many other minority groups really due scapegoat us unjustly for their oppression, i.e. the NOI assertions that Jews are evil and controlled the slave trade, which is just a reworking of the old “Jews control money/business/media/banks” stereotype” and is untrue.

  13. *due should be “do” – I”m an idiot sometimes. Sorry.

  14. *due should be “do” – I’m an idiot sometimes. Sorry.

  15. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.

  16. Thank you so much for this. I stopped reading Feministe after the first post because it just felt too painful to go back there and just…not a safe, welcoming space for me. MM is like a breath of fresh air to me. So, thanks.

  17. Brilliant post, Julie. This might be my favorite so far, thanks.

  18. Awesome. Really, so good.


    @Jon Cohen – I think what’s important to remember about these lists is that a lot of people experience intersecting and overlapping forms of privilege and oppression. So, #6 could and probably would very well speak to how white privilege is perpetuated and how racism functions, and a person of color would very likely experience that particular form of oppression – but it would be on account of their race, and not have to do with them being gentile.

    So, if someone where to say to a gentile black man “you people are so violent” they would (presumably) be referring to people of color, and perhaps specifically black men – not gentiles.

    As a white ciswoman, when I read the male-privilege checklist and the white-privilege checklist, some of the “same” items will resonate with me, but from opposite ends of the privilege spectrum.

    For example:
    “I can be somewhat sure that if I ask to see “the person in charge,” I will face a person of my own _____. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be. ”

    If you insert “race” into the blank space, I resonate with that statement as a privileged person. The statement speaks to my experience of privilege. If you insert “gender” or “sex” into that space, the statement speaks to my experience of oppression. Both are true, because I experience both privilege and oppression simultaneously.

  19. Nice list. Here are a few more examples, based on my experience growing up as the only Jewish kid (besides my sister) in a small Midwestern town. Maybe I would feel differently if I grown up in elsewhere but I definitely felt very much the other when I was growing up…

    White/Christian Privilege:

    When I tell others what religion I am, I don’t have to worry about others constantly reminding me that I will face the fiery pits of Hell if I don’t accept their Lord and Savior as G-d. I don’t have to choose between “passing” or facing repeated attempts at Evangelization.

    I would add to 1. that sometimes non-Christians face not only losing money but losing their jobs or failing class if they do not work on their holy days.

    Every time I open my mouth, it is not assumed that I am speaking for every member of my religious and/or ethnic group.

    It is not assumed that I am automatically the expert on all the tragedies that have plagued my people.

  20. “When I tell others what religion I am, I don’t have to worry about others constantly reminding me that I will face the fiery pits of Hell if I don’t accept their Lord and Savior as G-d. I don’t have to choose between “passing” or facing repeated attempts at Evangelization.”

    Not entirely true. Plenty of Christians do this top Christians of other denominations. However, I agree that being a Christian makes that significantly less likely.

  21. Ok, my last sentence was poorly expressed. The “that” in it refers to “being threatened with Hell.”

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