ARE JEWS WHITE? (II): STEPHAN, or the black/white story

It was clear to me that we needed to include personal testimonies in the exhibition ‘Are Jews white?’ in order to give the subject matter depth and breadth. It would simply not suffice to approach the question in a purely analytical manner. Some deceptively straightforward questions simply defy yes or no answers. When dealing with matters of identity politics, the ways in which multiple lived realities interact and the ways in which stories are told matter. There is no single story.

Stephan Sanders – writer, mixed race, gay, thinker – is someone who knows how to tell stories. And who knows how to tell stories about these stories. So how can one tell stories based on a dichotomy between the concepts of black and white? Stephan is adamant: when these words are used in absolute terms (either Jews are white or no, they aren’t) a conversation about a complex issue can become even more complicated, especially when dealing with people that do not seem to fit in any of these constructed categories completely. And Stephan is to a large extent a personification that defies the single story. 

Although it is increasingly understood how opposing interlocking systems of oppression function, Stephan’s remark strikes a chord with me. Actively engaging with present day Jewish activism, I have come to realize that the Jewish experience cannot accurately or productively be caught (or even understood) within this framework. First, Jews are racially, geographically, historically and socially very diverse, something that is easily overlooked: there is no such a thing as a single homogenic Jewish community, nor a single Jewish story. But second, and more importantly, antisemitism is a very peculiar form of discrimination in which Jews can be hated for being inferior and for being superior at the same time. 

Before we even start to think in the language of black/white, Stephan stresses, we need to acknowledge that Jews in the Netherlands are a traumatized group. So to understand whether or not (some) Jews could enjoy the benefits of white privilege, this privilege needs to be understood from within another story. This can be very confusing when Jews (obviously reduced to those that are white passing) are targeted as being privileged. In ‘classical’ antisemitism the oppressed (the Jew) is accused of being the oppressor. It makes talking of Jewish (white) privilege a complex minefield. 

Should, then, the Jewish communities become more vocal within the anti-racism movement? Well, answers Stephan, there is no ‘should’. And then, he adds that he would welcome a more visible Jewish presence in these movements, reminding us of historian Evelien Gans’s paradoxical quote: first, forget that I am a Jew, and second, never forget that I am a Jew. This is how stories move beyond reductionistic categories of black and white.

Subscript: 

The exhibition ‘Are Jews white?’, which I co-curated for the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, opens on June 8th. The exhibition centres around the exploration of where Jews find themselves in the identity politics spectrum of Black and White and how that impacts the way in which Jews move through the intersectional emancipation movements in the Netherlands. This blog is part of a triptych in which I reflect on the question of intersectionality, Jewish activism and in/exclusion through the contributions of Jelle Zijlstra, Gloria Wekker and Stephan Sanders to the main video installation in the exhibition.

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