ARE JEWS WHITE? (III): GLORIA, or the two sides of invisibility

Inviting professor Gloria Wekker – known for her work about racism in the Netherlands, critical race theory and intersectionality – to be part of our video installation was an exciting move. I was particularly eager to hear her reflections about (the troubles of) the Jewish position in the anti-racism movements, her analysis of the status quo and her insights in how we might collectively navigate past its paralyzing dynamics. Our conversation of two hours flew by and felt like it transpired in mere minutes. She spoke of her own experience with racism as a small child in the Netherlands, about the book she is currently writing about her four grandparents (one of which is Jewish), and on her lifelong fight against injustice. 

Somehow tied into the idea that some Jews can benefit from (white) privilege is the apparent invisibility of Jewishness of many if not most Jews. I can walk the streets of Amsterdam and no one will think, suspect or know that I am Jewish: there are no visible markers. It is up to me when or when not to ‘come out as a Jew’. I can decide when I am vulnerable for potential discrimination and when not. Wekker mentions this invisibility as understandable yet standing in the way to get to ‘outspoken solidarity’ between Jews and other minorities. Understandable, because of the historically ingrained lesson that it is dangerous for Jews to ‘come out of the closet as Jews’. But hampering, because the invisibility diminishes the extent to which Jews can become part of two-way solidarity building. She concludes this thought with expressing the wish for more Jewish visibility in the antiracism movement. 

I am glad that Wekker brings up this important observation and analysis. And I agree with her about the inherent importance of becoming visible both as individual Jews and as communities, especially in the project of solidarity building. It is important to mention that Jews of color navigate this invisibility slightly differently. In their invisibility they can hide their Jewishness and in doing so protect themselves against antisemitism; they cannot however shed their skin. Their invisibility only works towards minimizing the effects of oppression on one axis of their identity. 

But more than this being about using this invisibility ‘superpower’ in order to gain privilege, I would argue it is more often used to protect oneself from hate or the inherited trauma of hate. There is a difference in the intention with which one ‘uses’ white privilege. In order to come to true solidarity I believe not only Jews will have to find the courage to become visible, but others will have to try to understand that this invisibility is not instrumentalized to gain superiority and that Jews are generally very aware of the fact that their privilege through invisibility will not protect them when push comes to shove. 

Wekker describes this layered, fluid and complex position of Jews with regards to (in)visibility, possible individual privilege and solidarity as an ‘entanglement’ that needs to be disentangled in order to move forward together. Although she thinks that there is not nearly enough solidarity yet between minorities and movements to push for the necessary societal reform, she concludes ‘I am aware of the fact that all sorts of processes have been set in motion’. I can only be grateful for playing my part in setting a conversation in motion with this exhibition.

Opening tonight at 18:00 (CEST) on JCK.nl.

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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