You Can’t Fight Racism with Sexism: A Response to Adam Mansbach

Versions of this blog originally appeared on The Good Men Project and Ma’yan, July, 2015

Dear Adam,

I appreciated reading your recent article in Salon, because I too am a justice-loving Jewish white person working to fight racism.

But I’m also totally bumming about what you wrote. I mean, I think you know you come off sounding like an asshole. To quote you explaining a fight with your girlfriend: “Eventually I felt good enough about where we’d gotten…to go upstairs and sleep with her.” I am down with writers exposing their full humanity. But you know that’s not cute.

An extra helping of discussing sexism would pair nicely with your on-point knowledge of racial dynamics. In fact, they have to go together. Your failure to acknowledge male privilege undermines the question that the title of your article elicits: how do we convince other white people that racism is real?

Based on your article, I’m unconvinced that you actually liked Jessie. Maybe she just wasn’t your type, or maybe a sexist society got you all confused about who you are supposed to like. Baring your real self is admirable, but because so many men regularly showboat their sexual abuse of women in the media, your confessions are nothing really that new or liberatory, unless coupled with an understanding of sexism and male domination. Your conversations with Jessie could have been a whole lot more productive if you’d also brought up sexism and admitted to all the complexity.

I feel sad that Jessie’s exposure to anti-racism was through such misogyny. I’m with you: racism is destroying lives and we have to get everyone on board with ending it. Right now. You ask what it will take? It will take recognizing that you can’t teach someone about oppression while exposing them to other kinds. That’s why the term intersectionality continues to be relevant—if we are not aware of other kinds of privilege, power and oppression as we do anti-racist work, we won’t be affective in bringing in more allies.

If women got a published article every time we radicalized someone via dating, we’d all be fucking famous by now. Almost every guy I have dated has become more radical, more feminist, and clearer about racism by being in a relationship with me. And most political women I know are in the same damn boat. My straight female friends often feel frustrated looking for a male partner who is both kind and loving and also understands systemic oppression. It’s a tall order. Many have opted for “kind and loving” with the hope that radicalization comes later. Sometimes it does. And then eventually these men get more credit for their work in the movement than we do because they are seen as a novelty. And because of, you know, sexism.

I’m sure there was at least one woman who brought you in, who helped you through the initial stages of unlearning racism and becoming an anti-racist activist.  I would love to see her get credit. Was it a girlfriend? A friend? A teacher? Your mother?

Maybe the next time you find yourself dating a Jessie, or wondering how you can talk about racism with white people, you can remember the women who have supported you through your political mistrials, and then come to the relationship and the task of anti-racist education from a place of love.

Honestly, it sounded like you cared more about looking cool and anti-racist in front of your friends than actually getting someone else to join in the fight (or having a nice, caring relationship with another human). And you back this point up at the end, by saying that you’re not interested in the “go work in your own communities” approach.

I know you have done work with white people in the past, and you hint that you’re done with it: “I wasn’t interested in chopping it up with any hunkered-down white racists, that I’d had my fill of that ten years earlier when I published Angry Black White Boy.” It’s okay to take a break from doing the professional work of educating fellow white people about racism. Everyone gets to take care of themselves. But you can’t take a break from doing the work on a personal level. Because no matter how finely you have tuned your social circles, there will always be the Jessies. And to try to avoid them completely will not only render you ineffective, but will also make your life smaller.

We all have to do anti-oppression work from a place of loving our own people. And sometimes that will feel hard and terrible, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep going. Because when we do it with love, we are that much more effective at explaining why ending racism matters so much to us, and why we need more help.

Sincerely,

Talia

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan in Manhattan, where she leads anti-oppression workshops for educators, parents, and high-schoolers. Contact talia@mayan.org for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music on Facebook and YouTube.

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A Call to My Beloved Jews: We Gotta Talk About Privilege

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on April 21st, 2015.
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Over the past year we’ve seen an increase in articles by Jews that seek to disprove the concept of privilege due to experiences of anti-Semitism. These writings upset me because they in no way represent my own beliefs as a white, female, Ashkenazi educator and activist. The articles do not acknowledge the complexity of identity that I believe is necessary for the Jewish community to embrace. Here is my response to a compilation of articles:

Dear Taffy, James, John, Seth & Tal

You have all joined the deluge of Jews venting frustration with the concept of “privilege.” I admit my temptation to pick apart your arguments line by line. The number of offensive statements makes my heart race.

But for the time being, what I’ll say is:

You’re right.

Anti-Semitism is real. It has and continues to negatively impact our Jewish people.

The leftist activist community doesn’t always do a good job acknowledging or understanding anti-Semitism.

And this is a problem.

It’s a problem because it means the left won’t have a full picture of society, which is necessary in order to build power and win. And it’s a problem because it perpetuates anti-Semitism itself.

And also: you’re wrong.

Experiencing anti-Semitism does not preclude other truths: white privilege (for Jews who are also white), class privilege (for Jews who also have wealth), male privilege, able-bodied privilege, straight and cis-gender privilege. None of these experiences of oppression trumps any other; all oppression is painful and unjust.

Sometimes it seems so simple: of course it’s possible for me as a white Jewish woman to experience sexism, white privilege and anti-Semitism all at the same time. It’s “simple” because I’ve lived it my whole life.

But sometimes breaking it down feels complex and painful. Do I really want to dive deep into my family history and investigate that the fact that we have money comes from this weird stew of running from anti-Semitism and also gaining white privilege?

In my work with Ma’yan’s Research Training Internship, a big theme we teach isintersectionality: the concept that one person can experience both oppression and privilege simultaneously. It’s complex. But it’s important.

“Privilege” is a word that sometimes scares people. But it doesn’t have to. Privilege doesn’t mean I’m bad or that my people are bad. It also doesn’t mean I’m extra good. One definition we use at Ma’yan is that privilege is a system of unearned advantages that benefits one group at the expense of others. I have to remember this or else I fall into the trap of believing I have “earned” things because I am somehow “better than” others. But that’s a lie that only further isolates me, and leads me to remain complicit in oppression.

I don’t frame this conversation as “Jewish privilege” because Jewish identity is multi-faceted and complex. When working with white Jews, I talk about the white privilege that we experience as Jews. It’s a subtle but important difference. The experience of being Jewish includes oppression—past and present. And even still some Jews have certain privileges.

It’s particularly scary for Jews to think about the idea of holding privilege because of the history of anti-Semitic tropes that say that Jews control the world and therefore their takedown is justified. But I’m not saying Jews are the most privileged.  Actually, we know that the majority of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the U.S are white Christian men. But that doesn’t mean that white Jews don’t still experience privilege. I know I do. Even at the same time as anti-Semitism.

When as Jews we don’t understand intersectionality, it’s a problem for everyone. Not understanding intersectionality means white Jews are more likely to assume a uniform Jewish experience, which keeps us from appreciating the richness of our diversity and perpetuates racism not only to non-Jews but also to Jews of color within our community (not to mention classism, homophobia, ableism and more). Not understanding intersectionality also leads us to believe the myth of exceptionalism: seeing ourselves as the most oppressed, which only serves to further isolate us from the people and movements we could actually be working with. Anti-Semitism is not our fault and it is not our (sole) responsibility to end. But by staying in our narrative of victimhood, we essentially leave ourselves alone and stuck, and we damage other communities along with our own.(For a fuller list of why Jews MUST understand privilege and intersectionality, click here).

“When my Jewishness comes into conflict with my whiteness, I’m not effective in challenging racism,” said educator Randy Clancy in a recent workshop for a group of social justice educators that Ma’yan convenes. We have to embrace all parts of our identity to do the work.

Talking about privilege is just a start. The point isn’t just to recognize it, but to understand our place in fighting for racial justice and ending oppression for all people.

The left also has some responsibility. If lefties don’t understand that anti-Semitism is real, it leaves Jews feeling like they have to prove it over and over again, as we have seen in the articles I linked in the salutation. And wouldn’t it be nice if the right-wing didn’t have a monopoly on defining anti-Semitism for once?

So: Anti-Semitism is real. White privilege is real. Racism is real. These things are linked, but they are not all the same and cannot be compared. Sometimes it makes sense to focus on one while not abandoning the other, and at this moment in U.S history, I see way too many murders of black people to stand idly by. When I say Black Lives Matter, this in no way negates my commitment to ending anti-Semitism. It is not about oppression hierarchies, though we do need to examine the fact that this country was economically built on racism. Ultimately, I believe our liberation is connected. So let’s get to work.

With love,

Talia

P.S. There are lots of great resources put out by leftist people and communities. April Rosenblum wrote a great pamphlet about anti-Semitism and the left. Ngoc Loan TranAsam Ahmad, and others have written beautifully about ending in-fighting among the left.Paul Kivel has also written about being both white and Jewish and showing up in the fight for racial justice. There’s a lot of good thinking out there. Let’s stay in it together.

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan. Contact talia@mayan.org for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music.