Life Online as a Jew of Color
Nylah Burton, a 23-year-old freelance writer based in Denver, had been discussing Jewish whiteness online since she joined “Jewbook,” a collective of Facebook groups designated to be of Jewish interest. The online spaces are centers for discourse on topics relevant to Judaism, ranging in seriousness from Jewish humor to talmudic study and fostering a digital community among predominantly millennial Jews around the world. In early July, Burton wrote an opinion piece titled “White Jews: Stop Calling Yourselves ‘White-Passing’” for The Forward and posted it in the closed Facebook group, “Sounds Like Your ‘Intersectionality’ Doesn’t Include Jews But Okay” with the simple message: “I wrote this and want to hear your thoughts.” In the article, she argues that while American Jews still feel the threat of anti-Semitism, most are “functionally white,” meaning they can enjoy the privileges of whiteness that people of color cannot.
“‘White-passing’ implies the need to hide,” Burton wrote. “Most systemic benefits of whiteness will not be taken away from white Ashkenazi Jews who possess them if someone discovers their Jewishness. No doubt, prejudice and anti-Semitism may remain, but their loan rates will stay the same and the police won’t be more likely to pull the trigger.”
There were countless inflammatory comments in response to Burton’s post, some questioning the Jewish identity of her and other Jews of color based on their race. One commentator compared Burton, a black woman, to David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
After the comments section took its racist turn, Burton and two of her friends, Bentley Addison and Helena Thompson-Cohen, decided to take a break from Jewbook. They viewed it as an act of self-care that might secondarily draw attention to the problematic nature of what was unfolding. But while Burton was watching Netflix and enjoying a brief reprieve from fielding comments on her article, a number of Jewbook moderators and administrators (“modmins”) made a decision: They archived their Facebook groups, effectively blocking all members from posting and commenting, in an act of solidarity with Burton, Addison and Thompson-Cohen. Members of the archived groups were directed to a new, singular group, “jewbook conversations,” to discuss how to be better allies to Jews of color.
Burton and her friends were quickly drawn back into Jewbook to advise the new group, which has since been rebranded as “Colorful Kosher: Jews of Color,” but they continue to experience frustration with the seemingly ingrained prejudices they face from their own community. Even within the group, which is focused on allyship—a term used in social justice circles to describe the support of marginalized groups—discussions have derailed. Burton spoke with Moment about the significance of what has been coined #JewbookBlackout and her experience as a black Jewish woman.
When did you start seeing a change in people’s attitudes on Jewbook? Was there a clear point when things became hostile or outright racist?
There were always racist comments, passive aggressive things. I had always seen that, but the mistake that I, and a lot of other people who run these spaces, made was thinking that if we pick off one or two people, if we ban those people, it will fix the problem. After I started helping to run a group, I started seeing that the problem was just so big. We would get member requests with people saying really hateful stuff in them and we would just decline, decline, decline. People would join the group and it would be micro-aggressions galore—and sometimes outright aggression. I don’t think there was a specific point where I was like, “Oh, this is getting bad.” It was always kind of bad, but our tactic of handling it was not good.
What did you think of people’s reactions to your article on Jewish whiteness?
People get defensive when you tell them things that they don’t want to admit to. One thing that I like to do in my own writing is argue with myself. That’s how I wrote this article. Many of the points that people brought up were valid, but I had already addressed them. It’s not that I’m saying that the oppression of the two groups is so wildly different and unequal. I’m saying that in this context, in this country, it’s not equal, and to pretend like it is is asinine. But I’m not trying to invalidate experiences of those in Europe or in the Middle East. I’m just saying that right now, we’re here and things have shifted, so the language, “white-passing” is not appropriate here.
Have things become problematic in “jewbook conversations”?
Right now, only moderators can approve a post, but some of the comments are ridiculous. There was this lady who was like, “You’re lynching my grandson. You called him a racist, that’s a lynching,” and that exemplified for me why I felt the need to write the article in the first place because in the U.S., white Jews should not use black language to describe things. First of all, because they’re not black, there’s very little understanding of the weight of those terms and what they mean. Secondly, they’re just not the same. I don’t like when I mention black people being lynched and some people go, “Well, Jews were lynched too.” Well, so were white Christian people, but that’s not the point. The point is that overwhelmingly, black people were lynched.
At the end of the day, the message I wanted to communicate is “Stop using our language. My family’s history is not your ‘gotchya.’ It’s not your comparison to make when the comparison is not appropriate.” Comparing Jim Crow, comparing slavery, comparing mass incarceration, comparing police brutality, even comparing the higher rates of sexual violence against black women to anything that white Jewish people go through in this country at this moment is deeply inappropriate. I do also recognize that it shifts because of white supremacy, because of the gray area that I will admit that white Jews live in. All Jews live in this gray area. It can shift, but it’s not the same. So until it is, let’s not get froggy and use language that just doesn’t apply.
Do you feel like some white Jews over-sensationalize their struggle?
At the end of the day, anti-Semitism is still a very real concern for me because I have to think about both anti-Semitism and racism. I have to think about and care about both and actively fight against them, and I suffer from both. White Jewish people experience a great deal of discrimination, micro-aggressions, and things like that. It’s so much, but my argument is that it’s not every day. Every day I am aware of who I am, every place I go. It’s every day for me, it’s every second, to the point where sometimes I don’t even notice it. That’s a different experience and it’s not comparable to wearing a kippah because not only can I not take it off, but the way that people think about me when they look at my skin, my hair and my nose is different than when they look at someone who’s wearing a kippah or a woman who is very clearly Orthodox.
What are the big allyship “no-no’s” that you’ve seen since this conversation began?
A more concrete “no-no” that I’ve seen was just derailing the conversation. I feel like there’s this fundamental misunderstanding of what we’re discussing here. We’re discussing “white-passing” and I feel like that’s gotten lost in the whole shuffle. We’re not discussing anything other than the fact that “white-passing” is not a good term and that the history of what “white-passing” means in the black community has literally not been brought up. I think that’s a really big failure of allyship: not even understanding what the conversation is and not engaging in the conversation at hand.
Another thing: Please stop saying that Ashkenazi equals white. That gets on my nerves so much. First of all, being Ashkenazi is not being white. There’s a strong correlation, but me, Helena and Bentley are all Ashkenazi and we’re not white. We’re black as fuck. So when people say, “They’re discriminating against white people just for being Ashkenazi,” that’s not what’s happening here. This is about whiteness and that’s all that it is. We need to engage with the topic at hand because whiteness in this country is unlike anything in the world. It’s very unique and it’s very dynamic and it shifts and it’s interesting and it’s monstrous and it’s ugly.
This brings me to another thing with allyship: defensiveness. When I say things like, “All white people are racist,” which is a view of mine, when I say, “Whiteness is destructive,” I am not specifically talking about you. I’m talking about the system, I’m talking about it as a concept. So when I say that and people are like, “You’re discriminating against white people,” I’m actually not. I’m saying that what colonization and imperialization and all of these things have created is ugly.
When you get tired from all this, how do you avoid becoming disillusioned with your causes?
I’m so young that I’m still figuring out what my causes are. They shift. I’m not saying the things I care about change, but the things that I decide to devote my energy to obviously change.
This all happening is actually good because it’s forcing me to take some time and sit and be like, “So what do I do next? What do I care about next?” I don’t feel morale, but I do feel this sense of now it’s time for me to maybe redirect. It’s time for me to maybe think about starting other communities. What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of woman do I want to be? What kind of black woman do I want to be? What kind of black Jewish woman do I want to be?
What is the best possible outcome going forward?
That people start having real conversations, not just online, that people start really doing something, helping people. I don’t know what that means or what that looks like yet, because I haven’t really had time to think about it, but people asking, “What are the problems in our community? What are actual ways that we can fix it? How can we integrate the digital with the real world and create a community that’s maybe five percent better than what we have right now?” I hope that people actually start thinking about that, and that they actually start doing something instead of just talking about it.
Photo courtesy of Nylah Burton