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. UPDATE: Whit has linked to an Ashkenazi privilege list here.) 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 Modern Mitzvot.)

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133 Responses to A Gentile Privilege Checklist

  1. “Oppression cannot exist without corresponding privilege. It’s just not possible, folks.”

    Completely false. Because, in post-modern Western society, victims have privileges too.

  2. Pingback: Some Links « Our Descent Into Madness

  3. So I linked to this list in a comment I made here the other day, and consequently have been thinking about it, and I’m not sure, frankly, how valid it really is. Speaking as a Jew (you can tell from the name), I’m not sure this is meaningful; simply put, I don’t feel deprived.

    It’s possible that white privilege and male privilege and straight privilege and cis privilege and others I’m not even aware of combine to insulate me from the effects of my Jewishness. But it seems to me that it’s more likely to be the opposite: being white, male, straight, cisgendered, etc., I feel integrated into mainstream society; it would be more startling to see evidence I’m not than for, e.g., a lesbian of color to find there’s yet another thing marking her as Other (I welcome correction from Jews who are any combination of female, gay, or POC).

    I hate to compare oppressions, even if mine is the smaller one, but I’m not sure there’s a strong parallel between, say, white Americans vis-a-vis Americans of color and non-Jews vis-a-vis Jews.

  4. 103
    chingona says:

    I hate to compare oppressions, even if mine is the smaller one, but I’m not sure there’s a strong parallel between, say, white Americans vis-a-vis Americans of color and non-Jews vis-a-vis Jews.

    The validity of the list does not depend on their being a strong parallel between the experience of being, say, black, and the experience of being Jewish. The list is a tool for describing and thinking about the differences in experience between being Jewish and being non-Jewish. Whether it works or not, it should be judged on that basis. (Just as the male privilege checklist works or doesn’t work based on how well it describes the experience of being a woman vs. the experience of being a man, not on whether the experience of being a straight woman is strongly parallel to the experience of being a gay man, or whether the experience of being a white woman is strongly parallel to the experience of being a black man.)

    I know you said way upthread that you can’t identify with any of this. That’s cool. But not all of us grew up in and live in New York City.

  5. Hm. I didn’t mean it entirely like that. I can certainly see, say, #8 or #11; I am aware that these things occur, and as you put it, I identify with them. But they don’t strike me as what, in my mind, the weight of oppression should feel like. These things are, for me, the only person whose experience I can really speak from, much less of an issue—even where they turn up—than the government insisting on issuing me inaccurate identity documents or having other people deny me the right to romantic fulfillment on the grounds that I can’t really want it would be.

    So, okay, this is a reasonable list of things I can’t take for granted as a Jew that an otherwise equivalently privileged Gentile can. But some of them, and especially the ones I identify with most, seem so minor that (possibly in part due to generations of “don’t rock the boat”) I don’t see them as things I would be expected to be continually conscious of.

  6. 105
    Blanks says:

    Sorry, I know this article is old, but I just caught it today and would like to add a few things.

    1. It is easy for me, as a gentile, to do research on my heritage without being met with vitriolic, hateful, conspiracy theorist diatribes against us. Do a Google search on Jews and you’ll see what I mean.

    These next two privileges are more or less exclusive to non-Ashkenazi Jews.

    2. There are a slew of diseases that only Ashkenazi Jews can get. Tay Sachs and Gaucher’s immediately come to mind.

    3. As a non-Ashkenazi, nobody assumes that we are “false Jews” or “non-Semitic”. In fact, genetic studies show that we are predominantly Semitic.

  7. 106
    Sebastian says:

    What the Hell is 15 about? My wife is Jewish, and I lived in France until I was 18. (French are known, in Europe, for their anti-Semitism)

    But neither she nor I can figure out what physically deformity she’s supposed to have. The nose? An arched nose is not considered ugly is all cultures, you know. And it is not that common amongst Jewish people, either. My Slavic friends have more ‘curious’ noses than my wife or her relatives, although they claim it’s a result of most of them being boxers and kick-boxers.

    And people violate your body anatomy to search for it?! Seriously, what the Hell are you talking about? My wife decided to call her relatives to see whether they have any idea.

  8. 107
    Robert says:

    Sebastian, you’re going to have a hard time believing this, but there’s a fairly widespread belief among the exceptionally stupid that Jews have horns on their heads. Short, stubby horns that are concealed in the hair.

    There are a couple of theories as to the origins of this belief, but since they all rely on the human species being exceptionally stupid, I find them too depressing to relate.

    That is what #15 is about.

  9. 108
    Robert says:

    Amp does, in fact, have horns, but that is because Amp is a devil from hell. Nothing to do with being Jewish.

  10. 109
    Eytan Zweig says:

    And in case anyone wants anecdotal confirmation, I have once met a woman in Eastern Europe who told me that she had expected me to have horns (as I am a bald man who doesn’t wear hats indoors, confirmation was not an issue). She was friendly and very embarrassed about it, and was not overtly prejudiced against Jews – as far as I could tell, this was a case of someone who rejected the explicit antisemitism of her upbringing, but hadn’t thought to question some of the more innocuous (though ridiculous) sounding details.

  11. 110
    Ruchama says:

    My mother told me that, when she went to college in the late sixties, there was a girl in her dorm who was surprised to find out that Jews don’t have horns.

  12. I met more than a couple of people in college–I was there in the early 1980s–who were surprised by that as well. I also remember being on a trip when I was in yeshiva. All the boys were wearing yarmulkes. There was kids from I don’t remember where and one of them asked the accompanying adult why we were all wearing those little hats. The adult explained that we were Jewish. One of the kids called out, loudly enough for us all to hear, “Then where are their horns?”

  13. 112
    mythago says:

    In a better world, the kippah-wearers would have responded by whipping out a vuvuzela.

  14. 113
    Phil says:

    There are a slew of diseases that only Ashkenazi Jews can get. Tay Sachs and Gaucher’s immediately come to mind.

    I don’t mean to be overly critical, but I can’t remember ever seeing a biological difference on a list of privileges. (Or at least, a non-mythical biological difference that wasn’t directly related to social privilege.)

    The item here may be factual, but does it meet the generally-accepted definition of “privilege” with which these lists are constructed?

  15. 114
    Robert says:

    Also, it’s not true that only Jews can get certain diseases. (What, the mutations only keep kosher and won’t lower themselves to afflict us treyf goyische?) Tay-Sachs, for example, has a higher prevalence among Ashkenazim, but Cajuns and French Canadian subpopulations have high prevalence too. It’s a genetic disease; there are greater allele frequencies among some populations, but there’s no ghetto wall keeping the genes separate. Similarly, Gaucher’s is carried by 8.9% of the Ashkenazi population, and by 1% of the goyim.

  16. 115
    mythago says:

    Also, the genetic issue kinda obscures the fact that one can become Jewish via conversion. Thor Ragnarsson, who can trace his ancestors on both sides back to the guys who jacked up Lindisfarne, undergoes an Orthodox conversion in an Ashkenazic community? He’s just as Jewish as the Rebbe.

  17. 116
    Mandolin says:

    …but my parents always said that I have horns because I’m Jewish. If Jews don’t have horns then… Then, sweet heaven, WHY DO I HAVE HORNS?

  18. 117
    KellyK says:

    Mandolin, I didn’t want to be the one to have to break this to you, but one of your grandparents was a giraffe.

    Phil, I think you’re right that genetic stuff doesn’t necessarily count as a privilege, which is much more of a social and cultural thing.

  19. 118
    Mandolin says:

    That explains the brown spots and prehensile tongue, then.

  20. 119
    Robert says:

    “That explains the brown spots and prehensile tongue, then.”

    But enough about your geriatric lover, why do you have horns?

  21. 120
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    One more for Christian privilege, I think.

    People are more likely to know basic facts about my religion.

    A friend of mine who’s quite interested in religions just told me that it’s possible to convert to Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, but not to Conservative or Orthodox. This is simply false– all sorts of Jews permit conversion to Judaism, and consider converts to be fully Jewish.

    I think the belief (quite common, in my experience) that it isn’t possible to convert to Judaism is conflating the fact that Jews don’t proselytize with the idea that conversion is impossible. The aforementioned friend pointed out that most Christians don’t proselytize, which is fair enough.

  22. 121
    mythago says:

    Nancy – I am fascinated to know where your friend got that idea, given that Orthodox Jews in particular believe that only Orthodox conversions are valid.

  23. 122
    Grace Annam says:

    Suddenly I want to meet Mandolin in person some day even more than I did up until now…

    “You mean you’ve actually exchanged e-mail with her?”

    “Yes! And guess what else! She has horns! SO COOL!


  24. 123
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I asked my friend and he said he’d heard it from Jewish people. I have no idea whether they were misinformed or he misheard them.

    Other than that, the idea of Mandolin having horns because of being a giraffe is wonderful. I’m hoping to see something of the sort in a comic one of these days.

  25. 124
    Eytan Zweig says:

    I wonder if your friend heard Reform/Reconstructionist Jews discussing about the relative difficulty of conversion in the more traditionalist branches; they might have used terms like “it’s impossible” to mean “it’s unrealistically demanding”, not “it’s not allowed”. I know quite a few people that hold that viewpoint.

    I’m not sure what the Conservative conversion program is like, but Orthodox conversion is a lengthy, unpleasant process, that is designed to ensure that the convert is planning on obeying the religion’s edicts. In Israel, at least, Orthodox converts must live a strictly kosher household for several months – subject to spot checks from Rabbis – before the conversion is approved. I can easily see this process described as impossible by people who do not approve of the Orthodox lifestyle.

  26. 125
    chingona says:

    Or her friend’s Jewish friends might have been confused. I have heard some confusing and wrong things about Judaism from Jews.

  27. 126
    Jake Squid says:

    I have heard some confusing and wrong things about Judaism from Jews.

    Even in threads on this very site. It seems to me that most of the Jews I talk to know very little about sects other than their own. Including me.

  28. 127
    Phil says:

    Or her friend’s Jewish friends might have been confused. I have heard some confusing and wrong things about Judaism from Jews.

    This may be off-topic for this thread, but I don’t see how this could be. If a Jewish person believes something about Judaism, then that person’s belief is a Jewish belief. If other people who are Jewish disagree, then that means that Jews believe different things, not that some Jews are “correct” and some are “incorrect.” All statements that begin “Jews believe…” (or, for that matter, “Christians believe…” or “Muslims believe…”) are wrong, insomuch as they are implying that all people who identify as part of a group hold the same beliefs.

    I’m not just talking about documented schisms. It is parodoxical to say that a person holds a wrong belief about what they believe.

  29. 128
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Phil – That’s not what Chingona meant. She was talking about Jews discussing historical and cultural facts about Judaism and getting them wrong. And while it may not necessarily be possible to ascribe a single consistent belief to everyone in a religion, it’s definitely possible to make false statements about them.

    If a Christian were to tell you that they believe Jesus was actually a woman who disguised herself as a man, you can say that that is that Christian’s Christian belief. If the same person told you that that view is held by a majority of Christians in North America, then you’d be quite justified in saying that he is confused about Christianity. Similarly, if the same Christian were to say that their belief is based on the fact that the Gospel of Luke clearly states Jesus was a woman, then I’d say that that person is confused as to what Christian writings say.

    (The other question raised by your comment is what are the limits of having to accept other people’s self labels. If a person were to attend a Catholic church, believe wholeheartedly in everything that the church preaches (including in the divinity of Jesus, etc.) and follows the Catholic faith to a tee, but say “I know I act and believe exactly like a Catholic does but I’m not a Christian, I’m a Jew, it’s just that some Jewish beliefs are indistinguishable from Catholicism” – I don’t think that we’re under an onus to accept that statement as true).

  30. 129
    Julie says:

    Phil, a couple of weeks ago my Jewish relatives and I were trying to remember what Shavuos is about (it came up because an observant cousin was absent from the gathering to, well, observe it). The closest we finally came was “it’s the one were we got the Torah and so we eat lots of dairy.” If we’d said, “it’s the one where we fast because of the destruction of the Temples,” that would have been wrong information, not belief, and we would have recognized it as such if someone told us that we were thinking of Tisha B’av, not Shavuos.

  31. 130
    chingona says:

    If someone says, “It’s impossible to convert to Orthodox Judaism,” that’s a factually incorrect statement. It has nothing to do with the subjectivity of religious belief.

  32. 131
    Phil says:

    Eytan, Julie, and Chingona,

    I see what you mean, and I guess there are both bright lines and gray areas. Obviously, a person can be wrong about facts and history, and a person can make a statistical claim that is factually incorrect.

    But when it comes to supernaturalist beliefs, or beliefs that are not falsifiable, I think that all we can say is that “This person believes differently from many others in her/his faith,” not that they are wrong.

    And then there are beliefs about historical events that didn’t really happen, like the Exodus. A person could have their own beliefs about what events might have transpired, or they might actively disagree with a small part of the story, or they might simply be ignorant of the details of a story that they assume to be true. Which raises the question: how can a person hold a belief if they don’t know that they hold it?

    Although, again, a belief about a factual statement is a poor example of this. On the other hand, moral beliefs are tricky: I’ve found very few strictly religious people who are well-versed on what their claimed religion actually says about sexual morality for biologically intersex persons. There is an attitude of, “I don’t what I believe, but when I find out what I’m supposed to believe, that’s what I’ll believe.”

    However, since I’m kind of going off into a different area, I should dial down my contrariness: I agree that there are commonly-held beliefs within most individual faiths, and I agree that there is a general consensus among members of many faiths. So it’s often possible to discuss these things and it’s a stretch to call all of such discussion paradoxical.

    I don’t think that we’re under an onus to accept that statement as true

    Perhaps not, but what about the _millions_ of US Catholics who disagree with the official Church position on abortion, or the US Catholics who disagree with the church position on birth control (some surveys indicate that it’s actually a large majority?) On the other hand, Catholicism may be different from Judaism, since it is structured as a membership organization.

    I’d say that that person is confused as to what Christian writings say.

    I’d agree with you, but I’d also say that about all other religious Christians. ;)

  33. 132
    Blanks says:

    Also, the genetic issue kinda obscures the fact that one can become Jewish via conversion. Thor Ragnarsson, who can trace his ancestors on both sides back to the guys who jacked up Lindisfarne, undergoes an Orthodox conversion in an Ashkenazic community? He’s just as Jewish as the Rebbe.

    I was speaking more from the perspective of an ethnic Jew. I did not take recently converted Jews (who for some strange reason would want to forfeit their other privileges by joining) into account.