I’ve been futzing around with versions of this post since the very beginning of December, since I read the first draft of a student research paper that spoke more to modern day race and class privilege than to anything about the Middle Ages and did so in a way that, at least as far as teaching goes, was new and challenging for me to know how to approach. What you’re reading now has been up and down and up and down on and off the blog in two major forms with some tweaks since then. I’m calling this the final version although, as I tell my students, there’s no such thing as a final draft. This probably isn’t the totality of what I want to say or the best way I could articulate it. It’s certainly not extensively researched since all of my research energy is pointed firmly at those same Middle Ages that my student so skillfully managed to ignore. Writing that sentence feels funny, too, since I don’t normally encourage a firm division between modern and medieval, having been the student of medievalists of the sort who firmly consider Salman Rushdie to be part of their purview and who wouldn’t do but keep close tabs on the modern goings-on in the regions whose histories they write. I guess I’m struggling with time management in all sorts of ways.
“Give it to me in narrative form,” one of those medievalists used to say, when I would get ahead of myself. So here goes:
This all began while reading, as I said, a first draft of a student research paper. I had to start out by explaining that Benzion Netanyahu was definitely not the same person as Benjamin Netanyahu, and while yes, his conservative politics may have influenced his historian’s judgment, it had very little to do with the premiership of Israel. And in any case, you ought to know what you’re in for when Netanyahu is the most reliable source on a bibliography. Ultimately, using the argument from the web site of a Holocaust-denying Catholic priest as its backbone — you’d be forgiven for thinking that I hadn’t spent parts of several class sessions or given handouts and detailed instructions on how to critically analyze secondary source material — the paper argued that the lesson of the Spanish Inquisition was that racial and religious minorities, including African-Americans whose voting rights had been curtailed and Muslims who had become the targets of everything from surveillance to violence in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, should understand that these restrictions and worse came into being because the people in power just feel really threatened by them, and that the onus of that fear lies on those minorities to understand that.
I honestly don’t think that my student is a racist in the conventional sense of the word. I think that it was in some kind of earnest, unexamined sympathy that she was trying to argue that everything from the Inquisition that nobody ever expects to civil rights violations in New York City in the 21st century aren’t actually justified but are based on irrational fear; but it doesn't really make much of a difference. I tell my students to avoid the intentional fallacy in reading texts, and I'm not going to make it in reading theirs.
The thing is that I took the coward’s way out. When I was a college student, I detested professors who injected modern politics into unrelated class discussions. I didn’t want everything to boil down to George W. Bush or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or — no, those were the two main things — even if I agreed with them on at least one and a half of those issues. I don’t want to be one of those professors who goes off on tangents because she’s sure she’s right. When I talk about the modern world in my classroom or in my office, it’s because we are talking about Adonis’ appropriation of the petty kingdoms of al-Andalus as a metaphor in his poetry or because Salman Rushdie is firmly a part of my brief. I mostly don’t want to go near anything that isn’t firmly grounded in text, and all the moreso with students. And so I didn’t try to explain to my student that no, it’s not the responsibility of African-American voters to understand that the power structure feels threatened that they might effect change and it’s not up to any Muslim in America to suborn the fear that his religion might inspire in the mind of the bigot. I told the student to take all the references to the modern world out of her paper on the Spanish Middle Ages, and in doing so, I failed as a teacher and as a human being. I don’t believe that the modern should be pulled out of the medieval. And I think that this kind of pernicious, unlearned, pervasive attitude about the relationship between the majority culture and minorities is so clearly wrong that there’s no debate in whether or not I should address it or whether I am right; but I am equally certain that someone bashing George W. Bush in the classroom believed the issue to be as clear-cut and obvious and with only one right answer and I didn’t want to risk becoming that professor.
I did write a blog post about the whole issue though, and went into a little bit more detail because it happened to be during the brief interstice when this space was password-protected and restricted to people I know in real life and have gotten to know reasonably well online; it was always FERPA-compliant but it went into greater specificity than I was comfortable doing for a general audience. Even this is probably too much; the student could recognize her paper if she were ever to come across this, even though nobody else can.
By coincidence, a tweeter I had started following a few weeks earlier because of some very on-the-nose observations she made on anxiety in graduate school and the academy, weighed in on what is more her main topic of writing an activism in a way that was very relevant to what I was thinking about:
That was exactly what I had been wondering, and more specifically, wondering about how to address it in the classroom. I almost retweeted the remark before realizing that it was the opening salvo in a jeremiad against white folks that I just wasn’t comfortable participating in, including these two:
I was trying to figure out how to attend to this particular problem, but I definitionally needed to figure it out first. Obviously these comments weren't personal, but they also marked thinking about this issue (and thinking about it in the way that I usually think through things, by writing) as something that I oughtn’t do because I’d never do it right. And there’s a lot wrong with that: Even if this sort of discourse pigeonholes me as white folk, I don’t fit in as neatly as the theorists and the activists who rely on their work might like; the terminology perpetuates the problem; and this line of rhetoric disregards both human nature and the fact of cosmopolitan enclaves that treat the whole issue of race and culture in a completely different and incompatible mode. There’s a lot there. This is going to end up being a three-parter.
Critical race theory says that I’m a white person. And if you don’t look too carefully or talk to me, I can be pretty invisible in lots of parts of the United States, though as a friend who grew up partly in the American South pointed out to me, I’d never pass, even visually, there. I know that the extent to which I can pass is a privilege, whatever its limitations. But I’m also Jewish, and in spite of several scholarly arguments to the contrary, my lived experience as an American Jew makes me pretty definitively not a white person in the way the term is used as a critical category.
The fact that this part of the Twitter conversation could include a remark in which someone, mocking Jewish people who try to insert themselves into the right side of the debate, could do so with a caricature whine that would be unthinkable to pour into the mouth of any other minority group: “What about the JEEEEWWWWS?!” suggests to me an othering that negates the “whiteness” it tries to impart. (I unfortunately don’t have a screenshot of this one because at that point I was so disgusted that I figured I’d never write about this; if I remembered the exact number of Es and Ws, I might have a better time locating it through Google or the Way Back Machine, but alas.)
I’m white-looking enough that I can mostly pass, except to the little old Russian ladies on the bus or in the copy shop or at the airport who register that we have something phenotypically in common and start jabbering away to me in Russian, refusing to believe my protestations that I simply can’t understand them. Because even though I consider myself fully American, even though I’ve never been to Russia and (clearly) don’t speak the language, there is something — my cheekbones? my hairline? — that marks me to coteries of little babushkas as being as foreign as they are.
I’m white-looking enough but a college roommate still told me that I didn’t “look American.” That I looked more exotic, like a “European beauty” — I know that must sound like I’m satirizing, cartoonish as it is, but I’m quoting what I suppose was meant as a compliment.
I may look white at first glance and may have much privilege that results, but I still have to negotiate how to respond to a “you people” speech from a U.S. Customs official when I (a U.S. citizen, by the way, only and always) returned from giving an academic talk in Israel and, having been awake at that point for close to 36 hours, made a mistake in filling out my customs and immigration form. I have to figure out how to tell someone I consider a close friend (and apparently I have defaulted to the inadvertently passive-aggressive mention in a blog post method) that describing someone as “Jewish” isn’t at all offensive, actually, but then backpedaling (that even believing that she needed to backpedal) by saying “no offense, but I could tell by his nose” is super offensive and tied in with all kinds of murderous historical stereotypes. I don't want to have to trot out a litany of insults, but even though I may look white at first glance, and even though critical theory may declare that I am white, it’s 2014 and I still have to talk about the extent to which I can or can’t pass in mainstream American society.
And then there is the Gestalt, the famed immigrant mentality that has never really died out. I am a fourth-generation American. I had the luxury of knowing that my parents were mostly kidding when I brought home tests with high scores and they would ask: “So, nu? A 97? What happened to the last 3 points?” But they still asked. And I also knew just as readily that when my grandparents were asking that question, they were mostly not kidding; and I know this because I grew up hearing, over and over again, the story about how my grandfather’s older brother participated in a prestigious medical training program in the Air Force, the top ten graduates of which were guaranteed a spot in an equally prestigious civilian medical school, with the promise that they would continue to serve once they finished their education; and the year that my great-uncle Arthur graduated tops from that program, the medical school slots went to graduates #2-#11, Christians all of them. We still had to be the very best because even that would never, ever be a guarantee. I know that I attended Yale within a generation of the Jewish men who had managed to gain admission despite the explicit quotas that imposed upon them higher expectations and lower possibilities of success; and to a one, at least among the ones I know, they were permanently warped by that environment. Every time some pundit comments on how the Jews control Hollywood or the economy or the news media, I am reminded of how tenuous whatever gains we have made remain. I have spent my life not belonging anywhere I have found myself. That’s partly a different story, but it’s also partly because however much I might see myself as a Jewish American, the world sees me as an American Jew. Jews may have some "access to whiteness" — sometimes good access, even — but we’re definitely not white folks.