06 May 2014

American immigrant myth

Tal Fortgang's article for Time Why I'll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege has been getting a lot of internet attention this week. It's as cringeworthy as one might imagine.

I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.

Fortgang is young. I expect that he will be learning at Princeton that he does not understand what people mean by “privilege”. (And I imagine that this incident may also teach him that one should be careful about what one vows never to do.)

But I have an itch about a certain line of critique of folks like Fortgang which one hears in social justice circles, exemplified by an article I saw forwarded this morning, ‘Privileged’ Princeton Student’s Tale of Jewish Woe, from Michael Kaplan at the Jewish Daily Forward.

Fortgang’s thoughts are a common trope among descendants of European immigrants, as NYU Jewish history professor Hasia Diner told me. What he forgets, however, is that there’s one reason European Jews were able to come to the U.S. under the Displaced Persons Act: because they were white.

That's a very strange statement to come from someone informed by a professor of Jewish history. To simply say that Fortgang's and Kaplan's (and my own) grandparents enjoyed the advantages of White privilege badly misunderstands how White identity has emerged for American Jews, and how Whiteness works in general.

Critiques like Kaplan's miss the mark because even a numbskull like Fortgang knows on some level that no, he is not ignoring how his immigrant grandparents were White. He is remembering a time when Jews (and immigrant groups like the Irish and Italians and so forth) were discriminated against on racialized terms, were not simply White. When White Americans tell family legends about their immigrant ancestors overcoming discrimination and adversity through virtue and hard work, they are displaying a partial understanding of this important truth that Kaplan dismisses.

But that understanding is only partial; it doesn't make Fortgang and other Whites who offer this American immigrant myth correct in dismissing racist injustice. Their story is a lie because Fortgang's not-yet-White immigrant ancestors did not become White automatically and inexorably, or simply as a result of hard work and virtue. The process involved complex, painful, and destructive negotiations with the system of American racism, a bargain which that system offered to American Jews and other immigrant groups who have become White, but has not offered to other groups, for historically contingent reasons.

One of those concessions which bought immigrants Whiteness was turning the true story about adversity in the face of discrimination into a lie about how their family fortunes changed, making the discrimination irrelevant, and passing that lie on to children at the kitchen table so that it becomes part of how they define themselves. Believing the lies of racism is part of the price of Whiteness.

Telling that story supports racist injustice by implying that contemporary racist oppression is the just consequence of people of color's failings, an implication which should disgust us. People of color know that expecting virtue and hard work to be rewarded is itself an expression of privilege.


michiexile said...

One of the most eye-opening quotes for me on the social construction and the process of introducing new immigrant groups to Whiteness in the USA was from some of the documentation surviving from when Swedes came to Minnesota: a lumberjack writing home to his family complaining about how his work team has 10 white people and 20 Swedes; and how you can't stand down-wind from a Swede due to how they eat funny, smell funny, et c.

Jonathan Korman said...


"White" is a shifting, historically-contingent category.

Dan Holzman-Tweed said...

Even when Jews were not white, those of us with light skin had a degree of skin privilege over Black people. This fact must remain part of the dialog, because anti blackness plays a fundamental, role in Antisemitism.

Jonathan Korman said...

Just so. Anti-seministm and what we might call color-ism and antisemitism and specifically anti-Black racism are all entangled in the overall system of racism, but cannot be simply collapsed together.

Ian said...

The important thing to remember is that you're not SUPPOSED to apologize for, or even give up, privilege. You're supposed to work to ensure that everybody gets the same.

"Privilege", in this context, means "being treated fairly, as you deserve."