Nationwide protests over inequality are encouraging more conversations not only about race but also about white privilege. For many of us it is something abstract, conceptual but difficult to relate to. As American sociologist, Michael Kimmel put it succinctly: “Privilege is invisible to those who have it.”
Historically, white privilege was often described through the lens of Peggy McIntosh’s ground breaking essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The idea of white privilege as unseen, unconscious advantages took hold. Her list of white privileges makes the idea of privilege exceptionally palatable.
For example: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group” or “If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.” Taken together, McIntosh’s list reveals a privilege she never explicitly states: the privilege to feel ordinary unexceptional.
And yet white privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned; most white people who have reached a high level of success worked extremely hard to get there. Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.
Dr Francis E Kendall, author of Understanding White Privilege, a book which delves into the complex interplay between race, power, and privilege in both organisations and private life said the answer “is very visible for those to whom privilege was not granted.”
It can be viewed as asking fish to notice water or birds to discuss air. For those who have privileges based on race or gender or class or physical ability or sexual orientation, or age, it just is– it’s normal. Kendall goes on to say, “There is growing recognition that privilege in this sense is symptomatic of racism and is in need of being snuffed out systemically”. This is something we all can agree with and should have no place in our society in the 21st century.
Whilst recognising how wrong white privilege is, it’s important at the same time to acknowledge that part and parcel of life is the privilege. Each of us, as members of humanity are cast a different lot, born with innate qualities, different personal attributes and capabilities and potential. For some they may be creative and artistic others may be musically inclined and others may be athletic. All the talents that we have are privileges. One need not feel a sense of embarrassment or be apologetic for the gifts that we have been endowed which give us a natural advantage over others. Our society is built on a system of meritocracy. Provided that it is genuinely a level playing field, one can be proud of the opportunities and privileges that accrue from our sweat and toil in life.
The public dialogue in this regard has left me curious as to our position as Jews, as a race and nation. Is not an integral aspect of our faith of us being privileged? Very often, people squirm uncomfortably at hearing us being referred to by the phraseology “chosen people” feeling that there is a whiff of racism in lauding ourselves over others as a superior race.
In truth, the concept is often misconstrued and misunderstood. The Hebrew phraseology utilised by the Torah refers to us as an “Am Segulah” often taken to mean “Chosen People”. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch avers that a more accurate meaning of us being an “Am Segula” is that of us being a unique people, reflecting the unique role we must play amongst the family of nations.
The sources suggest that the seventy nations of the world are each unique, with their own individual characteristics that are indispensable. In each nation, ethnicity plays a different instrument without which the symphony of humanity would be incomplete.
Lord Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi stated in this regard “I believe that every people – and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual – is ‘chosen’ or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only some fulfil their mission and others do not. Perhaps the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be peculiar unto Me as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was, and is, their national purpose.”
The unique and privileged position of the Jewish people in the symphony of humanity is that we are expected to be the conductor. It is our mission to create the most majestic masterpiece by conducting the nations of the world, a responsibility for us to lead the world to its completion.
For so much of our history we have found ourselves exiled amongst other nations. The Talmud states that the idea of us being scattered in this way is to find converts. This is obviously a baffling and cryptic statement considering we are a faith that does not look to proselytize others. Rav Tzadok Hakohen, one of the deep mystical thinkers offered a novel interpretation. Being scattered in exile he suggests, is not intended for us to find converts, but on a deeper level to bring home the elements of beauty and culture from all the nations that we dwell amongst in order to unify and integrate that beauty into the symphony of humanity that we are expected to conduct.
As Jews, we therefore can remain proud of the privileged position of responsibility that we have been endowed with. It is a sacred responsibility and life mission to embody the precepts of our faith and thereby be that light to the nations in which we dwell.