Updated: Nov 5, 2022
Imagine The Colour White
When I think of white I think of butter-cream frosting, musky skies, snow, and my wedding dress. When I think of white I also think of very pale sand or sometimes the edges of waves, melting caps of ice or polar bears. When I think of white I often think of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, when it is customary for Jews to wear white. I sometimes, even though I try really hard not to, think of my grandfather when he died, because I knew they were going to bury him in white.
When I think of white I also think of a few ugly names and terms, like colonial imperialism or oppressors.
When I think of white I don’t really think of me.
Please Tick Which Box Applies
We live in an age where being able to categorise ourselves, our background, our jobs, our ethnicities, our sexuality, and even our hair colour into a box is essential for not only applications and forms, but for every day errands and activities like going to the doctor or signing up for a newsletter. It is the messy world’s way of creating order, and casting out those who do not fit into tightly parcelled boxes with symmetrical ribbons.
During my last year of my English degree I took a course on different colonial cities all over the world. One lecture was centered around a few different cities in South Africa. We studied some texts pre and post-apartheid, and got into a discussion about the Pencil Test. Still understood as a symbol of racism today, I was about to fail the test. I promptly stuck a pencil in my hair (which due to its very curly nature) did not fall out. If I would have done that in South Africa seventy five years ago, I would be black. Box ticked. My skin looks white, and I have no black heritage, but because a pencil wouldn’t come out my hair I would have been considered black. By the same awful logic at the time, my lecturer explained that someone would not have been considered to be white if there was one black ancestor in their history. It coloured them, for lack of a better pun, tainted them with a racial negativity that limited their accessibilities, changed the face of all their opportunities, everything.
How we define our race goes so far beyond the literal colour of our skin. The terms black and white have become categories, unuseful boxes that can often be harmful. When I went for my dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, I sat down next to the nurse to have my forms filled out. Eyes focused on the screen in front of her, she went down the list. ‘Female…23…white, right?’ And it’s the same at every medical appointment. I just said, ‘yes’, as I always do, never wanting to be that person who makes a fuss and feels like they don’t quite fit into that category. Yes, I look white. Yes, I am fortunate enough to be privileged in that sense. To be the majority in that sense. But being called white doesn’t feel quite right, and that’s because I’m Jewish. And I consider that to be my race, wholly and completely, and nothing else. There isn’t space, if you like, to be white, because although my skin colour may protect me, my religion on my sleeve does not. I am not white. I am a Jew. That’s it. The world wants it to be, literally, black and white – you’re one or the other, right? But there are millions of races out there, religions that are races, mixed races, and people who do not feel or are not black or white.
I often think of The Bold Type when I think about that, especially the scene where Kat is troubled by what to put on her social media bio. She explains that when she categorises herself as a black woman, she feels proud but it feels like she’s cancelling out her mum. And that when she categorises herself as a white woman, she feels like she’s cancelling out her dad. I think the point she was making (or the writer for that matter, who was trying to use her character to represent thousands of people), is that we are afraid of what affect our definition of our own race will have on other people. She felt a ‘responsibility’ to ‘be’ black to fight against racism, but it didn’t quite fit with her.
I feel a responsibility to say that I’m white so that people don’t think I’m trying to pretend I’m not part of a privileged majority. But it doesn’t feel quite right. The attachment that comes with calling myself white is a majority, a privilege. And in some senses I am, but in other senses, I am not. I have experienced racist attacks too many times to counter. I have walked through the streets of London with friends and family as people have approached saying ‘Hitler should have finished us off’, and have witnessed videos of people climbing out their cars screaming ‘rape all the Jewish girls.’ I have walked down the street in my neighbourhood and cried as people rolled down their windows and screamed ‘AAAJJJEEEEWWW!’
On every box I have to tick ‘other’, or ‘prefer not to say’, and that’s one of the first things that makes me feel marginalised. Of course, my people have been subject to thousands of years of racial abuse and prejudice, and I do feel oppressed in that sense. I do feel marginalised. When I cannot walk down the street in my own neighbourhood without feeling afraid of antisemitism, I do not feel privileged and white. In this sense I have always felt emotionally drawn to other movements that aim to protect or erase racial stereotyping. I feel part of the BAME community, something which people often try to tell me I am not a part of, claiming that being Jewish is not an ethnic minority. Sometimes it feels like Jews don’t count. Sometimes it feels like I don’t count.
So looking white and being white? Very different things. And I think sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that. You don’t get to decide what someone else’s race is. And you can’t shove them into a box for ease. Being called white doesn’t feel quite right for me, and that’s okay.