Light vs. White, Oppression vs. Identity: Reflections on the Jews of Color National Convening from a Light Skinned Indigenous and Latina Woman

By: Rosa Blumenfeld, BWC Board President

I am just re-entering real life after having been at the national convening for Jews of Color in New York City. As Jews of color in the United States, we are frequently the only person of color in our Jewish communities. This makes it hard to think about what we really want, because we are left to navigate whiteness and the racism coming at us on our own. We needed this convening to find each other. And by finding each other, we have truly find our place among the Jewish people. We have made history together. It is a good feeling.

It was critical to start the convening with centering blackness. I so appreciate the Black Jews who were there to tell their stories and claim their rightful place at the center of our movement towards freedom. There is power in our stories. We cannot move this work forward together if we don’t know each other. I am now thinking about my story in a new way, and what it would mean to move back towards blackness and my indigenous heritage as a light skinned woman.

I heard a lot of us lighter skinned people at the convening say “I have white privilege” in some way because we have a white parent, or we are so mixed that our skin tone is nearly white. I think that we still get to claim our own identities as people of color, without claiming that the oppression we face as light skinned people of color is the same as the oppression faced by dark skinned people of color. It is not. I am not racially profiled as I walk down the street, I have better access to education and housing, and I am not likely to be arrested or killed by the criminal ‘justice’ system. But I do still face racism, genocide and anti-Semitism. It is not a privilege not to be recognized or claimed by my own people whether they be Jewish, Latino, or other people of color. It is not a privilege to have been separated from my tribe and our land. It is not a privilege to have been told that going back to my people was a useless and impossible endeavor.

These battles have been fought in my family on the inside, in secret. We don’t talk about them with each other, and we are separated from our communities of origin, so we have been left very alone with our struggles. My white Ashkenazi Jewish Dad was a Holocaust survivor. My Indigenous Colombian Jewish Mom was born during La Violencia, the Colombian civil war. My parents are good people who love me unconditionally but no one survives war and attempted genocide unscathed. Few people wanted to listen to their stories which didn’t give them an opportunity to heal from them. But these stories still needed to come out, so they became my bed time stories as a child instead. I had to build strong internal defenses to make sense of such horror on my own. This was not a privilege.

Many of our families were fleeing this kind of systemic violence. And were wrongly convinced that if they looked whiter, their chances of survival would increase. In Latin America, where my family comes from, this is a very pervasive way of thinking in the society. There is a saying that to marry a whiter looking person is to better the race. This can be directly linked to a racist system of classification imposed by the Spanish during their conquest of the Americas. If people have African or Indigenous heritage, these are widely denied and suppressed. We still have a long way to go in re-centering blackness as Latin American peoples. But the ways that blackness has been de-centered in Latin America, and more personally in our families, were not a matter of choice. Choices are made freely. The things people do to escape oppression and death are not free.

This is why I think it is important to make the distinction between being ‘light’ and being ‘white’. There is a difference between claiming my identity as a person of color, and claiming that I face the same oppression that my darker skinned brothers and sisters do. The best that I have been able to figure out here is to embark on a journey home. To re-connect with my people and the land we come from. Because in order to center blackness as a light skinned woman, I have to go back and find my history. I get to push back against the assimilation into whiteness that my family was forced into so that I can be myself again. This is hard work that terrifies me. But I cannot wait to succeed.

So I claim my identity as a person of color in every space. Jewish or gentile. And I hope that my darker skinned brothers and sisters will claim me as one of their own too as we battle racism, genocide and anti-Semitism together. All I have ever wanted is some space to be my full self. Being at the Jews of Color convening gave me that space. Now that we have found each other, let us do the work to be truly united and free.

  Photo by: Rafael Shimunov