Writing about President Obama's powerful and heartfelt remarks on being black in America and facing constant suspicion and even fear from whites, Charles Blow in today's New York Times quotes W.E. Du Bois in The Soul of Black Folk:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
While Jews in America have white skin privilege (unless they're Sephardic), I grew up with something very similar to what Du Bois describes: a constant sense of looking over my shoulder at "them" because anything I might say or do would be filed away as more evidence in support of anti-Semitism. "They" were always watching and any mis-step would be what in Yiddish is called "humiliating oneself in the eyes of the Gentiles" (a shandeh far di goyim)."
I couldn't misbehave in public, I couldn't be loud or call negative attention to myself in any way, I couldn't be a normal noisy kid because all of that was filtered through two thousand years of oppression in the Christian world. Worse than that, my parents were Holocaust survivors, and they had lived through the worst catastrophe that had ever crushed our people.
Obviously with white skin I could hide my Jewishness if I wanted to, I could stay closeted. But I could never hide from the endemic anti-Semitism in the culture, the remarks about people trying to "Jew someone down" and the drip-drip-drip of other anti-Jewish remarks and the atmosphere of stereotyping and anti-Jewish jokes. It was -- it is -- corrosive and constant. Not identical to being black, not at all, but a reminder that despite Jewish success in America, many people regard us as anything from second class citizens to allies of the Devil because we "killed Christ."
When I hear well-meaning commentators like Michael Smerconish on MSNBC say that blacks responded differently from whites to the Martin verdict, I know that's not true for many white people, and it's certainly not true for this one. I doubt it's true for most Jewish Americans. I cried when I heard that George Zimmeran was acquitted. And I was offended by the juror who insisted that race had nothing to do with the trial. What planet does she live on?
No, I've never been followed in a store, or stopped by cops for Driving While Jewish, but I have grown up with the bitter knowledge that horrific violence has savaged my people and that rhetorical violence persists and in some quarters is even spreading. I have grown up seeing myself through contemptuous, hateful eyes. It takes its toll. Is it any wonder that my parents eagerly followed and supported the Civil Rights movement and the very first piece of writing of mine that earned public praise was a fourth grade report on Martin Luther King, Jr.?