FB Dialog: When “Privilige” Becomes a Racist Epithet

Chad Makaio Zichterman Stephen… are you seriously suggesting that racial assignment under white supremacy is a matter of choice?!? Do you think for a moment that Harris — let alone Obama — could have chosen to identify as white — and actually had that choice upheld by the constant societal assignment of race to either of them?!? I need to know what you accept or deny on this front, because this looks dangerously like we’re heading into Dolezal-level denial. We can sort out some of your rhetorical loose ends down the line later, but if you sincerely believe race to be a matter of the choice of the ascribed — rather than a condition imposed upon them from without by politically dominant assignment — then we may have to back up to square one to try to figure out some basis for a common recognition of basic facts. Do you acknowledge that race is not biological? Do you acknowledge that — for most people — there is no choice involved in their own racial assignment by others?


May I assume you understand why judges knock down folks who ask leading questions?

Over on FACEBOOK, Chad Zichterman is trying to rip me a new hole because he wants to convince me that I am a bad person because I do not think he has the right to accuse me of being privileged.  If we were in a bar I might walk out.  In court I would object and ask the judge to tell Mr. Zichtererman to not put words in my mouth.  FB replies are pretty useless given the flame driven nature of that media. So let me try using THE Ave.

So, is all this just about the ambiguity of race or about any argument I want to make that privilege does not exist?  Maybe a bit of both.

To me the problem with liberal use of “race” is the need to  make others feel guilty.  Guilt is a lousy motivator.

Maybe I can resolve this be suggesting the word “privilege” itself is obnoxious.  I prefer “responsible.”  In Judaism we have a word that may be closer to what is needed. That word Teshuvah, תשובה, translates best as responsible or perhaps as an obligation to restore.   I think all Americans should have a responsibility to repair social damage done to others.  That responsibility is as much shared by Satya Nadella at Microsoft, Russel Wilson at the Seahawks, or by me, just old Steve Schwartz.   Telling an unemployed coal miner he has privilege based on skin color is hardly going to make a white coal miner join a black share cropper in the common cause of rights for all.

Try telling a Trumpie that she has privilege.

I do not look particularly Jewish.  However, I grew up in a very racist neighborhood where i was beaten for having killed Jesus and was called a “nigger” and a “kike.”  I really do not want to be told somehow that I need to recognize that I have privilege any more than Jonathan Tong, an admired friend and leader  from the Seattle liberal movement , should have to recognize that his appearance gives him some privilege in today’s Seattle.  Rather I would suggest we all need to accept responsibility.   In fact Jonathan’s sense of responsibility is major reason my wife and I adore him.

So YOU do not get to accuse me of having privilege.

Or perhaps you want me to agree that “race is a “social construct.” To be blunt I have no idea what that term means. If you define the term for me, then >>I<< might be able to answer you except that I do not know YOUR term will be acceptable to anyone but you.

Before continuing this this long essay, if it helps you, I have written a lot on this subjects and can suggest you search THE-Ave,US and search for terms like race, people of color, POC, etc. You can also find quite a lot there about human genetics and the origins of our species. 

So, if you do not object, allow  me to start with the science.  I am a fairly sophisticated biologist with more than a small amount of knowledge of genetics. I can assure you that there is no biological definition of race. Asking whether something exists when it is not defined is asking an impossible question. Frankly I can do a better job of answering the question whether “God” exists and I certainly can do MUCH better in answering the question of whether human driven climate change is a real thing.  Asking about “race” is a bit like asking you what you think about phlogiston or atmen.

As a biologist I suspect you think society equates race with species?  Unfortunately, “species” itself is a controversial term in biology.  Animals that are very similar may not be interfertile or may be but can be classified as species if biologists decide the differences are important.  By convention, modern humans do not include more than one species. Note I said “modern.” Our ancestors had multiple species. In fact, humans from areas outside of Africa are descended from at least three different species. Of course, since Homo sapiens bred with these other humans, some biologists might offer to define Neanderthal as a race?

Then what is a race but some humans who look different?

Even nonhuman decisions about species can be social.  For example, Australian crabs on the east and west coasts do not mate even if placed in a common tank.  The Aussie crabs do not mate because they have different mating dances.    Remove the claws so they can not use them in a dance and the crabs mate. So do you think the crabs are being racist?

For that matter, loss of ability to breed can arise the way human races do .. simply by isolation.  Have your read Darwin?  The finches he described can look very different because they evolved on different islands.  Are these strains of species what you mean by races?  If they loose the ability to breed would we call the different species finch races?


Let me go back to our species .  Biologists classify Neanderthal as a species because they looked very different then homo sapiens…. the humans who remained after the Neanderthal died off.  For centuries we humans lived alongside and bred with Neanderthals.  Did our ancestors consider the Neanderthal human?    But how different is different?  If you met the guy to the right , would you consider him human?  At least he was human .. Neander actually had a bigger brain that Einstein. What about earlier humans, were they OK by you?

My own ancestors in Southern Spain were cro magnon and looked like the picture to the left.  By family legend, we were black Spanish Jews. When the white folks invaded Europe from the steppes of Asia, did they regard my ancestors as another race?

I assume you know that all non Africans have some Neanderthal lineage.? Does that mean Humans are two races .. Asians and Semites and Europeans descended from Neanderthal and the black folks?

When did the  whole idea of human races appear?  While most humans of the past thought there were other sorts of beings .. giants, gods, elves etc, the common idea in our ancestors seems to have been tp divide people by tribe and generally allow people to cross between tribes. For that matter, since gods and humans interbred, I wonder if the humans thought of themselves as being of different races from the elves?  Were Greek Gods racially Greek?  What about the multicolored Gods of Egypt and the Toltec.  Is Krishna Hindu?

Image result for wife of mosesAs a Jew I have the advantage of a very old book.  The Torah describes Moses’ wife, as of a black origin. There may well have been other black Jews just as there were black Egyptians and, later Persians. The same is true of Romans. There were prominent black Romans and, as far as we can tell from history, this was no more an issue then being of German origin as long as you accepted the rules of Roman citizenship.

Was there white privilege in the deserts of Sinai?

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St. Augustine

Even in the Christian era, many of the Church’s funders are now believed to have been black even though that issue is rarely if ever mentioned in the Church writings. Similar plasticity about “race” applied in pre  Christian America where tribes selected who could be part of a tribe. I know “white folks” who have been honored to be accepted as members of coastal tribes.

Would you challenge the these folks for your definition of race as a choice?

Can we agree that race is not really about skin color?  Since the Inquisition, in Europe Jews have been considered as a race. To my knowledge that did not change until the French revolution. So Jews did not have a choice.  Before the Revolution, anyone with Jewish ancestry (even by conversion) had guilt for killing the Christian god. Based on that criteria, obviously one we did not choose, we Jews were ghettoized, not allowed to hold many jobs, and not given citizenship. Jews were also enslaved until the Spaniards discovered that blacks were cheaper and more numerous.

And of course there was genocide … In the name of Jesus white folks killed Jews, Muslims, Africans, Indigenous Americans.

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Kaifeng Jews

There is a trick in my last paragraph. Did you catch it? The “Jews” I referred to did not have a choice as to designation of race.  Most of the enslaved Jews came from converso families and were enslaved for pretending to be racially Christian. The penalty for being found out was often death.

Similar social definitions of race are applied across the world today. In Japan, people of Korean descent are not allowed to take Japanese names.  The indigenous Japanese along with the Harrupan descendents of India’s aboriginal Harrupans struggle for equality in their respective societies.  Under China’s Cultural Revolution, ethnic identities were (and still are) defined by the state. You might ask Jonathan Tong whether he is Han.  Many Chinese of different ethnicities were forced to identify as Han.  Interestingly, this includes not allowing the Chinese Jews, a small population that has been there for about 2 to 3 thousand years .. to identify as Jews. “We” must identify as Han or as Muslim.


I gather you do not think Rachel Dolezal had a right to be black?  I may know a little more than you do about her. I know people who worked with her in the NAACP and the Urban League. Ms. Dolezal was a respected member of the African American community … an identity she chose. So, if I follow your questions, I think Ms. Dolezal made a choice and was condemned for her choice because of a social construct?  How do you calculate her privilege?

Senator Kamala Harris

As for Senator Harris, she rightly and proudly chooses to identify as an African American. Do you actually think that choice is simply because she looks “black?” Would you and I be less supportive if Ms. Harris came out as Hindu?

Speaking of Hindus, are you aware that under the BJP in India, many argue that a Hindu can only can only be Hindu by descent? Even Sonia Gandhi is not considered a Hindu even though she converted and served as the party leader of the Congress party for nineteen years. So … by your rules does she get to decide what “race” she is???

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Gene Brown, Professor of Biology, MIT. Cherokee

Another Indian-American politician is Nikki Haley. What race is she? Does Haley get to choose? For the record, Nikki Haley is legally white in South Carolina since that is how she registered to vote.  Do you get to tell her she is privileged to be light skinned?

Or lets talk about Elizabeth Warren, isn’t her identity, like Harris’, a matter of family history and choice?  Do you side with Trump in deriding her because of her ancestry?  By the way, do you understand that for many in Oklahoma, membership in the Cherokee Nation is a great privilege because of oil rights?  Did you realize that the Cherokee Nation fought as part of the confederacy and kept slaves?  Did you know that the descendents of the slaves had to fight in court for their right to be enrolled as privileged members of the Cherokee nation?

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Carver Gayton

Did Senator Warren violate some rule because she did not choose to identify herself as Cherokee other than by descent?   As it happens my wife and I had another “white” Cherokee friend.  Gene Brown, professor of biochemistry at MIT, was my wife’s boss for several years, Gene was proudly Cherokee though, as far as I know he never was an enrolled member of the tribe.   Do you think Gene demeaned himself by being proud of his heritage?  Would you insist Gene call himself “white” because he looked white?

Another example …  I recommend you read a book by Carver Gayton.  Take a look.  What race” do you think Carver is?  Carver’s ancestors were bred on a plantation specializing in white slaves. His family .. descended form Africans and Euroes .. chooses their identity. Carver himself, if you get to meet him, looks pretty much like any Mediterranean “white” guy even though he founded Seattle’s Northwest Museum of African America.

One last suggestion for some reading. I recently completed the book “Thoughts From A Unicorn: 100% Black. 100% Jewish.” This may help you see my perceptions. Shais Rishon is the author, an orthodox rabbi who grew up black and Jewish. A good read for you.


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  1. Mark Adans #

    Of course there is the question as to where white privilege and whether you have it would be central to a criminal or civil court in any state in the US.
    Though race is important in American politics if you are a communist or even a socialist a persons class is more determinate of privilege.
    Looking at institutions and outcomes there does appear to be white privilege in the US. Of course that privilege may well disappear when one only looks at members of a particular race and consider factors of rich and poor instead.

    And you may have about as much privilege on Chicago’s south side as you have at Martha’s Vineyard which gets at the kernels of truth and falsehoods of the white privilege og the sophists on top their soap boxes.