November 30, 2014

My name isn’t Waylon “Lewis.”

Image: School Ties

Relephant Read: What J.R.R. Tolkien said to the Nazis when they asked if he was Jewish.


How do you kiss a Jew? Doesn’t his nose get in the way? 

Do the painful headlines of the past [anti-Semitism shooting] 24 hours mean I get a brief reprieve from folks accusing me of “white privilege”?

Does this mean I get to go one day without being told about how my white privilege invalidates everything about me? For years I been saying “but…Jewish?” My grandparents’ worldview, my fake last name adopted ‘cause Grandpa Bernie couldn’t do business in NYC under his family name…but everything I’ve ever accomplished is nothing and everything I think is, in liberal communities, undermined by the color (or lack thereof) of my skin.

As I write in the below article, in some areas I am privileged. In many. In some I, and we, are not. That’s how it is for all of us–some more than others, and I am privileged more than most, and I am aware of that, and that awareness is vital.

I look white, whatever that is, so I enjoy that privilege–and must be aware of it, and aim to use it to be of benefit to all, rather than just sinking into guilt or ignorance, or defensive prejudice around it.

All my life, I’ve been “white.”

That’s the box I got to mark on my SATs and other such tests, as a kid. I attended Naropa University, and have generally lived in liberal contexts—and when privilege comes up, or patriarchy, I can feel eyes turn toward me.

It’s sad, but I get it. I’m white. Just as bad, I’m a man. Even worse, I’m tall, and look a bit like Beaver Cleaver.

And while I’ve gotten my fair share of tickets from police officers, I admit to a certain privilege that I never asked for and don’t want but nevertheless enjoy—enjoy in the sense that I get it. I’m white.

But I’m not white, as I remember every time I visited my grandparents, growing up. I’m half Jewish. My grandparents lived in a world defined by their ethnicity. My name isn’t Lewis, even—Lewis it the name my grandpa Bernie adopted so that he could do business in 1950s and 60s New York City. That’s how bad it was.

Time was, recently, that anti-Semitism was as deeply ingrained in the US as any sexism or racism. But we’ve come a long way, baby: only 15% of Americans are classified as anti-Semetic, now, and those bigots are also overwhelmingly sexist and racist generally. My grandparents worshipped those Jews who had succeeded despite open prejudice. They complemented me on how un-Jewish I looked, as if I’d deliberately figured out how to disguise myself and blend in with the ruling classes.

And so, though no one calls me a Christ-killer or asks how I can kiss with my Jew nose, I’ve been further privileged, I know now, to have a familial window into the kinds of prejudice far too many Americans still experience. It’s given me empathy, pride in my family’s perseverance, and gratitude that our society continues to evolve.

In the wake of Ferguson, seeing a nation donate to help the library there, or the owner of a bake shop, we can see the ready stirrings of empathy everywhere. And so though privilege, patriarchy, racial tension and sexism still persist, our human capacity for fundamental goodness grows stronger each decade.

The one area where I fear we grow weaker, however, is a tolerance for class inequality. America has long been the land of opportunity, a melting pot enriched by immigrants, a land that depends upon diversity and a healthy commonwealth. We must continue to invest in education, in public infrastructure, in enlightening architecture and libraries. We must continue to invest in our next generations. The payoff? Joy. Pride. Love. Equality. And the banishment of privilege, and prejudice.

Yours in the Vision of an Enlightened Society,

Waylon Lewis

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” ~ Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Clips: School Ties


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georgiawilder Jun 17, 2015 3:57pm

I really feel this. My own background is so mixed that pretty much every strand of it has been hunted out of Europe for nothing more than breathing… And yet… I look like a white woman with blonde and blue on all sides – I'm raising a child who will grow up with all that privilege you write of here. He's blonde and blue and Irish to boot. The world will lay treasure at his feet. And as his mother I _feel_ deep inside the belly of me that that is right and good. But I _know_ that that should happen for him regardless of race, creed, gender or ability. I know, from experience, that being stripped of a sense of entitlement will leave him with nothing other than a backpack full of issues to chase through with therapists and anyone else who'll sit still for more than ten minutes. Life is a tightrope. I haven't figured it out. I don't know how I stay upright most days..

jane Dec 1, 2014 3:46pm

Good read; but it would be more powerful w/out the Ferguson reference.

p.s. re: ^^^^ I love you and Elephant Journal too!

Mindy Kittay Nov 30, 2014 3:17pm

If I didn't love you enough before (because of Elephant Journal which has changed my life), I love you double now.
You mentioned libraries – in a positive way – TWICE in this article!
We need more journalists like you who understand and value the importance of libraries to our communities and to our future!
I read Elephant Journal every day and there is always something that makes me smile or at least stop and think.
Thank you!

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Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of Elephant Journal & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat.” Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword’s Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by “Greatist”, Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: “the mindful life” beyond the choir & to all those who didn’t know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, touches on modern relationships from a Buddhist point of view. His dream of 9 years, the Elephant “Ecosystem” will find a way to pay 1,000s of writers a month, helping reverse the tide of low-quality, unpaid writing & reading for free online.