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? 

When is White not “White?” Can we begin to understand that at least one shade of white—Jewish—isn’t the same as those others bundled in with “white privilege”? Our Irish, Jewish, Italian ancestors, if we have them, also faced discrimination, murder, rape, appropriation by dominant cultures.

I get it. I accept my privilege, and I aim to use it, not hoard it.


For years I been saying “but…Jewish?” My grandparents’ worldview, my fake last name adopted ‘cause Grandpa Bernie couldn’t even do business in NYC under his own 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 it should be, in a society undergirded and maintained by structural racism, sexism, and other-ism.

As I write in the below article, in many ways I am privileged. And, in a few, I am 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 to being a small part of making a society wake up to itself.

I look white, 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 Boston University, then 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 clearly, I’m a man. I’m straight. To put a pin on it, 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. I never feared for my life in any one of those tickets.

But, and, I’m not entirely 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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