My Power is My Privilege

Photograph of the inside of Quincy Market in Boston, taken by 2018-2019 Rising Voices Fellow Naomi Bethune.

Power and privilege have always played, and will continue to play, a very significant role in my life. As a biracial, Jewish woman, who is also first generation, my life has always been complicated, and oftentimes, confusing. That being said, I acknowledge and know I have an incredible amount of privilege.

I have access to an amazing education, which will allow me to have better opportunities in life. Many people of color in America do not benefit from the education system, but I do. This is because I was fortunate enough to get into a great public school that is extremely diverse and produces successful students.

I come from an upper-middle-class family that works very hard. I live in a house with my parents and sister. I live in a quiet, safe neighborhood. I have the flexibility to do programs and other activities in and outside of school. There are very few words I can use to really express how lucky I feel, and how grateful I am for all of this.

However, this isn’t to say that I don’t have my own personal struggles. I am a brown-skinned woman living in America. The whole system of this country is set up against me. Throughout history, people who look like me have been persecuted and denied basic civil liberties. I constantly live in fear, and people constantly fear ME. Maybe it’s my skin color, the way that I wear my hair, or just the mere fact that I advocate for myself. Perhaps it’s a combination of all of these things. Wherever I go, white individuals seem to act differently around me.

For example, a few weeks ago I was shopping with my mother at Bloomingdale’s. I wandered off for a while so I could look at clothes on my own. I love fashion, and I thought it would be fun to explore the store. After a bit, though, I noticed that an employee was following me around. They were trying to be subtle about it, but I could tell that they were watching me. I started to feel really uncomfortable, so I found my mother and continued to look around the store with her. After that, I didn’t see the employee who had previously been following me around. It really made me question the situation. Was the employee following me around because I’m a teenager, or because I’m Black? Or was it both? These are the types of questions that float around my head every day.

I feel my heartbeat pick up when I see the flashing blue and red lights of a police car. I often feel excluded from groups that consist of mostly white individuals. People will automatically assume that I’m angry because of the courage and privilege I have to raise my own voice. I am angry— that is exactly why I use my voice to advocate for myself, and for others who don’t have the same ability as I do to speak up.

While at school, I often find myself in situations where I speak out. My school is an extremely diverse environment, with an almost even split of all of the major ethnic groups. This allows me to feel comfortable while expressing my opinions and beliefs. However, some other students may not, so I like to think that I am able to be their voice.

Even in the Jewish community, I sometimes feel like I don’t belong. In the United States, around 7% of Jews identify as something other than white. That is such a small number. I might belong to a temple that is considered diverse, but it’s still mostly white. Yes, I am fortunate to even be part of an accepting and progressive space, but it’s still hard to not feel like an outsider sometimes. I face the struggles that come from being Jewish, but these same struggles that white Jews face often manifest differently for me because I’m a Black woman.

Some parts of my identity are more noticeable than others. I can take control over some things, but others I can’t change. I love myself. I love how blended my identity is and how I can be a part of so many categories. However, I struggle sometimes. It’s not ok, but it’s the way it seems to be. That’s why I use the power I have to attempt to change my life, and others’ lives, for the better.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

4 Comments
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Thank you for sharing this!! It is so important! 

Naomi,
Thank you for sharing. My daughter too is a young woman of color. Her friends have finally accepted that she was raised Jewish her entire life -- 22 years. One of the biggest misnomers and a great cause for divison, is the term 'race'. We are all of the same "human race".

Naomi,  Thank you for sharing your struggles because you are both Jewish and Black.  Just having to deal with the questions:  Is it because I'm  Black? Jewish? Or both? must be confusing and very tiring, always alert to the nuances.

Your words reveal a woman with incredible strength, loving of all the levels of self.     I wish for you that as you continue to grow, you are able to continue to educate those of us who will hear you and, perhaps, others who might stop and listen.  Kol tov.

 

 

In reply to by Jo Oppenheimer

OYE ! i am an older lady,white .I am always "folllowed" when I shop ,If I turn
around I am asked "can I help you find something?"

How to cite this page

Bethune, Naomi. "My Power is My Privilege." 18 February 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 21, 2019) <https://qa.jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/my-power-is-my-privilege>.

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