Samuel J. Tanner 4 minute read

Strange Days

These are strange days.

A synagogue was shot up in Pittsburgh last week. That's two hours from where I live in Central Pennsylvania. There are plenty of KKK and white supremacist groups in Pennsylvania. These people don't care for Jews. Don't tell them my sons are named Solomon and Samson. That's something of a giveaway that there's Jewish blood in our veins. Jewish soul-energy in these kishkas. Yeesh.

My great-grandfather and grandmother escaped the Ukraine 100 years ago and fled to the United States. Why? They were Jews. Cossacks chased them out of Russia. Those Cossacks were an iteration of KKK and white supremacist groups. Another band of murderers. This was only 100 years ago. A blip in the annals of human history. 75 years ago Jews were being slaughtered in Europe. That's pretty recent. Don't pretend that the human race or the United States has evolved beyond the capacity to destroy each other. Or ourselves.

There's plenty of words to describe what my ancestors were fleeing and what the people in Pittsburgh encountered last week. Anti-semitism is one. White supremacy is another. White supremacy is a word that usually conjures klansmen and lynchings. Really, the term is a simple explanation of the last five hundred years of history in which Europeans descided they were human and other people weren't. Let me get academic, for a second. I'm a scholar, afterall. I used some writing from friends of mine - scholars at the University of Minnesota - to describe white supremacy in my recent book about whiteness. Here's how I did it:

Casey et al.’s (2013) definition of race helps illuminate the nature of white supremacy. They defined race as “a construct used to distinguish and subordinate certain groups of humans from others” (p. 274) Specifically of white people and whiteness, they wrote that “Europeans devised ways of classifying people based on geography, physical features, and culture, naming themselves as the highest example of humanity and giving birth to whiteness as a racial system.” (p. 274).

So that's where whiteness comes from. White supremacy too. Let's be clear. Jews, historically, were not white and, therefore, not human according to the system described above. Now, it's pretty easy for Jews to pass as white people in the United States and Europe. And race and ethnicity are not clear cut, hard and fast, or totalizing. So I'm white and I'm Jewish. And I'm all sorts of other things too. I'm multiple and so are you. It's impossible not to be. People are complex. We are shaped by the times we live in. Strange times.

People have the capacity to be so bad to each other. Evil and destructive. That's a historial truth. If one group decides another group is not human, all bets are off. This violence takes its toll on the murderer as well as the murdered. Stains all of our souls. This human capacity for cruelness is certainly a truth in my day-to-day life, as well as the global stage. It's why I became a teacher. It's why I'm a professor of education now. There has to be ways for us to learn not to be so bad to each other. Education, I've found, is a venue to do this work. Honestly, I think the fate of the human race rests on this point. Either we'll realize that it's suicidal to the species to hurt each other, or we'll destroy ourselves. Dramatic, right?

I was invited to contribute to an encyclopedia of race a few weeks ago. I was asked to write a definition of Judiasm and whiteness. Man. Where do I start? Well, one place to look is in the mirror. I was born in 1980 in an affluent, white neighborhood in St. Paul, MN. Nothing about me read or reads as Jewish. Except for my father. He wouldn't let me forget that I was a second-generation, Jewish immigrant. I was white and I wasn't white. This proved confusing to me as a child. It hasn't become less confusing as I get older. We can parse what makes a Jew a Jew until the gefilte fish come home. I have the feeling that academic conversation means less and less as the bullets start to fly. Oi vey.

So these are strange days. I have nothing to say beyond that. It feels gross to me when people are bad to each other.


Casey, Z., McManimon, S., Lozenski, B., & Lensmire, T. (2013). In A. Doolin & K. Sealey (Eds.) Encyclopedia of race and racism. (pp. 274-280). Macmillan Reference USA.