Out later this month, the Netflix movie You People appears exceptionally well-timed. A culture-clash cringe comedy about a Jewish man, played by Jonah Hill, who becomes engaged to a Black woman, played by Lauren London, the trailer emphasizes the awkward interactions of their parents.
“We were technically O.G. slaves,” Hill’s dad, played by David Duchovny, declares at a Shabbat dinner to which his son’s fiancée and her parents have been invited.
“Are you trying to compare the Holocaust to slavery?” Eddie Murphy, as London’s dad, asks incredulously in response.
The film comes at a moment of renewed focus on the complex history and relationship between Black people and Jewish people, in the United States in particular. In light of Ye (the hip-hop artist formerly known as Kanye West) going full Hitler-worship; the NBA star Kyrie Irving dragging his heels on an apology for sharing an antisemitic video; and the comedian Dave Chappelle expressing a measure of sympathy for both, we now get New York Times op-eds with titles like “Blacks and Jews, Again.”
That piece, by Michael Eric Dyson, is the jumping-off point for this week’s episode of CANADALAND, in which Jesse Brown talks with Emilie Nicolas, the host of our Détours podcast, about how white-supremacist societies tend to pit communities against each other:
The following is an edited and condensed excerpt of the discussion around this passage from Dyson’s article:
“…African Americans and Jews have, for one reason or another, competed, quarrelled, and jostled with each other to gain attention and empathy for our struggles and the injustices we confront.”
Jesse Brown: I guess that’s true to some extent, and that’s how I sense a lot of people feel: that Jewish people, who are comparatively privileged, are competing for attention and empathy that we don’t really need anymore. That we want to have all of the privileges of whiteness and whatever relative economic success, but we still want to be considered a persecuted minority — and the people who do struggle with racism every day aren’t having it anymore.
I’m sure there are some Jewish people out there who do just want some attention or like being considered a victim in some way. But that is not the antiracism that matters to me or that I was taught.
It’s not a “Me, too” thing. It’s not “We’re victims of racism, too.” The Jewish experience of racism, and the Jewish responsibility, is not merely to protect ourselves and to never let anyone forget that we’re victims of racism.
The lesson of the Holocaust that we keep harping on, to the annoyance of some people, is that a society just decided: “Them. They’re the issue; they’re the problem.” Even as this society was losing a world war and being themselves annihilated, they redoubled their efforts to exterminate this other.
And so the lesson that was taught to me as a Jewish child was: There is a psychotic strain within humans — even against their own best interests, they will pick an enemy and try to extinguish them. And you can’t let that happen to anyone.
So when I put up my hand and I say, “Antisemitism, antisemitism, it still exists,” I’m not trying to take any empathy or attention away from anybody else. It’s that we know something, we remember something. And we can’t let everybody else forget that.
Emilie Nicolas: I read this quote in a different way. I think you interpreted that quote as being about what Jewish folks were saying and are doing. But that quote is about what Black people and Jewish folk have been doing.
When I read this for myself, what I see is a phenomenon that I’ve seen so many times. Where I live, in Montreal, you have people saying the wildest stuff about all groups. Amid discussion of Truth and Reconciliation, I’ve heard certain communities claiming to actually be jealous of the attention that Indigenous peoples were getting. Or with George Floyd in 2020. Anti-Blackness was, for once, the one focus for a lot of leaders, and that led to some people asking, like, “What about Islamophobia? What about this? What about that?” Or with the pandemic, I’ve heard some people in Asian communities being like, “You’re talking about Black people. What about Asians?” Because there was also a rise in anti-Asian racism in Canada.
I feel like all of us are so starved for having our stories heard, starved for spaces where we feel comfortable expressing what’s our story, what’s our trauma, what’s our history. We rarely get the space to do it. So when somebody else gets the space to do it, we’re like, “Why can’t I also get a space to do it?”
I don’t think it’s jealousy. It’s just the lack of being able to identify with the majority that gets all the air space. So we never get jealous of the people who get all the air space; we get jealous of the person who gets a crumb that’s a little bit bigger than ours for a month.
That dynamic I’ve seen playing out in communities is not existential, but sometimes it’s just this little irritant that makes coalition-building or actual empathy harder to build, when you’re only seeing the visible part of it.
Essentially, a lot of people will see the kind of remembrance that happens around the Holocaust. But they don’t see the pain, they don’t see the trauma inside Jewish communities. They will see Justin Trudeau taking a knee for George Floyd, but they don’t see what’s been going on inside the head of every Black person in that week.
I think we need to learn to catch ourselves when we do that, so that we’re better able to actually hear people and not be not coming to conversations on recognition from a scarcity mindset. I think that’s what we all do: “I want my story heard. I want to feel understood.” And we’re expressing that need with a scarcity mindset because we know that, in a white-supremacist society, there’s not enough for all of us. That creates weird jealousy and infighting, where really we should all be together fighting the power.