Thinking about white privilege

My father, Robert, was born in Salonica (Thessaloniki, in Northern Greece) in 1927. His father, Isaac, was a doctor, while his French mother, Andrée, had been brought up on a farm.  The couple had met during Isaac’s medical studies at the University of Toulouse. Robert’s childhood, in that time and place, was relatively privileged. He belonged to a large extended family active in business and in the organisation of welfare by the Jewish community. He lived on one of the city’s principal streets, close to the waterfront, and attended a Greek primary school before moving to the French lycée. It was a comfortable middle-class life, not grand, but far better than most of Salonica’s working people enjoyed: he was privileged. 

Isaac and Robert Matarasso, Salonica, c. 1931

He lost that privilege the day the German army entered Salonica, in April 1941. Not immediately, and it took him some time to understand his changed status, but it was as complete as it could be. It came first, and in some ways most bitterly, in the casual accusation of his best friend: ‘you are a Jew’. Robert had never thought about it before. His family were active in the Jewish community because they belonged, but they weren’t religious. My father was taken sometimes to the synagogue and sometimes by his mother to a catholic church, but he didn’t feel concerned by the rituals he observed. Now, he discovered, he was not just Jewish, as he was French or a boy, but ‘A Jew’. That was the beginning and the end of his identity, the only thing that mattered. Over the following months, his privileges were gradually stripped from him. The privilege of being well fed (though that was not specific to Jews). The privilege of listening to the radio. The privilege of using the tram. The privilege of anonymity, when his mother stitched the yellow star to his coat. The privilege of his former friend’s affection. 

In February 1943, he lost the privilege of living in his own home, when he and his parents were moved, along with the rest of the city’s 50,000 Jewish people, into ghettos. His parents’ mixed marriage earned them a brief reprieve, and meant that Robert did not follow his grandfather onto a train to Auschwitz, but by the summer he was incarcerated in Heptapyrghion Prison. Robert survived the last year of the war through luck and the care of Greek resistance forces. He left Greece during the civil war that followed the German defeat, and he gradually built a new life in France, and then in England. He recovered many of the privileges of his childhood, and he did everything to give his own children the comfort and security he had enjoyed then. But it was all on the surface. He had learned what it is to lose all one’s rights, even the right to life, and he never again took them for granted.   

White privilege does not mean living off a trust fund and sending your children to private school. It’s a matter of security, not wealth. The privilege lies in not noticing you have it. It’s the privilege of believing, as I was taught when I was young, that I should ask a policeman if I needed help. It’s the privilege of feeling safe when you walk to work. It’s the privilege of not seeing the security guard clock you as you walk into a shop. It’s the privilege of thinking that you didn’t get the job because you didn’t give a good interview. It’s the privilege of not wondering how people will react when you open the door. It’s the privilege of not having your words, thoughts or feelings interpreted and judged to be inappropriate. It’s the privilege of anonymity. It’s the privilege that my father had as a child, and lost and never found again. 

My father died nearly 40 years ago: that’s how long it has taken me to speak about any of these things, to overcome the legacy of guilt and shame that objectively makes no sense but still governs my conduct. He would be angry, I think, to know that I have written this, and I’m far from sure I’m right to do so. But I know that racism is the most pernicious, cruel and stupid ideology, and that it must be resisted whenever and in whatever form it shows itself. I know why Bob Dylan wrote:

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards

Bob Dylan, George Jackson (1971)

Black lives matter.

One comment

  1. Beautiful, Francois. Jews’ experience is so key to understanding this, because the category “white” has been so easily conferred on and withdrawn from those of us with pale skin (many Jews are people of color), depending on which way the wind is blowing. We just saw this film on PBS about the contemporary rise in antisemitism: So perhaps instead of being angry, your father might have been grateful for your remembering and connecting his experience with the many ways white supremacy is exerting its power today. I’m grateful.

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