Race identity

By , November 29, 2011 1:52 pm

Not the kind of race I mean

I was recently having a conversation with a number of artistic peers, discussing the impact of our personal and community histories on our art and artistic process. I don’t remember who the question was raised by, but the group consisted of a mix of racial/ethnic/gender/sexual identities, making for good conversation.

In general we all agreed that our various personal and community histories – of religion, race, ethnicity, language, geography, class, sexuality, gender, and so on and on and on and on – played a factor in how we approached creating art. While it was a great conversation, and fodder for more discussion, I’m less interested in that than in something which happened after.

During the conversation, I said, “It’s been interesting going from presenting as part of a strong, privileged group – white, heterosexual, male – to an oppressed group: queer, trans, female.  I try to both be conscious of and artistically honor that oppression while being aware of the privilege I still do posses.”

Then, while giving someone a ride home – who identifies as black, female, lesbian – she turned to me and said, “Your comment really surprised me, since I don’t think of you as white.”


She continued saying that my olive complexion doesn’t meet her idea of ‘white’ness. And it’s true. At various points, I’ve been thought to be Hispanic, American Indian, India-subcontinent-Indian, Pacific Islander, Italian, Arab, and – most humorously – ‘ethnic looking.’ (I shit you not. By a photographer wanting diversity in a high school photo shoot. She didn’t intend for me to hear.) My mom jokes that, when she came back from summer vacation when I was young and we spent every day at the beach, the (very dark-skinned) custodian at her school would come up to her and say “You could be my daughter!” I’m not too pasty even in the dead of winter.

But not white?

The friend who said all this felt that, in some ways, the more old-school way of looking at race was more accurate. Race, she said, is more of a subdivision of culture and geography than a huge lumping together of sort-of-similar skin tones. So, she concluded, Jewish people weren’t white.

There is certainly historical precedence for her opinion: “among those not considered white at some points in American history have been: the Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, Spaniards, white Hispanics, Slavs, and Greeks.” But she didn’t mean that I wasn’t white in  racist way, as a justification for discrimination, just in an observational way.

It reminded me of a story I heard at a storytelling conference. A black woman was talking about her experience as a voter’s rights activist in Chicago in the 1960s. She apparently pissed off the the wrong people in the Chicago machine and  so her dad said she had to leave Chicago for a little while: white people were out to get her. He was going to send her to Israel to stay with some friends, because “Jews aint white.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about all this for the past week, particularly as I just finished the excellent book Constantine’s Sword, which covers the 2,000 year relationship between Judaism and the Catholic Church. Hopefully that’ll be the subject of another post one of these days.

But back to race. Googling “are jews white” doesn’t offer much help. An interesting take on genetic information. An essay from Majority Rights, a site which “discusses various issues related to the preservation of Western culture and the ethnic genetic interests (EGI) of people of European ancestry.” I do, however, like “Jews and the Problem of Whiteness,” which discusses community relations between Jewish and Black populations through the lens of race. From that essay:

As Lerner points out, Jewish whiteness “is the privilege to renounce one’s Judaism. By and large the way to get into this system is to take off your kippah, cut off your beard, hide your fringes; in other words, to reject your entire cultural and religious humanity.” I seek to empathize, here, as my previous discussion of the sociological passing of blacks should indicate. Nonetheless, the Jewish option to be white, however difficult, has been exercised widely.

That’s a good summary of why the idea of my not being white kind of surprised me. The history of Jewish oppression is absolutely a history of racism, of othering, of bigotry. It shares lots with the racism which impacts people of color. But I have at least somewhat adequate passing privilege (how I hate that term!) as white. Part of that, admittedly, has to do with geography: how I’m perceived as white versus Jewish would probably be different in different parts of the country, and of the world. My mom and my brother have both talked about living in smaller communities where their Judaism was strange or exotic. My dad has told me about going to civil rights marches in Chicago’s northern suburbs, where families had signs on the lawn reading “No dogs, blacks, or Jews.”

It seems like the ‘whiteness’ of Jews depends on perspective. That makes me remember a page from my high school year book. The editors had surveyed students from different Chicago-area high schools and asked them what they thought of Evanston, a very diverse community, and its high school, which has a huge range of student academic achievement. Everyone north of Evanston (generally more wealthy suburbs) saw Evanston as “ghetto” and dangerous. Everyone south (generally less wealthy, in Chicago proper) saw Evanston as rich, white, privileged.

The idea of racial identity changing with geography is fascinating to me. That, growing up in Chicago, I’m white. Growing up in Generic Small Town, I might not have been perceived as white. Or identified my own race as something other than white. And how much identity depends on other people, as a reference for ones self.

I’ll leave you with this chart:

6 Responses to “Race identity”

  1. Chally says:

    Oh, that’s interesting. I’m pretty taken with the borders of racial identity (I’m a history student and this is my area of interest) so I hope you don’t mind me jumping in here. The idea that Jews of European descent can be white seems like quite an American thing – it’s certainly not something that I’ve heard from European Jews from anywhere else. (I live in Australia, for context.) And also, correct me if I’m wrong because I’ve never been to the US, but American Jewish whiteness in the US seems very partial, conditional, recent and tied to specific class, geographical, and (non)religious experiences. I’ve known Jews who were *horrified* at the idea that if they’d grown up in particular parts of the US they might be considered white. I guess it just goes to show that race is utterly constructed, no? 🙂

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks for chiming in! I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say race is utterly constructed, but I do think it has lots more to do with societal expectations and geography than most people think.

  2. Querki Singer says:

    Do you know about the book “How the Jews became White Folks and What That Ways About Race in America?”


  3. Justin says:

    So I’ve been reading your blog for a while, but this finally prompted me to stop lurking and comment. This is something that I’ve thought about quite a bit. I’m also Jewish, from a small town in the Northeastern US. My feelings about it are really entirely too long to fit into a comment, but I can definitely relate to a lot of what you talked about here. I sometimes describe myself as “off-white” because of the complex and shifting nature of the way that my Jewishness is perceived depending on location and context.

    If you’re interested, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz has written quite a bit about US American Jewish identity and race. Specifically, she talks about Jewishness as a sort of racial border identity in a way that resonated quite strongly with me the first time I read it.

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