(This post originally appeared on Feministe. I meant to cross-post it at the time, but that proved too ambitious a goal to accomplish on my lunch break.)
I’ve written before on how angry I was when fellow progressives began to inform me that while some Jews consider themselves white, it’s only because they’ve assimilated into white culture. They never explained what white-looking Jews actually are, if not white, but the message was always clear: if we Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews think we’re white, well, it’s just because we wanted some of that tasty privilege so badly that we suppressed our real identity to get it. I’d known, of course, that many white extremists still considered Jewishness a race, but hearing such comments come from leftists surprised and upset me for a couple of reasons: 1) they were presuming to know more about a Jew’s identity than a Jew would, and 2) those who were people of color were surely familiar with the frustration at having others dictate how they should define themselves.
It was also one of the strongest indicators I got that the Left’s mistrust of Jews goes much deeper than the Palestine/Israel debate.
Before I go on, I should probably explain how the whiteness of American Ashkenazim came into question in the first place. European ethnicities weren’t separated into different races until the early 20th century, when massive immigration (of which my great-grandparents, with two-year-old grandmother in tow, were a part) to the United States caused a scare among the upper classes. Eugenicists like Madison Grant and Charles B. Davenport launched a deliberate campaign to equate class with race, conducting “research” to prove that southern and eastern Europeans, being genetically inferior to northwestern Europeans, were incapable of upward mobility. Jews, Italians, Irish, and other groups who had previously been white – albiet lower class – suddenly found themselves designated as races separate from the “Nordic” upper class.
After World War II, though, a few things shifted in Jews’ favor. More Jews joined the middle class while the idea of multiple European races began to fall out of fashion (although as Karen Brodkin, author of How Jews Became White Folks, points out, it’s impossible to tell which development influenced the other: “Did Jews and other Euro-ethnics become white because they became middle-class?… Or did being incorporated into an expanded version of whiteness open up the economic doors to middle-class status?”) The GI Bill served as Affirmative Action for previously oppressed white groups (while keeping the doors shut to people of color), giving them the means to attend college in greater numbers and enjoy the economic boom. Many Jewish families, terrified by the execution of the Rosenbergs, began to downplay their ethnic identity to avoid harassment and possible arrest. And by the time I was born, anyone from Europe – or, at least, anyone from Europe who looked the part – was white. Easy as pie.
I often hear that Jews “in general” have swarthy or olive skin, but that doesn’t apply to me. I look white. I am white. It’s not what I try to be, or long to be – it’s simply what I am. Whiteness defines my culture, my self-perception, my privilege, and my daily interactions; I’ve never known myself as anything else. My Jewishness has never been at odds with my whiteness. That’s why it’s so frustrating when my race is referred to as a conscious effort rather than a simple state of being. Does my entire culture and identity really mean that little?
To be clear, I know that not all Ashkenazim – especially older generations – identify as white. I’m speaking only for myself (and am not qualified to speak for Sephardim). The question of how members of the same ethnic group can identify as different races could open up some very useful discussions on what separates whiteness from nonwhiteness, the ways that race is constructed, and the many shifting, overlapping, and distinct cultures that are lumped together as white culture (that is, when white people recognize that we have culture). However, since I lack the expertise to do so myself, I’m sticking to my own perspective.
Here’s what’s really toxic about the idea that an Ashkenazi like me isn’t what she says she is: it paints us as infiltrators or spies, sneaking into white society so that we can get our hands on what doesn’t belong to us. From a white point of view, this turns us into something threatening, a presence that has to be identified and dealt with. (I still remember the anecdote a Jewish boyfriend’s mother told me: when they moved, their new neighbor felt it necessary to warn them that the family down the block was Jewish. “Well, we’ll fit right in,” my boyfriend’s mother responded. The neighbor didn’t speak to them again.) From a POC perspective, we suddenly seem like traitors or sellouts. Either way, it makes us seem as if we’re playing a permanent game of dress-up – never belonging, always infringing. You don’t need to be a white supremacist to fall prey to this mode of thinking.
Furthermore, the idea that Jews can’t be white – and its logical conclusion that Jewishness is its own race – completely erases Jews of color. How do you tell a Moroccan or Ethiopian Jew that Jewishness is a race? Which aspect of themselves are they expected to discard? Are people who deny the whiteness of Jews (and it’s always just “Jews” – they never specify Ashkenazim) even aware that Jews of color exist? How can we effectively confront white privilege within Jewish communities when potential allies dismiss that whiteness?
Shouldn’t each individual be allowed to define her/himself? Shouldn’t we trust each person to determine how their own identity is put together? Can you see why it’s so maddening to hear my identity dismissed as something I “consider myself” to be?
For another perspective on this issue, see Matthew Egan’s excellent essay “The Pintele Yid.”