On Being Jewish and White

(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.”

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12 Responses

  1. This was, and remains, a really good post, GD. I definitely agree this goes far beyond the Israel/Palestine thing – James Carroll wrote an excellent book called Constantine’s Sword which traces the legacy of anti-Semitism in the Christian church, and shows just how deep the rabbithole goes, so to speak.

    It was actually the Catholic Church that started the racial element of anti-Semitism in the aftermath of the Spanish monarchy’s expulsion of Jews in 1492 (interestingly this year is mostly only ever known for Christoper Columbus setting sail).

    What had happened was, if I remember correctly, there were Jews left who embraced Christianity to save themselves from violence and expulsion, but at home practiced Jewish rituals and mixed them with some kind of Christian practice – these were the “marranos”. So anyway, essentially, what had happened was the Church changed the argument – it wasn’t just the religion, anymore, it was bloodline which made Jews suspect, so even these new Christian Jews had to be scrutinized further!

    The rest, as they say, is history, but this cultural idea has existed in Western society for a long, long time.

    My problem with white privilege in Jews is that, yeah, it does kind of exist, but I guess as long as the idea that Judaism is racial exists, this privilege is extended only so long as Jews can “pass” as white.

  2. Thanks. I really love the commenter who wished me luck on my “quest for whiteness” and this blogger, who apparently thinks I’m insulted by the idea that I could be mistaken for a POC. Eww, icky “otherness!” I wanna be white, white, white! Gimme my privilege! Waaaahhh! (Also, she asserts in the comment thread that somehow I’m claiming Jews of color are also white… because, uh… I’m white and they’re Jewish. Guess she lost interest halfway through the post.)

  3. That’s the typical assumption of privileged whiteness – there’s the assumption that those who aren’t white wish they could be, which might be part of the fear of the Other, especially the proud Other – who is this person who not only isn’t white but doesn’t want to be?

    As far as that other blogger, well, I’d say probably she lost interest, or really missed the point, but that seems to happen a lot with regards to Jews and the topic of identity. There’s a lot of point-missing and sometimes it reaches head-against-the-wall proportions.

  4. Oh god! I read through that [siditty’s] comment thread and her post, yeah, um, she really didn’t get the point of that did she?! Not to mention, there is so much disgusting ant-semitic crap going on in those comments.
    Anyway, I commented on this at Feministe, but I’m glad you wrote this, it’s really interesting. I am an Indian Jew (Bene Israel community) and trying to work out how my brownness and Jewishness come together too. Bookmarked this blog 🙂

  5. Thanks. I really love the commenter who wished me luck on my “quest for whiteness” and this blogger, who apparently thinks I’m insulted by the idea that I could be mistaken for a POC. Eww, icky “otherness!” I wanna be white, white, white! Gimme my privilege! Waaaahhh! (Also, she asserts in the comment thread that somehow I’m claiming Jews of color are also white… because, uh… I’m white and they’re Jewish. Guess she lost interest halfway through the post.)

    Uuuhhhhhmmmm I just had to comment on your belief that I claimed Jews of color are white. I was questioning someone on what defines white. My great grandmothers “look white” for all intensive purposes were white (they were only a quarter black), but identified as black due to the one drop rule. I questioned race because due to our history in this country, you didn’t have to look black to be black. Ask Susie Guillory Phipps. She was raised as white, believed she was white, but found out by Louisiana law she was black, she was 1/32 black. Her response to her newfound blackness was not indifference or confusion, but rather sickness. She was sick for 3 days at the thought be being black. She felt her whiteness was diminished, it didn’t matter how she looked, or how she was perceived it bothered her she could be something “other” that is what I took from your post.

    Much like you claim I didn’t read your post, you didn’t bother to read mine too well either.

  6. Siditty, I was referring to this comment you left in the thread:

    Not to mention are the Ethiopian,black, and indian jews white simply because they are Jewish?

    That demonstrated that you didn’t see my paragraph on how defining Jewishness as a race erases Jews of color.

    The point of my post was that I get frustrated when people – including people of color, another detail you apparently missed – dismiss my experiences and identity and try to “own” my race by defining me. I hear comments like, “Jews only think they’re white because they assimilated.” I respond with, “But being white is the only thing I’ve ever known. I’m treated as white. If I’m not white, then what am I?” And then I’m lectured on wanting to be white so badly. That’s where my frustration comes from, and I’m seeing it all playing out again in reactions like yours.

    If you want to interpret that as me feeling sick at the thought of not being white, go for it – your behavior is just one more example of this anti-Semitic type of thinking.

  7. Keren, thank you. 🙂

  8. Oh god! I read through that [siditty’s] comment thread and her post, yeah, um, she really didn’t get the point of that did she?! Not to mention, there is so much disgusting ant-semitic crap going on in those comments.

    Thanks Karen for that vote of confidence on my comprehension skills 🙂

    In terms of the anti-semetic comments, I didn’t see anyone disparaging Jews on the whole, and there is no way you can say I did that, my posts and comments were directed at the individual who posted her views of being a jew and white. Note that in those comments there are at least two Jewish people of color responding as well. I guess they aren’t full jewish because they don’t identify as white?

    —–

    Not to mention are the Ethiopian,black, and indian jews white simply because they are Jewish?

    And again that wasn’t in reference to your post, but a comment left by someone in the comments. I would suggest to you that you post the comment I was responding to in it’s entirety. As now you are cherry picking quotes and taking them out of context.

    If you want to interpret that as me feeling sick at the thought of not being white, go for it – your behavior is just one more example of this anti-Semitic type of thinking.

    How was me discussing Susie Guillory Phipps reaction to finding out she was black anti-semetic? What am saying is you seem frustrated that people don’t see you as white. I wonder if race is so obsolete and we are all just so equal why this would be an issue? If I am mistaken for indian, or another ethnicity, I don’t get frustrated, I get confused, and ask how they came to that conclusion.

    I didn’t know it was anti-semetic to question white privilege.

  9. Ah. I didn’t see classicalone’s comment, so I apologize for misunderstanding the context there.

    As for the rest of your argument – well, if I responded, I’d basically be writing the same post over again, so I’m done.

  10. […] Part 2: The JAP Posted on August 2, 2008 by The Girl Detective When I wrote my post about Jewishness and racial identity, I was happy with most of the responses; I was able to hear a lot of different perspectives, and […]

  11. […] they write stuff that opens doors in my head. I was fascinated by The Girl Detective’s first post on Jews and whiteness and by the responses it drew at Feministe. Sure, Jews are othered by the surrounding culture, but […]

  12. I wish those whites in Appalachia would just accept their privleges and stop being so recalcitrant.

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