Here’s something that’s a secret, though I wish it weren’t: I’m not white.
I usually get laughs, eye-rolls, or dubious looks when I say this, but it’s still true. Despite my pale skin and Eastern European ancestors, I don’t identify as white on surveys. I identify as Jewish. Racial identity is a touchy matter, and being defined by other groups is particularly problematic. The last thing I need to be told by white people is that I’m white.
Race isn’t just skin color.
Let my openly acknowledge that when we talk about race we are really talking about a lot of other things. Similarly, when we talk about a lot of other things we are also talking about race. Class, discrimination, genetics, religious preconceptions, socialized standards, marketing, aesthetics, and more all wrapped up together. This leads to the confusing habit of people referring to different aspects of race and race related issues depending on the point they want to make, or debunk. For example, when I say that I am not white I am often rebuked with people pointing out how pale I am. While this seems like a common sense rebuttal to a lot of people, some of them well-meaning friends, I can’t help but think of people passing and blood purity laws both in the United States and abroad. The easiest way to counter my seemingly silly point about race is to counter with skin color. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
This actually plays to a problem that white people have when talking about race, and that’s White (often nominally Christian, ideally male) is considered the default. It’s never assumed that curly, kinky hair should be the standard for good hair. It’s not assumed that if everyone looked a bit more black or a bit more Chinese then they’d fit in better. It’s almost always a shift toward whiteness that’s a shift toward neutral. Think about what “professional” looking hair would be. Odds are you’re thinking of a pretty white hairstyle. No dreads, no afros, no cornrows.
If you are part of the majority, expect to have retorts brought up against your assumptions. Racial minorities have experiences you probably know nothing about.
Historically my people haven’t been white. We’ve been Jews and thus Other. There were jobs we couldn’t work, places we couldn’t go, and at some point in time we’ve been banned from living in many places on a legal level. I was recently in the Jewish Museum in Paris and a lot of displays pointed out that there were no records or artifacts of the numerous Jewish communities before 1394 because after that expulsion everything left behind had been destroyed. That’s a trend. When asked where “I’m from” I often joke “Austria, Poland, Romania… pretty much all the places Jews were kicked out of”. But that does a major disservice to all the other places Jews were officially and/or violently expelled from, such as Spain, France, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and so on.
And even though Jews come from all of these countries we aren’t always of them. Sometimes we spoke the language but other times we did not. Look at the pidgins Yiddish from eastern Europe, Ladino from Spain and north African Jews. These are mixed languages exclusive to the Jewish communities not only of those areas, but kept alive in communities abroad from those places as well. This isn’t a new concept. Jewish communities go back to ancient Greece. Some Jews there developed Yevanic. The way that Yiddish is mostly German and Hebrew, and Ladino is mostly Spanish and Hebrew, Yevanic is a mix of Hebrew and Greek used by Hellenistic Jews. Strangers in our own lands, Jews have been segregated to our neighborhoods and ghettos, excluded from mainstream culture, and relegated to Those, Them, and Other wherever we have lived. Our cultures have developed in parallel with the rest of our fellow citizens, rather than in tandem with. Our languages, artistic movements, sensibilities are all similar but not the same as “locals”.
This is how my family can be from Poland and I am still not truly Polish. Austria, but not Austrian. Romania but not Romanian. So when I say I’m not white, know that it’s not a flippant comment to make fun of the majority, but a deeply thought out conclusion on identity. Taking ownership of an aspect of one’s identity that has historically been used to disenfranchise isn’t done casually. Think about that before trying to define other people contrary to how they are trying to have the world view them.
Being white isn’t the ideal that many white people believe.
But those are historic reasons. Jews have been accepted into the fold of Whiteness. We’ve made it! We can stop being Other and start being part of the general population. Why would I actively reject that?
For centuries my people have been pushed from place to place, excluded and expelled, segregated and murdered for being who we are. In modern times the default identity in America is White (often nominally Christian, ideally male). Television, movies, makeup, hair, legislation. All of these “default” to whiteness. Today Jews are told that we’re close enough that we can step into this role and finally become white. This isn’t just limited to Jews. The number of times I’ve seen black people told they speak very well, not black, or even “sound white” is astounding. But they don’t sound white, because white doesn’t mean well-spoken. They sound like themselves, no matter their skin color. Whiteness as a default has lead to whiteness as a goal.
But I don’t want that. This offer of whiteness isn’t an accepting embrace, it’s a silencing technique. I’m not being told that I, as a Jew with the culture and personal experience of an outsider, am not fully accepted. I’m being told that I could be accepted as long as I quietly play white. The toxic truth is that the times when I’m told that I am white are times when white Christians want to be comforted with how I am not different, even when I am. The white role I’m being offered is conditional on being supportive to actual white people.
I know how racist people can be. As a non-white who passes for “default” white male Christian, I have heard terrible things spoken in my presence by generally nice people. Strangers, people I deal with from working with the public, and even some that I consider friends. Things ranging from “those people” referring to non-Christians to “those people” referring specifically to Jews. I’ve heard Jew as a verb. I’ve even heard people start to muse on things that Germany had the right idea about during World War II. Not everything, but specific policies that would make things better around here too. These were all things said to me as someone passing. They weren’t meant to attack or intimidate, but rather were meant to either go unnoticed as accepted ideas or even impress me. Depending on the situation these kinds of encounters have made me feel everything from awkward and annoyed to fearful of being attacked. When I speak up1 and remind them that I’m not white, I am outing myself as part of the Other that they are attacking.
So no, I am not white. Embracing that whiteness comes with the rejection of a large part of who I identify as. My family history is Jewish. My personal history is Jewish. I identify so strongly as a Jew that I actually embraced my Jewish ethics over religion. I’d rather stand apart and keep my voice and perspective. And no, I don’t speak for all Jews. Some of us identify as Jewish and white. I don’t. I’m too proudly “other” for that. I’ve been non-white for so long that I’ve come to embrace it. It’s no longer something I strive for. And it’s probably something white people should stop holding up as a carrot for the rest of society.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↵||Or if I speak up, if I’m afraid for my safety.|