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Going ghetto (getting violent and inappropriate) on revisions

There is a point where you’ve probably revised too much and might be killing the writing in a piece, lucky for you, I haven’t gotten there yet with “The Girl in the Wetsuit” story. The story focuses on how I spend my spare time explaining cultural nuances, both Jewish and not, to the masses. It’s also a pretty funny tale about visiting a pool in a predominately non-Jewish area while wearing a frum bathing suit that aims to be tznius.

Why all the revisions? Well, first, there’s the issue of trying to explain all the culture clashes that my little story tries to capture.

Then, my teacher suggested that I had to explain all the different ways ghetto is used in the story:

1. Ghetto: referring to speech, “speaking Ghetto” which growing up in Washington Heights was a mix of Spanglish and Ebonics.
2. ghetto: referring to class, “acting Ghetto” which refers to speaking Ghetto but also acting “low class” or inappropriately.
3. ghetto: referring to a place that looks “low class” and dingy

According to Wikipedia, ghetto means quite a lot:
A 20th century American co-opted usage of the term informs us that ghetto is a section of a city occupied by a sub-group who live there, especially because of social, economic, or legal pressure. The term “ghetto” is now commonly used to refer to any poverty-stricken urban area. Though as most Jews will tell you, “ghetto” was first used to the places where Jews were forced to live to separate them from non-Jews, a point that this revision brings up briefly.

Ghetto is formed in three ways:
1. As ports of entry for racial minorities, and immigrant racial minorities.
2. When the majority uses compulsion (typically violence, hostility, or legal barriers) to force minorities into particular areas.
3. When the majority is willing and able to pay more than the minority to live with its own kind.

But the real reason there’s this latest revision is that a classmate attacked my last revision for:

1. being possibly racist in the way I mention skin tones: “It sounds like you think you are better than the dark complexioned Dominicans”
2. hiding the details of my illness as well as my physical self behind my clothing (A possible commentary on the modesty of my dress?)

But worst of all, she asked me the following leading questions with all their insinuations:

1. Are you purposely trying to separate from your Dominican culture? (Ask anyone who is forced to consume my special blend of green goo that I lovingly create for the perfect black beans to go with all my appetite for brown rice.)
2. Before you converted how did you feel about your culture? Has that changed? Why did you feel so separated? Were you made fun of?
3. Who is calling you white when you have an afro? Why do you refer to yourself as the only white girl when you are not? Who are you? How do you identify yourself?

By the end of her email, I was seething which may or may not be good preparation for tomorrow when my husband and I will be speaking on race and Judaism.

I think it’s hard for people to imagine that you can be both Dominican and Jewish. I’ve had people tell me that being Jewish was so much more important that it obliterated my Dominican identity or at least it should. I’ve been told to learn to cook more Jewish foods and give up my fetish for sweet yellow plantains. And while I’m all for squash pie, I’d honestly rather eat paper than a potato kugel. No offense to the potato kugel lovers out there.

But have my feelings changed towards my culture?
Growing up, the only inkling that I had that there were people that weren’t Dominican was on TV. The whole world as I knew it was Dominican with the exception of a few of my classmates that seemed really foreign: African Americans, Greeks and Arabs. I probably thought, living in my own little world, that they all went home to eat rice and beans and tostones, too. I didn’t realize that I was Dominican and other people weren’t until I went off to high school and college where I met people increasingly less and less like me.

High school was great. Except for the blacks and Hispanics fighting it out like cats and dogs sometimes, we separated ourselves into groups mostly by musical tastes, artistic inclinations and sometimes cultural divisions. There were the kids who liked rock. The kids who liked drawing Japanese anime characters. Then there were the little groups of Columbian kids who hailed from Columbia and felt more comfortable speaking Spanish and then another group for the Hispanic kids who mostly conversed in English.

College was awful. I was segregated from the few Hispanics in the school because of affirmative action. Because my SAT scores were high, I was shut out of the program that had given most of the Hispanic kids a chance to bond during a summer after high school at the university that was to give them more preparation for college. By the time the school year started they were a clique and people regressed to junior high school asking if I was “half-white” because my English was so good and I was so light-skinned.

And I didn’t feel like I fit in elsewhere. I had had white friends in high school but these people in college were different. People made stupid comments about my big curly hair, asking to touch it or making racially charged commentary. A lot of the people I met had never met anyone Hispanic before and that led to some cultural confusion. One editor at the school newspaper told me that because English wasn’t my first language, it explained the shoddy sentence structure in my articles. Even when the article had focused on the fact that English was my first language and how embarrassed I was for my Spanish.

Junior high school was a terrifying experience. Boys told me that men didn’t like smart women. I was at the top of my class. I dressed differently because we bought most of our clothes at stores where everything was $1. The common way of putting people down was to call them “white” or “on welfare.” My family was actually on welfare and we dressed like it. My shoes were expensive but they were orthopedic and everyone else was wearing the latest sneakers.

My family was also extremely well-educated in a neighborhood of mostly single women with kids supporting themselves through welfare. Many of these women were immigrants coming to the US for a better life as my grandparents had.

You see, my parents had both gone to school in the US. My father had a college degree, my mother completed most of it. My aunt was valedictorian of her class at the same US high school and she turned down Columbia for Cornell. From an early age, my sisters and I were all voracious readers. Reading was our favorite past time. Our favorite place on earth was the New York Public Library. Later we would add the Metropolitan Museum of Art to our list.

But all that education separated me from classmates who had less literary aspirations and calling me a “nerd” became synonymous with being, talking and acting “white.” These cooler, less studious classmates made my life a living hell by calling me names, pulling my hair, passing me cruel notes, dubbing me “leader of the Nerd Patrol” and then deciding that anyone who was friends with me would be summarily attacked.

I never called myself biracial but I probably should have. People mistake Hispanic for being a race, when it’s really an ethnicity like being Jewish is, in that there are many people from all different races within it. My father is white. My mother is brown or black. They would circle different boxes on the US Census despite sharing the same ethnic background. As would my mother’s parents, a white Hispanic woman and a black Hispanic man.

Growing up, I didn’t even know what biracial meant. But family members, friends and enemies all throughout my life commented on my inability to fit into either the black box or the white box. “You’d look white if it weren’t for your hair,” a classmate told me. “You have the perfect nose” or a “white nose,” others would say.

When I stopped straightening my hair like most of my Dominican relatives hailing from Washington Heights or Santo Domingo, it confused people even more. With a tall curly afro, it was presumed that I was half-black and half-white…a half-black/half-white guy on the subway even used that as his opening line. I was treated poorly for looking Jewish, hit on for looking North African and ostracized for “being” white or not fitting some stereotype of what Dominican people should look like.

Becoming Orthodox and Jewish made me realize that I was Dominican. And how Dominican I really was. I realized that speaking two languages, understand Latino culture and eating different foods separated me from some people. And I wasn’t just Dominican, I was part of an America that most Orthodox Jews don’t see. These are the Jews that hastily assume that when I say I’m Dominican or Dominican American, I probably wasn’t born in the states. They’re the ones that bug me through Shabbos meals to tell them where I came from and aren’t satisfied when I utter back, “Washington Heights.” They’re even less satisfied when I say that my parents grew up here but that America doesn’t let me hyphenate myself as “American-Dominican” despite the gaps in my Dominican cultural upbringing.

I didn’t become Jewish so I could be less Dominican. I’ll always be Dominican. I didn’t decide that Jewish culture was better than Dominican culture. I chose to add Jewish culture to live my life the best way I could for myself. I think some people misunderstood and thought that I was making a statement about how they should live their lives, but I wasn’t. Being a Dominican American Jew is the best way I know how to live my life but I have worries. I worry that running in mostly Jewish circles will isolate me the way that running in mostly Dominican circles as a child did. I want to be a citizen of the world, comfortable everywhere. Now, I often find myself uncomfortable everywhere.

I worry less about how I identify myself (because I’m just me) and I worry much more about the way people choose to identify me and what that says about their perceptions of culture and race. Race, as the photo of the book title I used for this blog, suggests stresses the reality of human differences as do culture and class.

One thought on “Going ghetto (getting violent and inappropriate) on revisions

  1. I really identify with this post. I have had a similar experience. I am African American and an Orthodox Jewish convert. People ask me if I just didn’t want to be black or if I was less black now that I converted. I look at them funny because I will always be black. That doesn’t change. but I also identify with the fact that becoming an Orthodox Jew has in some ways made me more cognizant of my own culture. Before, I spent time in Europe and have always been in gifted classes, so people (even family) have said “I try to act white” or that “I talk white” because I am very educated and love to read. I wasn’t the same as most of my white peers but also many African American students would have problems with me being intellectual. However, now that I am an Orthodox convert, people feel the need to ask me all kinds of questions and create this big controversy, esp since I am now in the parsha of shidduchim. it just never was a big deal to me before but now i realize how big of a deal it can be to others.


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