Hispanics/Latinos · jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · Twitter

Are Jews White?

[Note: Transcript edited for clarity. I tried to organize the Twitter conversation in the way a natural conversation would progress.

Also, I DO NOT profess to know everything about race or racism in America. I am trying to hold to conceptions of race and racism–whether or not I agree with them–that are currently used in America, some especially self-identification, identification of mixed race and multiracial people, which are in…transition? debate?]

I posted this on Twitter:
“Heard today: Blacks realized before Jews did that Jews had become white” and it sparked an interesting conversation with @jrotem that I would like to share, with her permission, with you.

Incidentally, according to her Twitter profile, @jrotem is “Graphic designer; Owner of apparel for the global tribe. Polyglot (Hebrew, Japanese) MacHead & slave to cats.” I know her as the awesome lady behind the “Gotta Love that Jewfro Hairdo” t-shirt over at Rotem Gear.

She responded: No doubt you’ve heard of the book “How Jews Became White Folks”?

I wrote: But of course. I was just saying I HAVE to read it soon. I really also want to get this book “Silent Racism.”

She wrote back: [The] author is UCLA professor. [I] heard her lecture on book while working there. I was interested since it bugs me when others ID me.

I asked: When others ID you as what?

Jrotem: As white, or not. I identify as Jewish/Semitic. I know I have a “Caucasian” appearance (so do many Latinos) but I do not ID as “white.”

Alizahausman: But you are what would be termed phenotypically white so you would receive a certain kind of white privilege as many white Jews do. Even i have. [Clarification: I meant that I have enjoyed some privileges as a lighter-skinned Latino that darker-skinned Latinos do not have, including being able to pass for a non-Hispanic white in some instances.]

Jrotem: Yes, we can “hide” or blend easier if we give up our names, custom. It’s anodd sort of dichotomy—how others see me, how I see me. “Shrug.”

Alizahausman: There is a big difference between what you identify as and what others identify you as, That is clear. I identify as Jewish Latina but I am identified as biracial/Latina/other/Mexican/half-black.

Jrotem: Yes, I understand; I can “pass.” But trust me, many non-white Anglos don’t consider me white and honestly I don’t relate to them.

Alizahausman: WASPs who do not think Jews are white often think Judaism is a race or that white people are and should all be Christian.

Alizahausman: I feel that part of white Jews not wanting to accept being called ‘white’ is part of a misunderstanding of what race is and also discomfort with having white privilege.

Alizahausman: White is a race. Judaism is not. Judaism is an ethnicity, for some, and a religion. My race is multiracial-black/white/native American.

Alizahausman: I call myself a Dominican American Jew–notice, I leave race out of my self-identification too unless u know that Dominican=multiracial.

Jrotem: In this country, we look white—this is why I say it relative; in Poland as a community many of us were comparatively more Mediterranean.

Alizahausman: Also, I have noticed white Jews tend two think white=WASPs [only]. POC [and many other Americans, white or otherwise] don’t think that way. You look white, you are white.

Jrotem: What’s POC?

Alizahausman: People of color. JOCs is Jew of color.

Jrotem: A couple of generations ago, I would not have been considered white. That has changed in this country.

Jrotem: And yes, we are not in Poland and it’s not the 50s—that’s why I say it’s relative to time, place, etc.

Alizahausman: How is race a relative thing? Race isn’t relative. There are boxes. You “fit” [emphasis added] into them. Sometimes, people, particularly, mixed race look like one race phenotypically but actually represent several race.

Alizahausman: But we are not in Poland. We are talking about race as an American concept. In the Dominican Republic, people think I’m white. See?

Alizahausman: Did you read about Sandra Laing movie? African girl born of white parents but phenotypically looked mixed. Parents tried to have her classified as white but she looked biracial so she was classified as “coloured.”

Jrotem: Don’t know that movie—sounds interesting.

Alizahausman: Try this: [a] biracial girl says she is WHITE but she looks BLACK. People looking on say, Huh? Her self-ID is not in line with her phenotype.

Jrotem: Just curious—how do you define Mariah Carey?

Alizahausman: Mariah Carey is mixed race. Depending on the photo, some people think she’s white or black. Sometimes I think this is because of the outfit [she’s wearing] as much as how “tan” she looks. [Like] when I cover my hair people think [I’m] “dark white” or “Sephardic” but [when] the hair shows and it’s…hmm?

Jrotem: Why can’t she embrace both and not fit into someone else’s box?

Alizahausman: She can and does [quite successfully, I might add]. But she also LOOKS mixed race. You can check off mixed race on the census but if you look white, people will assume you’re white [by looking at you].

Jrotem: Relative to you, yes, not relative to Heidi Klum *giggle at being compared in any way to Heidi Klum*. [I thought this was an interesting comment as Heidi Klum’s children with Seal are mixed race.]

Jrotem: How about findings of European Jewish DNA being more similar to Palestinian, Mediterranean and non-Ahskenazi Jews than to Europeans?

Alizahausman: Race is not about DNA. It’s usually about phenotype. Plenty of black people have mostly European DNA. My aunt is HALF Spaniard. Her father is white. Her mother is very light-skinned. [My aunt] has dark skin. People would laugh if she said, “I’m WHITE (and only WHITE).” She looks black.

Jrotem: Or are you defining race purely as appearance?

Alizahausman: I am not defining race as anything. I am using the racial definitions as they are in place now [and as I understand them]. Again, while I self-ID as multiracial I am usually ID-ed as half-white or half-black. Rarely Hispanic.

Jrotem: You are right, there is no Jewish “race” hence we so often say “people” which embraces all types of Jews regardless of appearance

Alizahausman: Yes, definitely true. But times have changed and you’re saying, I don’t accept that. But if we stood next to each other, u would be “the white woman” and I would be the “Is she hispanic or biracial or mixed? woman.”

Alizahausman: If you’re wearing a kippah, you’re easy to peg as JEWISH but without you’re just another “white person.”

Jrotem: Yes I am, b/c the privilege, again, is relative. Antisemitism pops out way too much for me to feel part of most of white society.

Alizahausman: again, i feel u have a problem accepting being called white and white privilege. i sense ur discomfort.

Alizahausman: privilege is a loaded word. it can be as simple as someone not being scared 2 sit next to u b/c ur “white” as opposed to a minority

Alizahausman: there are all kinds of privilege: Ashkenazi in Judaism, male, etc.

Jrotem: Well, now your comments do make more sense to me — your definition is very logical and specific …hadn’t thought of it that way.

Alizahausman: Amazingly, white Jews became white (probably b/c of the European extraction?), the rest of us have not and I doubt we ever will unless [we] can “pass” [as white].

jrotem: So I now know what you mean by phenotype but for many of us us its like “too white for those people, not white enough for those others …everyone has a problem with me, hell, I’ll defined myself outside of their boxes.”

Alizahausman: Anyone can choose two define themselves outside of “the boxes” but when people see you, they box [you]. That’s why I wanted to get “Dominican American Jew” tattooed on my forehead. Leaves little to the imagination.

jrotem: White privilege meant my dad was able to sit at a counter in Atlanta in ’62. (He didn’t; he was with an Asian Indian friend and shocked).

jrotem: But also that he couldn’t get into most prof. schools until the GI bill, join many clubs, etc.

Alizahausman: Exactly that is one example. White privilege is not about $$$ or whether you accept it, it’s about the benefit and who benefits.

Alizahausman: Yes but that was not based on his race. That was based on his RELIGION. That’s anti-Semitism, not racism.

Alizahausman: Definitely jews are a minority in America and that’s where I think the bond comes from [with other minorities] and the confusion over being not white enough for one group but too white for another.

jrotem: Not arguing that it wasn’t easier for Jews until they told someone their name or were just a tad too olive… prejudice by any other name i guess.

Alizahausman: We also cannot compare how Jews were mistreated to how blacks were mistreated to how Asians were mistreated

Alizahausman: I can’t even compare to how darker skinned Latinos are treated b/c i haven’t walked those shoes.

Alizahausman: I wouldn’t use the word easier. I would use the word different. Easier implies people didn’t die for anti-Semitism and such or that…somehow we can decide whether racism or anti-Semitism are WORSE than one another.

jrotem: I’m not arguing by the way. It’s interesting for me to see how you mean the word race” which, as I said is often used in a different way in US. Agreed.

Alizahausman: I have had my Jews of color status questioned by people who say ‘you are too light-skinned to be any COLOR.”

jrotem: “Any color?” So what does that leave? Transparent? What a silly thing to say!

jrotem: damn we shudda had this convo when you were in LA 😉

jrotem: Also curious, would you not define Latin” as racial term? Because it’d be white, Indian, black, yes? But in the US often used as racial term.

Alizahausman: Latino/Hispanic is not a race. People making the same mistake they make with Jews.

Alizahausman: Interestingly enough, most Latino/Hispanics when ask will either be confused about what race they fall into or self-ID by nationality. As in I’m Dominican American–not Hispanic American.

jrotem: Yes I agree the Latino thing is just as confusing.

jrotem: My distant cousins in Uruguay could probably call themselves Latino in the US — something wrong with how we define people here

jrotem: By the way, when I have to fill out forms, if it asks for race I do check white. If it asks for ethnicity, I do not.

Alizahausman: Again while I would call you white, I do not want to make light of “Christian privilege” in this country.

Alizahausman: Someone at shul told me, but how can people be racist against you, you look so white!

jrotem: 10-to-1 if I saw you dressed tzanuah, I’d assume you were Jewish without a second thought, probably Yemenite 🙂

Alizahausman: Remember the 1-drop rule? Yikes!

Alizahausman: But notice that his normative vision sees me as “white” when he sees me as just-like-anyone-else. He could have said you look Jewish like…anyone else!

Alizahausman: By the way, my [light-skinned] grandmother ALSO checks off white. Even for her black Dominican ex-husband–a reverse of the American one-drop rule.

jrotem: What’s the 1-drop rule?

Alizahausman: Historical colloquial term for a belief among some people in the United States that a person with any trace of African ancestry is black.

jrotem: Oh that kind of drop!

jrotem: Just saw your post re Christian privilege.

jrotem: Another interesting point, by the way, I’m of the generation that saw the change from Pat Boone white to Black Power. Many Jews were inspired by that.

jrotem: Hence the “jewfro” term and adoption of “natural.” There was a handbook that called for not straightening or bleaching hair, no nose jobs…

Alizahausman: And where i grew up in the “Latino world” of ’80s and ’90s, I regularly saw people bleach their hair/skin, get noses jobs, call…curly hair unnatural.

jrotem: With all the ethnic identity movements (Asian, Latino as well), Jews of the 60s-70s really identified as a minority…

jrotem: .. Now I wonder if that’s part of the confusion … identifying in that way. Good for self-pride but maybe muddy re definition?

Alizahausman: I think Jews still do identify as a minority, just not a racial minority.

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12 thoughts on “Are Jews White?

  1. I really like what Edward James Olmos has to say about race vs. cultural determinants in this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmtubiCfYjY

    He puts it so much more succinctly and eloquently than I can, but that's basically what I think about race – that we are all one race, the human race. HOWEVER -> I think that when some well meaning people say, “There is no race.” they forget to acknowledge very real cultural and physical differences that have influenced so many factors in modern society. Like he says, “cultural determinants.” It comes off like they're totally denying that racism exists or that differences exist. So when I say, “I don't believe in race.” I am not trying to do that. I do believe that phenotypical and cultural differences influence how we treat each other and that it's a huge problem. I just don't like the word “race” and what it implies, personally. I am not denying anyone else's opinion or experience around that word.

    Are we a homogenous American culture, or are we a lot of other cultures who happen to share a set of common physical and geographical boundaries? How do we determine and define that? Can we straddle many cultures, be a part of many cultures? I think probably that's more the norm for a lot of people these days.

    I'm Caucasian. I'm phenotypically white, I go into an Ashkenazi shul and no one questions my right to be there. I have a whopping knapsack of privilege on so many levels, so how valid is my opinion? I don't know. Maybe not very. But maybe it is. Maybe by engaging from every angle, some actual change can occur.

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  2. ” I think that when some well meaning people say, “There is no race.” they forget to acknowledge very real cultural and physical differences that have influenced so many factors in modern society. Like he says, “cultural determinants.” It comes off like they're totally denying that racism exists or that differences exist. So when I say, “I don't believe in race.” I am not trying to do that.”

    Very well put. I try to steer away from conversations about being “colorblind” and racism being “social constructs” because too often the conversation veers into “why are people of color so SENSITIVE pulling the race card all the time.”

    Yeah, we're all human but these “social constructs” are wreaking havoc on our ability to treat each other as human beings.

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  3. Aliza, here's something entirely different: do you know if there are any plans here in the States for the celebration of Sigd, due to occur this year on Nov 16th (29th of Cheshvan)?

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  4. I try to stay away from it too, for that reason and because it can detract from the meat of the conversation. People can argue the semantics of the discussion until the cow comes home and it doesn't change the fact that havoc is, as you so eloquently put it, being wreaked.

    What I don't get about the “it's just a social construct” argument that people throw out, is that somehow, that seems to say that by virtue of being a social construct racism is somehow less real. (??) Of COURSE it is a social construct. Everything around us is a social construct. That is how societies are constructed!! To deny someone their experience because “it is a social construct” is to imply that we all live in, I don't know, some vacuum devoid of interaction. Which is just patently silly. What does that person think good manners are, or ethics, or any number of things they take for granted in their day? Paying rent, marriage, democracy? Social constructs. Very real. People seem to want to cherry pick and keep the constructs they like as valid and toss out the ones that are horrible as less real. But we don't live in a Magical Pony Land Of Ice Cream Princess Parties And Happiness where that works, alas.

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  5. I think a lot of people want to believe that Obama's presidency=racism is dead. News reports about Hispanics being murdered for being “immigrants” fall under their radar. The fact that people keep asking if Obama was born here or calling him a Muslim terrorists…also under the radar. Some people have gone from being “colorblind” to just being “blind.”

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  6. Please note, I am deleting and rejecting comments on this thread because a lot of the new comments are only repeating stuff that's already been said. Please read the entire post and the comments before responding to this thread. I will allow comments that add something new to the mix and that do not try to detract (ie, the “so what?” comments) to the conversation.

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