Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Race: unknown

Are Jews white?* Not Ethiopian or Algerian Jews, but the Woody Allen-appreciating, Ashkenazi variety. The usual way this subject is approached is that Jews used to not be considered white, but now there's no doubt about the matter. To claim, as a Jew, that you are not white is seen as trying to usurp the victim status of America's true victims, the descendants of slaves. So I should point out that I do not think I have special insights into what it's like to be black in America, or that going around, looking as I look, with the name that I have, poses me anywhere near the number of challenges.

But, here goes: I don't think I'm white. I don't think I'm black, and am in fact extremely pale. I don't expect anyone to consider me 'of color,' nor do I consider myself to be 'of color.' But to be white, in the contemporary American sense, I think the following have to be true:

-White supremacists approve of your existence.
-No one of your ethnicity goes in for cosmetic surgery to look more 'white.'
-You can show up in a small Midwestern town, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt (i.e. nothing 'urban' or 'ethnic') and some people will still stare at you like you came from outer space.

And so on.

Obviously everything is relative, and on the El in Chicago's Southside I was white; the same was probably true at Stuyvesant, where the 'white' kids were, in I would guess most cases, Jewish. I'm sure that I have, without thinking about it, referred to myself as 'white' when such situations were fresh in my mind. If I had to check a race box I would, by process of elimination, be forced to go with 'white.' But if checking the box is voluntary, I'll pass.

What discussions of where Jews fit in terms of race in the U.S. seem to miss is that one looks for evidence of anti-Jewish racism not in poverty or low test scores but in resentment of Jewish success (or, often enough, perceived success) in mainstream, white, society. In other words, citing Jewish 'privilege' is not an effective way of disproving the presence of anti-Semitism, or of proving Jews' 'whiteness.'

*And now, back to writing a presentation on a fascist French novel. Perhaps I'll return to feeling 'white' once that project's behind me.


Withywindle said...

In Australia once, a tour guide talking about immigrant miners talked about "Whites, Italians, Chinese, and Pacific Islanders." One item on this list was a little startling. So, yeah, "white" is flexible. That said, I'm not quite sure that anyone in America outside the neoNazi blogs is all that hung up anymore about restricting White to Northwest Europeans. And you can resent Jews and not dispute their whiteness, yah?

J. Otto Pohl said...

It should also be noted that many white supremicist societies including the CSA (had Jewish politicians) and apartheid South Africa (a close ally of Israel) did accept Jews as White.

FLG said...

I would like to offer contrary evidence to the "You can show up in a small Midwestern town, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt (i.e. nothing 'urban' or 'ethnic') and some people will still stare at you like you came from outer space."

Happens to me all the freakin' time, and I am about as white as you can get. Being from NYC or, as I am, the NYC Metro area leaves one ignorant of the small clues that small town Midwestern have for discerning one of their own. It's like a secret handshake or something. I am not even sure if they are aware of it though. I think they just see people without the clues, and wonder what the hell is going on. They don't get much excitement out there. In fact, any stranger might be a cause for staring.

Phoebe said...

To the comments above, all of which are variations of 'you're wrong!':

I didn't say Jews are never white, or never racist, or that my anecdotal experience is definitive proof of anything beyond my own experience.

I was curious to know whether the consensus really is that Jews are white, but I realize as a type that those who do not think so probably wouldn't be commenting here in the first place. And either way, since the blog-comment tradition is the 'you're wrong,' I'm guessing a post declaring my whiteness would have perhaps been a better approach.

FLG said...

Jews, as you mentioned, are various races. Regarding the Woody Allen-appreciating, Ashkenazi variety, I would say white. But I would never define somebody else's race for them.

If you don't think you are white, then you are not white. However, most people, if you asked them, would in all probability would say white.

Race is a complicated issue, obviously.

schMaltzLover said...

You're wrong.

Actually, you're right, assuming that you're actually writing this blog from 1952, which explains your anachronistic Jewish angst (cool jews aren't angsty anymore. You're supposed to be all Sarah Silverman-ish now.).

Anyway -- unlike 1950, there's more to the world than black and white. From the perspective of the New Jews your old jew attitudes are quaint. You're in Seinfeld, Friends, and The OC -- white, rich, and cool. We're stuck with Harold and Kumar -- not white, not cool, barely American.

Anonymous said...

Apparently, a hundred years ago, the usually quite pale Irish were not considered "white" by those Americans who arrived before they did. There is a provocatively titled book about this, which I plan to read some day called "How the Irish Became White." Historically to be "white" in the U.S. has been seen as normal, acceptable, citizen material. And not that long ago, "normal" human attributes, behavior, actions, etc. were compared to that of the male population. Bye, JM

Paul Gowder said...

Ultimately, the problem is that "white" is incoherent. It, like all the conventional american "races," is a term that covers a bunch of things that are correlated, but highly imperfectly, with one another, including:

- phenotypic characteristics, both over a narrow range (skin color) and over a broad range that overlaps with other groups (hair, etc.)

- ancestry

- identification with certain cultures

- social privileges etc.

words said...

Wait a second, that sounds as if you have to be a descendent of African slaves to be considered anything but white. Thats ridiculous.

You're Non-White, or Other White, or really anything which you chose to identify with that makes you feel rosey. The term white is meant to describe European, and Jews are technically semitic people who have been given the tag of being defacto white for purposes of either assimilation, or painting Jews as being in a position of power. Jews are culturally different, and they've been treated different as a result. Skin tone is never an accurate way to gage ethnicity.

Jemma Jones said...


The issue is whether people perceive you as different.

Doesn't matter if they hate you because you are white in a black town, yankee in a southern town, or smart yet laid back in stuyvesant HS.

Phoebe said...

Paul Gowder:

The categories you mention make sense, but I don't see how they override the ones I noted in my post. Thus the truth to the often-repeated expression "race is a construct."

But the particularity of the Jewish case is that in all kinds of historical situations, Jews have been accused of speaking, say 'too good' French, of doing 'too well' in whatever hierarchical system the majority had set up. So effectively Jews are too 'white' to be white, or so goes the anti-Semite's argument. As I wrote before, that Jews seem (or in some cases are) privileged might well be what makes Jews something other than 'white.'

Paul Gowder said...

I agree completely, and think that's just further evidence of the incoherence of the racial grouping.

Interestingly, note of course that the threat-because-superiority dialog is one that is used against many other "racial" groups. For example, one of the traditional racist lines about black men is as a sexual threat to white women. And that's not all rape -- black men were lynched for voluntary sex too...

And then, of course, there is the bizarre situation of Asians in the U.S., "model minority" and all that.