Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A lesser kind of white

Amber's post just led me to Ta-Nehisi Coates's take on interracial dating. It's got plenty to think about, much of which Amber explores, but here's the part of his post that struck me, surprise surprise:

"Black women who oppose interacial dating have different reasons than most. I think it's closer to the manner in which some Jewish women must hate the idea of a Shiksa. But even that doesn't quite get it. The opposition comes out of a specific, and yet broad, historical experience of never being held up as anyone's flower of virtuosity, but instead as un-feminine and oversexed."

I'd have to disagree with Coates and say that his comparison does "get it." Jewish women can look to a "specific, and yet broad historical experience" that's unpleasant from all angles. Jewish women have been stereotyped as whores (by 19th century European Christian men) and as prudes (by 20th century American Jewish men). Historically, oppression of Jews has led to rape of Jewish women, as has oppression of blacks led to the equivalent situation. And of course, as Coates implies, things look better for exogamy-friendly black and Jewish men than for their female counterparts.

However, here's one difference: to say that a woman appears to be black is not in and of itself an insult. To say a woman 'looks Jewish' is. Here's why:

In America, since (Ashkenazi, i.e. most American) Jews have been defined (and defined themselves) as white, it's considered racist to say that one can 'look Jewish,' the implication being that it's racist to say Jews do not look like undifferentiated white people. Which we often enough do. (Yes, there are black Jews, Asian Jews, and so on, but exceedingly few in the States. What's meant when an American says, 'there's no such thing as looking Jewish' is you can't tell a Swede from a shtetl descendent. Often you can. Except for me--I lack Jewdar--but I've heard I'm unusual in this regard.) Instead, we end up getting classified as white but on average less likely to be conventionally good-looking. We're a group of white folks among whom blondness, manageable-hairedness, and delicate-featuredness are underrepresented. We could look at this as, no problem, we're not exactly white-- members of all other non-white groups share this tendency not to fit white beauty ideals, and find ways to cope with this. Instead we're stuck with being a lesser kind of white.

What this means is that, while saying a woman is black is not an insult, it's definitive. You can see she isn't white, so there's no need to specify that she 'looks black'--in nearly all cases, she just is. Whereas a woman can be 100% ethnically Jewish but not 'look' so, which I'd imagine I join 99% of Jewish women for having heard in reference to myself, in that few among us are universally identifiable.

33 comments:

Petey said...

"However, here's one difference: to say that a woman appears to be black is not in and of itself an insult. To say a woman 'looks Jewish' is"

Ummm...

Does someone need some boosting of their self-esteem?

Your explanation that follows is pure and utter tortured goofiness. (And by saying "goofiness", I'm being very charitable.) It's the type of reasoning one would expect from a Swede.

"Historically, oppression of Jews has led to rape of Jewish women"

The obvious solution here is to sue Mongolia.

Phoebe said...

This has nothing to do with my self-esteem personally. It's about a larger issue on which I have some insight in that I am a Jewish woman. On the one hand, many individual Jewish women do just fine in the self-esteem department. On the other, a woman who 'looks Swedish' is considered more attractive in our society than one who 'looks Jewish.' To say things are otherwise is to have, as they say, been living under a rock.

Petey said...

"On the other, a woman who 'looks Swedish' is considered more attractive in our society than one who 'looks Jewish.' To say things are otherwise is to have, as they say, been living under a rock."

Meh.

Blondes just have more fun. That has nothing to do with our society or with Jewishness in general.

Would you say someone who "looks Spanish" is conventionally considered more attractive than someone who "looks Jewish"? I'd dissent.

Nordics skew the curve, but that's a different point than the one you are making in your post.

Will121 said...

I'd have to agree with Petey, at least partially. Jews are a subgroup of white, like Swedish, Italian, Greek, French, English, Russian, Portuguese, or even southern. All of these groups are carved out from linkages of both physical and cultural characteristics.

As far as attractiveness, most people would probably rank Jewish women as better looking that some of those groups and worse looking than others. Its probably true that if you put Jewish and Swedish women in a lineup and asked a representative sample of Americans to rate attractiveness Swedes might come out higher, but I suspect that's true for Swedes and most groups.

Phoebe said...

Will and Petey,

Are Ashkenazi Jews the least white-looking of white 'ethnics'? Not necessarily. But here's the crucial difference: If you tell a woman she looks Italian or Greek, she'll be flattered or indifferent. Tell her she looks Jewish and she'll take it as an insult. Conversely, tell a Jewish woman she doesn't 'look' it, and she'll be pleased.

Anonymous said...

Susan Sontag was pretty good-looking, and not in an "other" way.

As for insults, I think "You look Albanian" could be problematic.

Petey said...

"But here's the crucial difference: If you tell a woman she looks Italian or Greek, she'll be flattered or indifferent. Tell her she looks Jewish and she'll take it as an insult. Conversely, tell a Jewish woman she doesn't 'look' it, and she'll be pleased."

Again, does someone need some boosting of their self-esteem?

No wonder you're obsessed with Roth and Allen. But it's crucial to remember that not all Jews are SHJ's...

Amber said...

Some message board troll once declared that I "exude[d] Jewishness." The intent was clearly derogatory, although as the then-girlfriend of a Jewish man I chose to take it as flattering evidence of suitability.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

It's nice that you're so concerned, but I promise my self-esteem's not the issue. On an individual level, being Jewish does not necessarily make a woman repulsive to men--if that were the case, the subway and the New York Public Library would be far easier to navigate. I also promise that I did not invent the idea that 'Jewish' is considered, in our society, a negative trait in a woman. See here, for example.

Amber,

It's interesting how gendered the idea of Jew-as-insult often is. On the various occasions my boyfriend's been mistaken for being Jewish (he is, according to one young Hasidic man, the "picture of an Ashkenazi Jew"; others have just found it inconceivable that I, a Jewish woman studying things Jewish, could date a man not; others think dark hair implies a religion.) it's been intended either flattering or neutral.

Phoebe said...

* either as flattering or as neutral

Withywindle said...

"While saying a woman is black is not an insult, it's definitive.'

if this is true now, I'm not sure it's been true for very long. I vaguely recollect fortunes made by black entrepeneurs selling hair-straightening products, etc., a chapter on this in Malcolm X's autobiography, gallons of ink spilled from the Harlem Renaissance on about which blacks are considered more attractive, if more white-looking blacks are considered more attractive, talented-tenth worries--heck, some ink spilled on the subject of the looks of Mr. and Mrs. Obama, how white or non-white they look. So I would give a very sharp historical bound to your black-Jewish comparison.

Of course this isn't your central point. I would say it probably has a historical bound too, but I wonder when it starts. I don't believe the ancient Romans talked about people "looking Jewish"--it would presumably be a northern European trope--although Pedro the Cruel of Spain did have that Jewish mistress, supposed to be exceptionally and characteristically a Jewish beauty. When and where do you think it starts?

Phoebe said...

Withywindle,

I agree, and have written before about how the new 'multiracial' beauty standard basically entails white-looking people of all races being considered attractive. My point is not that 'black' is today considered as attractive as 'white', but that in most cases one does not say a woman 'looks' black, she either is or isn't. A less 'black'-looking black woman is still seen as black. With some exceptions. Whereas with Jews, it's assumed some 'look' it and others do not.

Historically, the era of the belle Juive ended once Jews became largely integrated into Western European society, no longer exotic and relegated to the world of representation.

Withywindle said...

Umm ... post-1789? Earlier? Ivanhoe already has the fair Rowena, dark Rebecca, and I'd be startled to find out that was a trope of one generation's standing.

Petey said...

"I also promise that I did not invent the idea that 'Jewish' is considered, in our society, a negative trait in a woman. See here, for example."

Serwer is an idiot on pretty much every topic under the sun.

Also, is it really necessary to run down the list of women considered societally beautiful who look (and are) Jewish?

Fran Drescher is not the alpha and omega of Jewishness.

-----

More broadly, to define the goofiness at hand here, your case seems to be that "you look black" is not an insult because you either really do look black or you don't, but "you look Jewish" is an insult, because looking Jewishness is subjective.

Are the manifold problems with this not obvious to you?

Phoebe said...

Petey,

If you weren't so hostile, I'd be more keen on continuing this discussion.

alex said...

i. On the other hand, its also true that spanish, portuguese, or greek women are less likely to meet current standard of beauty than swedish women. And yet women from those cultures have more positive associations with their looks.

ii. I think the analysis you give in the first few paragraphs is correct - the reason some groups have tortured association with their looks is essentially historical.

iii. I'm not sure about your argument on the difference of telling someone they look black vs. jewish. In The Bluest Eye many of Toni Morrison's characters call each other black as a form of insult.

Withywindle said...

Excuse me ... Ivanhoe is an example of the Old Regime, by your classification, not of the new.

Petey said...

"If you weren't so hostile, I'd be more keen on continuing this discussion."

Isn't semi-heated opposition the default mode for blogospheric comments? After all, few bother to comment on a post where they agree.

Also, is this all code for you accusing me of "thinking Jewish", because, if so, I'd be mightily offended...

Phoebe said...

Withywindle,

I just hadn't gotten to your comment yet. And haven't read Ivanhoe.

Petey,

"Isn't semi-heated opposition the default mode for blogospheric comments?"

Yours, apparently, but not all.

Withywindle said...

Phoebe: The first 50 pages are slow, but it becomes quite fun after that. I've considered teaching it in a British history class, but it's probably got too many pages per Teachable History Moment.

Tony Comstock said...

Came her from TNC.

Not much to add, except that I've alway understood the word "Jewess" to connote a certain sort of gorgeousness in Jewish women; just as I've understood "latina" to connote a certain sort of gorgeousness in Latin American women.

I've certainly never understood "Jewess" to me less attractive than Anglo/Scandos. What a shame some people think this way.

WB said...

I would agree that the designation is historical, but I see it developing out of a norm bound community which forbids intercourse with others. I am only aware of the distinction of "looking Jewish" as a pejorative in self-identifying Jewish communities (hipsters, Hillel, UWS, etc) where there exists an explicit or tacit prohibition against desiring the other. As those communities tend to be homogeneous, having similar racial and cultural backgrounds, it seems understandable that members of that community would be critical of their own. For what it's worth, the non-Jews in my cohort have none of these associations. Jewish guys, for that matter, don't get off any better. Compare Carrie to Harry in SATC. Who is more pathetic? (Come to think of it I can think of three leading women in TV that all look very Jewish and play strong, attractive female roles.

An interesting and sad development that I have found is and open hostility to converts in the traditional/modern orthodox community. Mothers who are openly disdainful of converts, even if those women are completely sincere in their faith. The price we pay for openness is neurosis.

Phoebe said...

"An interesting and sad development that I have found is and open hostility to converts in the traditional/modern orthodox community. Mothers who are openly disdainful of converts, even if those women are completely sincere in their faith."

Also interesting: you mention it's the mothers who are upset, and that the converts are women. Do men not convert to marry orthodox Jewish women? If mothers are particularly upset, then this would seem to support Coates's hypothesis that Jewish women react strongly to seeing Jewish men with non-Jewish (ethnically in this case) women, in other words, that it's about gender, not just in-group-out-group tensions.

WB said...

Let me just explain that last point. These people are hostile to converts because they feel that their daughters are being deprived of Jewish men by women from the outside. It is the disdain akin to cutting in line--that was my place and you took it! I believe ethicists call that jealousy.

Phoebe said...

Right. Which is the phenomenon Coates mentioned happening in the black community--a black woman will be upset to see a black man with a white woman, because it's a loss 'for the team', not because she was interested in that particular black man.

So, do men really never convert to marry orthodox women? If this does happen, to the girls' fathers get angry?

WB said...

It certainly is about gender, but I see those as general norms superimposed on and exacerbating the group norms. When men are supposed to be assertive, women are left to be passive. When Jewish men, then, fail their group responsibility, but assume their cultural gendered responsibility, in-group women are likely to feel powerless.

I have no numbers, but I would be surprised if their were many more intermarried men than women, any more single Jewish mean than women. It is because of the larger norm of passivity that makes women feel helpless, and thus lash out at "others."
(note: I was responding your previous comment.)

Yeah, I can't think of one guy I know who converted for a women. Then again, I don't know so many people that converted for marriage. I could imagine that the role of the guy in MO life is much more burdensome, and also less hospitable to nubies. It is hard to be expected to lead a seder if you can't read Hebrew. That, however, would certainly not account for the entirety of the disparity. To play into the cultural stereotype for just one moment, I would totally learn Latin and lead mass if it could land me a red-headed Irish chick (and yes, I just violated at least five rules there).

Petey said...

"So, do men really never convert to marry orthodox women?"

Of course, men don't have to convert.

Given the matrilineal descent of Judaism, only women have to convert.

Phoebe said...

And presumably orthodox Jewish men are fine with their daughters marrying out?

Petey said...

"And presumably orthodox Jewish men are fine with their daughters marrying out?"

- Orthodox daughter marries out to man who doesn't convert. Results in Jewish children.

- Orthodox son marries out to woman who doesn't convert. Results in non-Jewish children.

One would imagine those differing results lie heavy in determining reactions...

Phoebe said...

Imagine away, but anecdotal evidence suggests that matrilineal descent is of more interest to semi- or non-observant than very observant Jews, and that there is a *huge* stigma on marrying out among the observant, regardless of gender. I could be wrong, but I believe the whole 'let's sit shiva, our child married out and is dead to us' response goes even for mixed couples whose children would be halachically Jewish.

Anonymous said...

Orthodox daughter marries out to man who doesn't convert. Results in Jewish children.

Petey hasn't the faintest clue. Also, define "marries".

J. said...

Phoebe,

You said one thing that makes sense. To say that a woman "looks Jewish" is an insult. This is true. It is an insult. Saying that someone looks Italian is a compliment. We agree on that.

But everything else you said is, excuse me, BS and special pleading.

“Jewish women have been stereotyped as whores (by 19th century European Christian men)"

Can you cite the European writers who said this? One or two don’t count. I know about the Walter Scott Rebecca thing but that doesn’t count.

"and as prudes (by 20th century American Jewish men)."

True, but how does this compare to the black stereotype that Coates talks about?

Coates is mentioning something very specific: that black women are thought of as closer to masculine than white women (larger, stronger, more muscular) in other words, less feminine, but also as oversexed. So they get shafted in two directions. You have not proven that Jewish women are similarly shafted/defamed.

The Jewish parallel is that Jewish women are unfeminine because they are brainy (not brawny) and undersexed. It’s not so different from the stereotypes of Jewish men.

“Historically, oppression of Jews has led to rape of Jewish women, as has oppression of blacks led to the equivalent situation.”

Oh Phoebe, what bubbemeise bullshit. DNA studies of modern Ashkenazi Jews shows that they are descended from gentile women and Jewish men.

“And of course, as Coates implies, things look better for exogamy-friendly black and Jewish men than for their female counterparts.”

Well, that much is true. Men are more sexually adventurous than women. So go out with a shaygetz.

Phoebe said...

J.:

"B.S."? Possibly. "special pleading"? Not sure what that means--who's pleading? For what, exactly?

It would be nice to be able to write about topics I know about first-hand given cultural experiences and whatnot without inadvertently soliciting advice that suggests readers assume this is all about personal, as in my own, romantic life. But that's probably too much to ask.