Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Other's Others

There is now a summer camp specifically for Jews of color. As a Jew who went to a WASPy tennis camp where I had less skin pigmentation going on than most of the blonds, I suppose this camp would not have been for me. Whether it's a good idea for anyone is another story.

The way Steven Philp presents it, American Jews of color are in fact more oppressed than Americans of color in general. Oppressed by other Jews, that is. He appears to agree with the camp director that, as she puts it, "'we as a community are not great at dealing with the Other [...] We had centuries of persecution making us wary. We have a tendency to be more suspicious than welcoming.'"

This seems... dubious. While it's surprising in America to meet a black or Asian Jew, just like it was surprising the other day when I heard an Asian-looking woman get an Asian-language response back from the ex-football-player-looking blond guy sitting next to her, do we really think Jews are especially intolerant of those of color? I've spent enough time with relatives of another generation to know that Jews are fully capable of being racist, but do we really think Jews are especially racist? What about the Civil Rights Movement? What about the congregations with lesbian rabbis, where many of the kids are the full-rainbow offspring of intermarriages? It's certainly isolating to be of a different race than those around you, but are things worse for a black kid adopted into a white Jewish family than one adopted into a white Catholic/Protestant/Mormon one, assuming a homogeneous community?

And! What about the fact that when Jews exclude on the basis of genealogy - something not all Jews do! - they tend to be equal-opportunity about it? (What with the fact that the traditional divide between Jew and Gentile long predates modern ideas about "black and white.") If you're a Jew for whom intermarriage is OMG the worst, even if there's a conversion to Judaism, it's if anything a tiny bit less tragic if the non-Jewish spouse is another minority than if a snub-nosed blonde is involved.

Also confusing in the Moment piece is the notion that the Jewish traditions of many American Jews are very much in the "latkes and gefilte fish" vein. I get that Ashkenazi cultural hegemony is an issue in Israel and in the Jewish world more broadly, but if you're an American Jew and one of your parents is Ashkenazi, the other a convert to Judaism bringing the "color," or if you're the of-color adopted child of two Ashkenazi American Jews, you don't magically have the culture of one of the somewhat darker-skinned Jewries, the Mediterranean ones with inevitably far superior cuisines. Your Jewish culture is Ashkenazi-American culture.

But the real problem is this: The well-meaning refrain is always that there's no such thing as 'looking Jewish,' and that anyone who says otherwise is a) anti-Semitic, or b) denying the existence or authenticity of Jews of color. Meanwhile, most American Jews are Ashkenazi. This is why, we might want to recognize, American Jewish culture has been as Philp not-so-neutrally puts it "dominated by" Jews of that culture. This isn't the same - as Philp seems to think - as a high percentage of Jews being "white," as though this were some undifferentiated category and we might as well be Swedish. I mean, yes, the bulk of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews would be "white" by the standards of all Americans who are not white supremacists, insofar as anyone (Arabs, really dark-complexioned Greeks, etc., included) for whom that's the closest-to-accurate box counts as such.

But Ashkenazi is, like Swedish, particular, distinct, and we tend to look kinda-sorta identifiable. (Thus how, even though my family's from Russia/Romania/etc., what I look sure isn't Slavic, although from the Pale of Settlement I inherited an extra bit of pale.) This is not a tragedy. Yes, some Ashkenazi Jews are blond, but I don't see how it's disrespectful to the authenticity of their Ashkenazi-ness or their Jewishness, to admit that that's not what Ashkenazi Jews tend to look like. It's not only that it's not anti-Semitic to say that there is, in America, an ethnic look that's typically Jewish. I'd go so far as to say that it's anti-Semitic to claim that that's anti-Semitic, as though there's something shameful about being pale and non-snub-nosed (not the same as hook-nosed, which would be an anti-Semitic description; sorry, this is a complicated issue), with dark, poufy hair. I mean, the fact that it's considered offensive to refer at all to Ashkenazi physicality might hint at the fact that this physical appearance has in the past and continues to this day to constitute something other than privilege. It just might.

(And... someone always, always, always has to complain that nothing was mentioned about the Palestinians. This is not about Israelis or even Zionists! These are a bunch of lefty Jews in California, who probably are on the case already. And this is already a story whose message is that Jews are especially racist, sorry it doesn't make that point from every possible angle. Good grief.)

9 comments:

Dan O. said...

Whatever gets a child through the night. Whatever gets a parent through the summer.

Phoebe said...

Uh, I guess? I'm not saying OMG let's shut it down. But isn't there something odd about suggesting that Jews of color ("color" that may stem from adoption, intermarriage, or indeed having Jewish but of-color ancestry) have more in common than not? Isn't it likely that the Jewish culture of many camp participants is Ashkenazi, making the idea that they need a refuge from latkes and oy vey somewhat bizarre? Isn't the very idea of basing a camp around the (dubious) notion that American Jewry is especially hostile to the non-white itself problematic?

Also! Inclusivity is great (and no I'm not being sarcastic), but what's missing is a sense that it's even OK, in America, to be/look Ashkenazi, as though it's only Jews of other heritages who have trouble blending unnoticed into American society. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that being named Goldberg and looking like this constitutes privilege in America, except insofar as all-that-is-not-blackness constitutes privilege. It's still not quite the same as being undifferentiated/unhyphenated "white."

rshams said...

"Isn't it likely that the Jewish culture of many camp participants is Ashkenazi, making the idea that they need a refuge from latkes and oy vey somewhat bizarre?"

Right - Sephardi, Mizrachi, Indian, etc. "Jews of color" (and here I speak from experience) would generally participate in events/programs within their own community if they need a breather from Ashkenazi cultural dominance. We have distinct cultures and traditions that are more nuanced than simply being "not Ashkenazi." This camp seems more inclined toward the children of adoption, intermarriage, and conversion, where, as you say, their "Jewish" culture is by definition Ashkenazi.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that what these camp participants do have in common is being a visible minority within the Jewish community and sometimes having the fact of their Jewishness questioned by others. This is obviously something that happens within a whole host of communities, and to imply that Jews are somehow more racist/less accepting than any other group is not cool. But if these kids need a "safe space," so to speak, to flesh out where they stand vis-a-vis their own Jewish identity and to discuss how they may have felt left out in some circumstance or another, then why not?

And to touch on your last point in the comments, obviously looking and sounding stereotypically Ashkenazi Jewish does not constitute privilege, if compared to other white Americans. But within the Jewish community, which is the context in which the camp is based, looking like Adam Goldberg and sharing his cultural markers are quite normative. That's perfectly natural, given the demographics of the American Jewish community, but can also lead to a situation in which those who don't have those looks and markers feel somewhat left out.

Dan O. said...

Let's leave privilege out of this. These are Bay Area kids. They are not victims. A bigger problem is the damage their parents do to them by assuring them just how objectively special they are. (They are to their parents, don't get me wrong, I mean they're not special full-stop.)

I'm with Rhsams. Who gives a whoop about demographers, camp organizers, and their politics? What's good, for a kid, is knowing that she or he is not the only whomever going through whatever. That helps all kids deal with things. And if that helps parents feel better, then great, even if they are misguided about why they feel better. (The kids will figure out that their parents are misguided - they're Jewish.)

As for the Eastern European culture bit, I agree with you. It's irrelevant in this context. The appearance/color aspect is pretty important, though. I wouldn't say that Jews are any more appearance/color obsessed than other people, but I'm sure we're not much less. I mean, there's a pretty big appearance component to getting Are-You-Jewished? on Bedford Ave.

I used to TA for Laurence Thomas. (this guy: http://thecollege.syr.edu/profiles/_images/_PHIL/thomas85.png) We all (us TA's and him) had a laugh about how so many of the undergraduates wouldn't believe he was Jewish.

As for intermarriage being "less tragic" if it involved a non-white minority, that's just not true for many NY Metro area Jewish parents whose families fled Brooklyn in the 60's and 70's. It may be a historical aberration (I think it was), but lots of 'em wanted no part of a black person in their family. The 60's and 70's polarized Jewish racial politics.

Phoebe said...

Rshams,

"But if these kids need a 'safe space,' so to speak, to flesh out where they stand vis-a-vis their own Jewish identity and to discuss how they may have felt left out in some circumstance or another, then why not?"

I get that - if you've always been a curiosity, it's nice to finally meet others who have as well and for the same reason. An entire summer camp just strikes me as possibly out-of-proportion to the space required, and as if potentially backfiring and building up the idea that Jews of color are especially unsafe under normal circumstances. I'd imagine that many Jews of color (more, proportionately, than Jews generally) come from progressive communities, and that their struggle has more been people (friendly Jews and non-Jews alike) finding them novelties and occasionally not hiding that properly, than being doubly the victims of racism and anti-Semitism.

Within the American Jewish community, it's normal to look like Adam Goldberg, but I wouldn't say that even there, it constitutes privilege. In my not-insignificant experience of the American Jewish... if not community per se, then of American Jews, the blond and strapping few (of both sexes, I might add) are the most sought-after. The same is pretty much true of East Asian/half-Asian Jews. (This was how it went at my high school, at least - whether by chance, adoption, or intermarriage, anyone blond who'd been to Hebrew School was hot stuff.)

Black Jews... obviously have to deal with the fact that America has not the best past/present when it comes to African-Americans generally, so, while I could easily imagine (and am now starting to remember) scenarios in which black Jews get embraced for questionable reasons by white Jewish guys who feel insecure about their own coolness factor, overall yes, an Adam Goldberg would be in a relative position of privilege as vs. a black Jew.

Phoebe said...

Dan,

"What's good, for a kid, is knowing that she or he is not the only whomever going through whatever."

Your comment appeared as I was replying to Rshams, but yes, this is important. Whether you're the only gay kid, the only Jewish kid, or the only Jewish kid of color, it helps not to feel alone. And if you're the adopted of-color child of white Jews, you probably are in a situation not radically different from that of a kid who grows up gay and feels absolutely alone. The issue in this particular case is... what I wrote in my reply to Rshams, namely that building a camp around this form of difference, especially given that these are kids from progressive-enough (or super-duper-progressive!) backgrounds, might overshoot the mark.

"As for intermarriage being 'less tragic' if it involved a non-white minority, that's just not true for many NY Metro area Jewish parents whose families fled Brooklyn in the 60's and 70's. It may be a historical aberration (I think it was), but lots of 'em wanted no part of a black person in their family. The 60's and 70's polarized Jewish racial politics."

Of-color =/= just black. There's still a good bit of racism in the US against blacks, and while I maintain that it would be a stretch to say Jews are more racist in that regard than most, and would if I had to estimate say probably slightly but not massively less (are there many Jewish Birthers?), America is such that it's hard to imagine any non-black ethnic community in which blackness would constitute privilege. But a Jew who looks East Asian, say, is such a person really marginalized as compared with someone who looks like Adam Goldberg? And more to the point, are Jewish parents who frown on intermarriage more uncomfortable with a new daughter-in-law who wants to incorporate Chinese traditions into family life, or one who must have a Christmas tree and ham? I've written about this before - it's my sense that what Jews fear, when it comes to intermarriage, is letting the majority culture swoop in and dilute Jewish difference. A minority-minority marriage, one in which the other partner's traditions aren't undifferentiated-"Real-American" but also something under threat of disappearance, poses less of a visceral threat in that regard, even if when you step back and look at it, what could be more American than a minority-minority marriage, with both cultures celebrated?

rshams said...

Phoebe,

I agree with you on pretty much all these points. Whatever positive views I have on the matter of the summer camps are in the context of identity formation and creating inclusive communities, not exaggerating the extent of racism and exacerbating alienation.

Phoebe said...

Yeah, this is kind of a tough one. It's on the one hand a good idea for Jews of color to meet so as not to feel alone, on the other something that would be awkward to execute however it was done.

Dan O. said...

Phoebe,

"An entire summer camp just strikes me as possibly out-of-proportion to the space required, and as if potentially backfiring and building up the idea that Jews of color are especially unsafe under normal circumstances."

I went to Oberlin College in the heyday of identity politics, and was an officer of the Student Coop Assoc. (i.e. even more infused with identity politics), so I have like, sooooo much experience with this sort of thing. A lot of terminology and activism brought over from feminist activism are applied in a way that is completely out of proportion. Safe spaces meant "safe from rape" or "safe from violence" not "safe from young men or white women bending over backwards to show deference", etc. Believe me, I get it. But if everyone lets their hackles go down a bit, things tend to settle down on their own. When people tend to do normal things, like cooking and cleaning and paddling in canoes, all the meaningless crap tends to fall away. And so, if there's no need for the camp, which there may not be, it'll disappear. The kids will want to go play with their friends instead of identifying with a specially protected subgroup.

"(are there many Jewish Birthers?)"

Among the class of people I outlined, you bet there is. And, btw, I know that of color doesn't equal black. Duh. The particular Jewish-black antipathy following white-flight from Brooklyn is hardly obscure, and it was mirrored (on a smaller scale) in Chicago.

Another thing that's useful for these Jewish kids of color to learn is that they're more likely to encounter anti-semitism from people who assume (by their appearance) that they're *not* Jewish. Right?