Saturday, January 12, 2013

Jew-fro politics

Philip Galanes, whose interviews on Leonard Lopate and such have gotten me through many a poodle-walk, addresses the Jew-fro. A man who used the term to describe another man's hair in an old photo, and was accused of racism and insensitivity asks, "if Afro is not racist, why is Jew-fro?"

Galanes first harkens back to his own Jew-fro'd youth, in a way that makes it clear he considers the natural hair of a Jewish-looking Jewish-person hideous and shameful. Unless it's been properly gelled. Which brings up the eternal challenge of "natural" hair: hair can be "natural" even if greatly altered, assuming the artifice doesn't cross whichever culturally-significant line. Galanes then returns to the letter-writer's quandary, and speculates that if not everyone present was Jewish, non-Jews might simply not feel comfortable using the term. He almost seems to get the point, when he references Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair," and notes that it also matters what the hair of the letter-writer himself consists of.

All of this, though, misses the real reason why Jew-fro and Afro aren't the same. Jews, all right-thinking people insist, are not a race. While this is sometimes brought up in multicultural, anti-racist terms - there are black Jews! Asian Jews! - what it really means is, Jews - the Ashkenazi Jews who make up the majority of Jews in the U.S., along with the many Sephardic Jews of European origin, along with the Israeli Jews who are some mix - are white. What it really means is, anyone who dares question that Jews in fact look indistinguishable from Swedes is a racist.

There is apparently  - and others would know more about this than I do, so the usual correct-me-if-I'm-wrong - some ignorance among the uninitiated regarding hair-relaxer as used by black women - i.e., apparently there exist non-black individuals who have seen only black women with straightened hair and black men with very short hair or shaved heads, and therefore assume that people of sub-Saharan African ancestry have naturally straight hair. But I'm going to hazard a guess that this is not such a common misperception. The particulars of black women's hair-straightening might be mysterious to most who are not themselves black women, but it's not this great secret (unless it is?) that black women with straight hair typically got there with some artifice.

Meanwhile, Jews are white, remember? So it kind of is this great secret that Jewish women with straight hair often-but-not-always straighten their hair. It's an easily-kept secret, given that a) there are some ethnically-Ashkenazi individuals with naturally straight hair, b) the non-"white" quality of most Jews' hair isn't apparent at lengths of typical men's haircuts, and c) with long hair, the straightening needed to smooth down typical "Jewish" hair isn't chemical relaxers, but heat styling, i.e. hairdryers and/or flat-irons. This makes jumping in the pool problematic, but means there are no special hair appointments.

If all of this is making you uncomfortable, it's because we are not to speak of Jews as having racial traits. Either because this is somehow giving support to the Nazis (as if acknowledging that Jews might look quasi-identifiable is advocating that Jews be rounded up and killed for this) or because it's seen as questioning the Jewish authenticity of ethnic minorities within the Jewish-as-in-the-religion community. The term "Jew-fro" bluntly acknowledges Jewish racial difference, and ties it in with black racial difference. It acknowledges that a Jewish man with long, brushed-out hair might well look something other than white. (Or: it racializes a trait found just as often, or nearly, among white non-Jews, whose poufy hair in old photos is just curly hair, nothing "-fro.") This, in turn, reveals that long-haired Jewish women, too, would have Jew-fros were it not for artifice, although I'll accept that I'm forcing a gender angle here. The main issue is that using "Jew-fro" is effectively calling Jews a non-white race.


Maya Resnikoff said...

On the one hand, I agree with your analysis. On the other, the notion that Jews are a race is becoming more and more inaccurate (besides being problematic politically) in the modern day. Is a black Jew's natural hair an Afro or a Jewfro? Is my naturally straight hair not-Jewish?

Jews used to be counted as not-white, and then, due to all the usual sociological factors, Jews "became" white (just like the Irish and Italians). Looking at Jewish hair just points out the blurry lines on these artificial distinctions.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

The way I see it, a well-meaning attempt to remind everyone that Jews come in all "races" (race being, of course, a construction whose meaning comes from society, not some kind of essential biological fact!), which is absolutely true, ends up kind of screwing over Jews who look stereotypically Jewish. Which, in the States, means Ashkenazi. To say that Jews aren't a race (or ethnicity-used-to-mean-race) is great if what's meant is that one is no less Jewish for being black, blond, etc. But it's not great if it means denying that the many, many Jews who do look identifiably Jewish experience life as Jewish-looking individuals. It's denying their experience. If people react to you as a Jew regardless of your religious affiliation or perhaps even your name, then yes, you are experiencing Judaism at least partially as a race.