Maybe it’s because I grew up in Toronto, Canada in the 1950s and had limited exposure to people whose African ancestors were brought to North America. Perhaps it’s because I grew up mostly in an immigrant and first-generation Jewish community, whose primary identity was, as it had been in Eastern Europe, Jewish by nationality and by experience. Whatever the reason, all I know is that I never considered myself white until I married an African-American woman.
So imagine my surprise when my wife-to-be blithely informed me that I was white. “Not I,” I told her, “Look at my curly black hair and olive skin. Consider what Jews endured in Europe. My own father, after fighting in the Canadian army in World War II, had to move to New York so that he could intern at a Jewish hospital because the hospitals in Toronto wouldn’t accept him. Jews aren’t white; European Christians are. Don’t insult me by calling me white!”
What did I consider myself? Just Jewish. Off-white at best.
But I couldn’t be white white because real whites were European Christians or, in North America, people of European descent—except for, initially, the Irish and Italians. They were the ones who had persecuted, oppressed and discriminated against my people for centuries. To consider myself white would have meant identifying with my people’s oppressors and I dismissed this option out of hand. On the other hand, it also meant that I made common cause with the peoples of Africa and Asia who were throwing off European domination and that, here in America, the struggle of African Americans for equality was but an extension of my own people’s earlier effort for the same.
The truth is that every group has its binary definitions, those who are inside and those who are outside. For Jews, it is Jews and non-Jews (goyim); for African Americans, it is primarily black and white, and so on. Although my wife now recognizes that most Jews are a minority within her white construct, with a distinct history of oppression by other whites, nonetheless, for her, I’m white first and foremost. For my part, I have no problem with her being black—Jews do come in all shades of beige and brown after all—but her Christian background would have posed a greater challenge were it not for the fact that yoga is her spiritual focus.
The contradiction in our perspectives is born of two radically different historical experiences.
First, although Ashkenazi Jews chose to flee European oppression for the possibility of a better life in America; African Americans were forced to come here to work as slaves. For Jews, America was the land of opportunity; for African Americans it remains the land of oppression. Europe was to Jews what America is to African Americans.
Second, although Jews arriving in America were definitely seen as an underclass and discriminated against by the white Euro-Christian majority for many decades, eventually we came to be regarded as part of the white majority—Eric Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity and Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America are two books that document this slow and painful transformation. But our experience of discrimination was nothing compared to the suffering African Americans endured—and still face—at the hands of the same white majority (including some Jews), whether in the South or the North (or the West and Midwest).
Third, although both American Jews and African Americans have achieved a significant improvement in their status since World War II, the Jewish experience has been qualitatively better and, while American Jews have been assimilated into the white majority, African Americans are still defined by the color of their skin.
American Jews can claim to have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps but we fail to acknowledge the benefits we gained as we were increasingly viewed as part of the white population and moved into the middle class. These include access to better housing, opportunities for better education and higher paying jobs, less scrutiny by the police and more leniency by the justice system, to name but a few. Most American Jews were co-opted by the system into surrendering their outsider status, grateful to be somewhat accepted. Not so, African Americans, who still struggle for their rights.
I now recognize that, at least in America, I am considered white by all except white racists. I recognize it but I don’t like it. The Jewish experience in white Christian Europe still sits heavy on my soul and I find it hard to embrace my new category of being. Although I would not have it otherwise—because I do enjoy the privileges that are bestowed on white males in this country—nonetheless, I remain forever “off-white” in my heart and continue to feel a bond with those peoples still struggling for their rights, just as American Jews had to do before we became white.