Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

Comparisons are odorous

Lots of different things recently have led me to ponder the situation of being a member of a minority group while also being white. This is mostly just stuff swirling incoherently round my head, but I want to write some of this down and I don't think waiting until I have a polished theory is going to work.

I've been applying for jobs and therefore filling in equal opportunity monitoring forms. Like many white people with liberal leanings, I used to be opposed to the whole idea of monitoring: obviously we all know that race is just a made up excuse for powerful people to be horrible to less powerful people, so what's the point of collecting statistics that make people declare themselves to belong to a category that isn't even meaningful? Then I learned that basically no person of colour objects to them, and thought about it some more and realized that you actually do need to collect statistics in order to detect and deal with discrimination, you need to count how many people do believe in race even if you don't. But I still keep getting enraged by the the categories chosen; they come from the 2001 census (and really, the argument for including race on the census at all is a lot weaker than for putting it on equal ops forms), and they're a horrible mishmash of skin colour with geographical origin, and completely fail to cover the major UK minority groups properly. Also "Black Irish" means something entirely different from "Black British", but hopefully people know how to interpret things in context.

So as usual I tick "white other". (Thuggish Poet wrote a satirical piece about the fact that Jews always tick that category, but I don't have a copy I can quote here.) But anyway, that makes me think about two aspects of being in a white minority; one is that in online race discussions, white people always get defensive about being white, they say, I'm not white, I'm part German and part Scottish, or I'm not white, I'm a mutt, or even, I'm not white, I'm disabled / gay / Pagan / special snowflake. This is partly to do with white being the default so people don't think of it as a racial or ethnic identity, and partly to do with wanting to be on the side of the oppressed, not the side of the privileged. (The latter of course is to do with one of the worst features of online debates, that it becomes all about "sides".) But there's another aspect: the fact that some white people actually do have a recent or even current history of racial discrimination.

Clearly, it's a very bad thing if PoC are trying to talk about incidents of racism, and a bunch of white people shout them down and talk about vaguely relevant things like the fact that white people get stared at when on holiday in Japan, or the way a black person called them a mean name once or whatever. But the way the dialogue goes at the moment, there is no good way to talk about the experience of being Irish or Slavic or, well, Jewish. ajollypyruvate linked to this essay about being caught in the middle, which is partly about being mixed race, with a background that isn't really covered by the usual definition of "mixed", but also partly about the fact that there's no framework for her to talk about her father's experiences coming from a Slovak background.

I have sympathy for the "but I'm not white" people, and I know I've been there myself a few times. Ten years ago I was dating a non-Jewish guy, and he reported to me that he was cutting contact with someone he'd thought of as a friendly acquaintance, because this person turned out to be a scary racist. The ex-friend disapproved strongly of "interracial" relationships and had been vile towards another friend's ethnically Chinese girlfriend. And my boyfriend told me this guy would probably be ok with me, since I'm white, and I really reacted against that; if someone is being racist, I'm supposed to be among the people they hate, not among the people they think are racially acceptable. And more generally, I don't like being counted as one of the people with unconscious privilege, or part of the dominant / hegemonic culture. But obviously there are many ways that I do benefit from having pale skin, and many experiences that I never have because although I might be weird, people can't tell at a glance that I am.

And that's another thing: wychwood asked me if I considered Jewishness to be an ethnic identity. My first reaction was that that isn't a valid question. Then just after we'd had a really interesting conversation about this sort of issue (thanks, wychwood!), I was teaching my adult ed class, and we were discussing what makes a service meaningful. One person, a transplanted (stereo)typical New York Jew, talked about the sense of connection with other Jews, both present at synagogue and as part of the world-wide Jewish community following the same traditions. Another member of the class, who is a convert and very vocal about this background, tried to dismiss that as "just an ethnic thing", which people who didn't have that ethnic background couldn't connect to. I wasn't having that, I looked round at the class full of blonde Swedes (with a few equally blonde Germans and Finns and English people) and said, seriously, are you saying that our sense of community comes from an ethnic identity?

The truth is that the majority of Jews in western Europe and the US are in fact members of an ethnic group as well as a religious one, as most of us are from an Ashkenazi, central and Eastern European origin. Indeed, lots of Jews have hardly any religious connection at all, but are Jews purely because they share that ethnic background. Many Jews do experience racism based on appearance, as they are often darker and with visibly different features from the western European majority groups they live among. Note that plenty of Jews actually are people of colour and it's awkward if they get forgotten about when talking about racial dynamics. Also, plenty of Jews are fair, including me. They may be converts or descended from converts, and like nearly everyone in the world the majority of Jews are very unlikely to have only Jewish ancestors throughout history. (My friend Joanna looks, to my eyes, pretty "Jewish", but apparently people consider it appropriate to speculate, to her face, about the likelihood that some of her ancestors were raped to give her the genes which made her hair auburn rather than dark brown.)

Now, me, I have fairly "Jewish" (ie Ashkenazi) features, but I also have fair skin and light brown hair, so most people don't think I "look Jewish". I know about some fairly close relatives who aren't Jewish, but many of the Jewish ones on my mother's side are just as fair as I am. So generally I make an initial impression of being white. I do get slightly impatient with people who refuse to believe my own statements of my Jewish identity because I don't look like their stereotypical idea of what a Jewish appearance is supposed to be, but I have it a lot less bad than my Jewish friends who are actually blonde, and a whole lot less bad than the ones who are Indian Jews or Jews from an east Asian background via adoption or conversion.

I have been in situations, rarely, but it happens, where I feel uncomfortable with people knowing that I'm Jewish. In those situations I can choose to remove items of clothing that make my religion obvious, and keep quiet about topics that would identify me. I'm lucky both in that I can do that (and I'm not breaking what I consider an absolute religious principle by removing my head-covering, hiding my fringed ritual garment or revealing enough flesh to fit in with social norms), and in that I very rarely need to.

The thing is, "passing" is almost certainly preferable to being constantly visible whether you like it or not. But passing isn't without cost either. This certainly applies to people with invisible disabilities, or queer people, and I expect it applies to PoC who happen to have light skin. Also, there are lots of people who, appearance-wise, pass at a glance but not if observant people are looking for signs that they might belong to a despised group, even without having to lie about or conceal part of their life.

Behold, my amazing lack of conclusions!
Tags: essay

  • Aesthetic judgement

    So my link to Ann Leckie's piece on liking things that are in some sense not "good" has lead to a really interesting discussion. I'd like to pull up…

  • Clever

    woodpijn is having a discussion about IQ. She says she doesn't want to debate the sociological criticisms of IQ, so I'm following up…

  • Power imbalances and the internet

    This is tangentially about both RaceFail and AmazonFail, but only in that they're both examples of the phenomenon I want to talk about. And I'm not…

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →
← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →