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Whiteness, White Otherness and Jewish Identity

Abstract: This paper addresses the construction of Jewish identity as both whiteness and ‘Other’. While Jewish identity has historically been a marked category, the construction and racialization of Jews has essentialized Jewish identity as white Otherness. The author interrogates the construction of ‘who/what is a Jew’ and how this has been taken up within the Jewish community in terms of whiteness, culture and power. The paper revolves around two issues. First, the author discusses how whiteness is conceptualized as normative and mundane. The mundanity of whiteness is ruptured and complicated by representations of white Otherness. The second part of the article is a critical look at how white Jewishness is produced as a normative and authentic Jewish identity.

Introduction

This article is essentially intended as a discussion about whiteness and mundanity. In particular, I pose the question: Is whiteness mundane? On the one hand, one might argue that there is a common sense understanding, or common sense consciousness, within North American society that whiteness is a normative identity and way of being. This infers the mundanity of whiteness simply on the basis that it is the norm. In the North American context, normative identity constitutes a white identity that is primarily of British descent. This white identity is not limited to skin colour, but incorporates names, food and cultural ways of being (including mannerisms, values, behavior, language and nationality). The mundanity of whiteness is also based on how whiteness, as a normative identity, is invisible and unmarked. In this sense, whiteness does not stand out. It is assumed in the way that people are described, where the only attributes or characteristics of identity that are seen are those which do not conform to white identity.

This framework does not reduce whiteness to a dichotomous relationship to blackness. Importantly, it also makes visible other forms of whiteness that do not conform to an exclusive conception and way of being. What constitutes whiteness is always relative to a particular context and situation. As I argue in this article, whiteness is a complex and contradictory concept. Whiteness, rather than being mundane, is a complicated construction. This becomes apparent when we look at white ‘Others’, whereby we see that whiteness cannot be reduced to skin colour alone.

This article explores the example of Jewish whiteness to illuminate the complexity of the category of whiteness. Whiteness is not a singular and exclusive construction. I am arguing that whiteness is a slippery category, its meanings contingent on historical and cultural contexts. Thus, whiteness is ultimately a multiple and complex category that is not solely dependent upon skin colour, but incorporates diverse and different ways of being, as well as relative and varying access to positions of privilege and power.

This article is divided into two parts. The first section interrogates the construction of whiteness. In particular, I explore how the mundanity of whiteness is ruptured and complicated by white Jewish Otherness. The second part of this article takes a critical look at the construction of the Jew as white Other. In this last half, my intention is to disrupt normative and singular conceptions of racialized identity. In essence, both halves of this article are meant to accomplish one goal – to illustrate the complexity of whiteness.

Whiteness And White Otherness

Theoretical and philosophical discussions attempt to bring to light and deconstruct the invisibility of whiteness. Yet, because of the normativity of whiteness, these approaches are necessarily based in revealing whiteness in its reflection through Otherness. Ruth Frankenberg argues that whiteness is “…produced as an effect of the Western discursive production of its Others” (Frankenburg, 17). Similarly, Toni Morrison states that whiteness can not see itself except through the reflection of what it sees itself as not. In other words, whiteness is only visible when reflected through the Other.

Both Frankenberg and Morrison begin from the position that the body is marked through skin colour. Their arguments provide an important framework for understanding how the social meanings of skin colour are emphasized as the first and most visible way in which the body is marked in North American society today. Moreover, it is the meanings attributed to skin colour that shape the everyday experiences of people within society. The meanings derived from skin colour shape how people interact with others, and the kinds of conclusions and assumptions they make about others that shape how they treat and talk to other people.

The meanings of whiteness that organize our lives are not dependent upon the presence of the Other. Rather, the real existence of the Other is not necessary in constructing and defining whiteness and the white self/subject. Our lives are organized in relation to an imaginary construct of the Other; simply put, that which represents what the white self/subject is not. This image does not need to be real or lived. Thus, the normative white self is constantly being shaped through images of the Other.

Not only does the Other not need to be real, but it is not contingent upon white skin colour. Rather, the definition of whiteness only through skin colour is a relatively new concept that has only been realized since the 1950s. Prior to this time, whiteness had been defined in explicitly different ways. For example, Jews and Irish people were historically categorized as non-white and racially inferior groups (Gilman; Miles). Their non-whiteness had little, if anything, to do with actual skin colour. Instead, their ‘non-whiteness’ was used as a means of describing the physical characteristics they were depicted as having that differentiated them from their Aryan or British brethren. In the case of the racialization of Jews, their imagined non-white skin colour was described as reflecting their ‘diseased nature’ as being both a ‘too pure’ and ‘impure’ race (Gilman).

While skin colour may be the initial means by which Otherness stands out today, what constitutes whiteness is not limited to skin colour. Frankenberg and Morrison do not reduce their conception of whiteness to skin colour. In Frankenberg’s case study, class, culture and gender complicate whiteness, and reveal how whiteness is more than simply the privileges derived from skin colour. Specifically, class, nationality, language, religion, names and cultural ways of being sometimes deny white ethnic groups access to resources or positions of power to which their white skin colour may otherwise have allowed them access.

Until the late 1960s, Jews in Canada were not seen as white, only as Jews. Some examples of this include the quotas imposed that restricted the entry of Jews into university programs, the denial of membership in private clubs that had policies stipulating “no Jews allowed”, and the refusal of established law firms to hire Jewish lawyers (the result of which were the establishment of Jewish law firms in response to these hiring policies).

Today, being a white Jew has different meanings. To a large extent, most white Jews are second and third generation immigrants, and therefore have greatly assimilated. Even more so, North American society has enabled white Jews to be able to ‘pass’. This has been the result of the binary racialized nature upon which North American society rests due to a history of Afro-American slavery (and the more recent immigration of people of colour from developing countries over the last 30 years). Within this framework, Jews have been able to ‘pass’ as white (and be seen as white) because they are not ‘visibly’ different (in terms of skin colour).

But, at the same time, Jews still face barriers of racialized difference on the basis of culture, names and ways of being. While Jews can ‘pass’, they nonetheless do not conform to ‘fit’ the normative white identity. The result has been the experience of difference and sameness simultaneously, or the interwoven experience of white privilege and Jewish oppression. This is illustrated explicitly through extreme Right wing discourses that continue to espouse that Jews (and people of colour) are to blame for the social ills of society. Within this framework, Jewish racialized difference (and inferiority) is undetectable through skin colour and appearance, but identifiable through Jewish last names.

To elaborate, we live the material reality of whether we are considered white (in other words, part of the norm) or not. Whiteness can be a blurry reality for those of us who are constructed as white Others. As white Others, we live the reality of being white which allows us to be invisible and participate in the mundane of the everyday by ‘passing’ on the basis of our white skin. But our whiteness and white privilege varies according to the historical and social context we find ourselves in at particular moments. White privilege as white Others involves degrees of privilege. While white Jews are white, we are still seen as ‘different’; as a separate racialized entity.

And yet being a white Jew also means being able to hide the Other part of white Other. It means being able to ‘pass’ in society. Yet, the ability to ‘pass’ is somewhat limited, as our last names and more subtle cultural practices and ways of being (including food, rituals, customs and traditions) reveal our ‘difference’ or inauthentic whiteness. However, even as ‘out’ white Others, we live within the privileges to which our whiteness gives us access, while still being Other.

Whiteness And Jewish Identity

While the first part of this paper interrogated the construction of Jews as white Others, the remainder of this paper takes a different turn. The first part of this paper dealt with Jews as a category of white racialized Otherness. In contrast, this second part focuses on deconstructing the notion of the Jew as a white Other. In particular, I am looking at the role of whiteness within Jewish community and its importance in relationship to power and privilege between and among diverse Jewish ethnic groups.

Scholarly research devoted to interrogating racial constructs have, by and large, explored the racialization of Jews as a separate category from dominant and hegemonic whiteness, but, at the same time, perceived Jews as a white people (not people of colour) (see Gilman; Miles). What this has meant is that Jews are construed as their own singular and exclusive racial entity. They cannot be ‘authentically’ or ‘truly’ white, and also, they are not people of colour. (I have elaborated on this in the above section.)

What I would like to introduce at this point, is that the way that Jews have been racialized as white Others has ignored Jews who are not white. These Jews include Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews and Sephardi/Middle Eastern Jews (see Bulkin, Pratt and Smith). Within North American Jewish communities, the dominant construction of the white Jew persists because of the relative access to resources that white Jews have been able to attain because of their white privilege. White privilege has enabled white Jews to ‘pass’ in society in a way that people of colour, whether they are Jewish or not, cannot (Dahan). This white privilege is bound up with both white skin (obviously) and a European cultural familiarity. In this sense, I am referring to both cultural similarity and difference between white, European Christians and white, European Jews. While there are similarities in terms of values, language and ways of being, there are substantial differences between the two that become noticeable through interactions. The point, however, is that this cultural familiarity has facilitated the ability for white, European Jews to assimilate easily within North American society.

The differences between various Jewish ethnic groups are substantial. They are not reducible to skin colour, although skin colour most certainly plays a role. The issue of cultural similarity between Jewish ethnic groups has great implications for illustrating the complexity of both whiteness and the singular construction of Jewish identity.

Within North American Jewish communities, whiteness has various meanings. On the one hand, white Jews tend not to see themselves as white because they have historically been racialized as inferior Others who have been excluded and oppressed (as is the case of European Jewish history, including the exile or conversion of Jews from Britain and Spain at various times, as well as the Shoah). Yet, Ashkenazi/Eastern European Jews see themselves as white in comparison to white skinned Sephardi/Middle Eastern Jews. These latter Jews are viewed within North American Jewish communities as being ‘Jews of colour’ (Bulkin, Pratt and Smith, 201, note 7). The inference here is that these Jews are not white in the eyes of Ashkenazim. This distinction tends to be made on the basis of culture and non-European origins/customs/traditions/language/names, and not skin colour.

White privilege, in granting relative access to resources which are not accessible to those who are not white skinned and/or not of European origins, has meant that white, Ashkenazi Jews have dominance and power within Jewish communities both in Israel and the diaspora. This white privilege has enabled white Jews to reproduce their own Ashkenazi/Eastern European, white skinned image as the ‘authentic Jewish identity’ in questions of belonging and membership within Jewish communities.

Conclusion

To return to the original question, “Is whiteness mundane?”, I have argued that whiteness cannot be mundane because of its complexity. What I have sought to illustrate throughout this article is that what constitutes whiteness is subject to a specific sociohistorical and cultural context. Dominant constructions of whiteness are common sensically understood within the everyday organization of society. Hegemonic whiteness does not rely on the existence of Others to be known and realized.

At the same time, white Others are situated in tenuous and shifting social positions. While they can never be part of normative whiteness, they also are able to sometimes access resources because of their superficial ability to ‘pass’ within society. These same advantages are not available to people of colour because of their immediate visibility.

Perhaps the next question that should be posed is: “What is the relationship between ethnicity and whiteness?” Specifically, I am referring to how the role of culture complicates simplistic conceptions of whiteness as white skin colour. This is apparent in terms of normative or dominant whiteness and white Others, as well as between diverse Jewish ethnic groups.

All in all, what constitutes whiteness within cultural and historical terms is bound up in relations of privilege and power. For those of us who find ourselves situated as white Others, it means being located within simultaneous positions of privilege and oppression. Exploring the fluidity of our position within both frameworks may facilitate a useful dialogue between diverse ethnic and racial groups in understanding the complexity of identities.

NOTES

1 Here, I play off of Brekhus’ (2000) discussion of whiteness as an unmarked and therefore baseline category on the basis of which conceptions of “ethnicity” are developed.

2. I am using Antonio Gramsci’s notion of ‘common sense consciousness’. For an in-depth discussion, see Smith and Hoare.

3 Gender is also an important and immediately visible way in which the body is marked.

4 For in-depth discussion of the racialization of the Jew’s body and the diseases of the Jew, see Gilman.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brekhus, Wayne. “A Mundane Manifesto.” Journal of Mundane Behavior 1.1 (2000): 89-105.

Bulkin, Elly, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Barbara Smith. Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism. Ithaca NY: Firebrand Books, 1984.

Dahan, Carole. “Spheres of Identity: Feminist and Difference; Notes by a Sephardi Jewess.” Fireweed 35 (1992): 46-50.

Frankenburg, Ruth. White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Gilman, Sander L. The Jew’s Body. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Miles, Robert. Racism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Smith, G. Nowell, and Q. Hoare, eds. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publications, 1971.

Author: Kelly Amanda Train is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. When avoiding writing her dissertation (entitled Between Race, Culture and Community: Renegotiating Authentic Identity and the Boundaries Around Jewish Community), she can be found checking her various e-mail accounts, hanging out in cafés, and just generally hiding from her thesis committee.

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