“Professor, you are very comfortable with Arabic and with Muslims. Why do you have an interest in the Middle East?” asked one of my English students recently.
“Well, there are a lot of people of Middle Eastern origin in this area. I’m friends with a lot of people.”
“No, professor, you have an ease with Arabic and with certain aspects of our cultures. Are you Italian or Greek?”
“Southern French? Mediterranean in some way?”
This questioning went on for a few minutes until I revealed to my students that I had family in Israel, that it was my Jewishness they were detecting. They all roundly accepted that and admitted that they figured this was probably the case, but they just wondered and on we went with class. But the moment has stuck with me for a few days, because it highlights a constant in my life–ethnicity and the questions it brings. In the recent (and also constant) talk of race in America, I reflected on my own experiences with it and thought that sharing them (in brief) might help white-Anglo-Saxon-Americans understand it a little better, too. You see, the short answer for my students was simply, “I have a lot of friends who are Arabs or Muslims, and they accept me, because I accept them.” That’s not the case with all the different parts of my own cultures.
Both of my parents are of Celtic and Jewish descent. Mostly Irish, a chunk of Scottish, a sliver of Welsh, and a huge slathering of French Celtic and mostly Ashkenazi, with a speck of Sephardic, Jewish to be exact. To someone who’s (like my husband) non-white these differences don’t exist. They’re just a collection of really white people, with long white histories. But to me, they cut up my whiteness in such a way that they highlight cultural boundaries between people.
In the Jewish world, from which both of my parents maternally and paternally hail (my father more so), I am generally not accepted. Yes, my mother passed on that Jewish genetic connection to me, and yes, I know a lot of liturgical Hebrew and was taught the Shema before I was taught how to spell my name. And, yes, I know a slew of Yiddish, and some Israeli folk songs–all taught to me by my mother. Her Jewish ancestry came to America via the Southern route and is uncommon in American Jewish history, but it still leads back to Moses and Miriam, to Jacob and Rebecca, etc…My father’s family took a traditional path to the United States. They came through the Lower East Side, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and they came during the Mass Migration. My great great grandfather owned a kosher deli on Delancy Street, and after he died, my great great grandmother opened a kosher boarding house and summer cafe on Coney Island. It’s 100%, textbook correct, Jewish American heritage. But many Jewish circles would still not have me. Why? Because there’s this whole other side to me, and it sits uncomfortably–all mixed up–next to the Jewish side. I’m a Borgos, a Pressler, a Fischer, a Josevitz, a Lebovitz, etc…
My mother’s father is a Fitzgerald. My maternal grandmother’s father is a Beaird. See all those Celtic vowels strung together? That’s nothing. Some of my Celtic ancestral names I can’t even pronounce, but oh, they’re beautiful and I love the pagan mystery of them, and that’s just my mother’s side. From my father’s father, I’m a Burnett, a Cairn, a Burke, a McDougal, and most of my father’s Irish ancestry comes from Donegal, where I have been for a few short hours and it was magical. But I don’t look particularly “Irish” or “Scottish” or whatever.
I’ve got this “ethnic side” as people say when they look at me without knowing anything about me. The only place I’ve ever been “recognized” is Russia. As soon as I stepped off the plane into Moscow, generally very reserved Russians began to ask me–in Russian–if I was Slavic or something like that. I told them, “Well, my great great grandparents were from Hungary.” This was fine until I naively added, “They were Jewish.” Either the conversation was over, or a long antisemitic rant followed.
Because I wasn’t raised going to synagogue, but I was raised with my Jewish family and grandmother, I was taught a lot about Judaism and ocassionally to celebrate the holy days and such, I was given a Hebrew name at birth, along with my English one, and I knew many of the same songs and experiences as my Jewish counterparts (who had bat mitzvahs, etc…), I have a genuine Jewish American experience. These are my people, in heart and soul, but I’m not always accepted that way. There are whole groups of Jews who would roundly reject me, and that was a difficult notion growing up, especially, considering that there are millions of Jews who know far less than I about Judaism and Jewish culture, and yet, because their parents are fourth cousins (like all Ashkenazi Jews are) no one cares what they know or who they are in the world. It’s simply accepted that they’re Jews.
In Celtic world, I’ve never once been mistaken for someone who fell off the Ireland boat. At Celtic festivals, people think I’m an interested observer. My Puerto Rican husband (who’s Afro Latino) has been spoken to more openly and been asked more times if he has a connection to one of the Celtic nations than I have, and when I tell people that it’s me who has the Irish ancestry, they look disbelieving. Really? Huh. I never would have thought that. Not even my see-through whiteness gets me into these doors. Alas, it is also what I am, and I’m deeply proud of it.
I spent a good portion of my adult life trying to find a religious and cultural setting where I could be accepted and that I could hand over to my children. For me, God can be met anywhere–a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a bridge, a ditch on the side of the road. He is everywhere present and in all things, so I’m open to worship. And luckily for me, I was raised by an agnostic Jewish father, a Christian mother (of varying denominations), a Italian Catholic stepfather, and a Thai Buddhist stepmother, so you get the point. I’m not choosey.
But my big dream was to be able to say, “Look, kids, you’re this or you’re that and this is how this or that worships, eats, and sings.” But I finally had to come to the conclusion that that’s never going to happen, because a genetically halfish Jew, with a little more than halfish Celtic bones, doesn’t really have a landing place even in America. However, I’ve carved a place at synagogue and I’ve passed on a lot of Jewish culture to my children. I’ve also taken them to a beautiful Celtic-leaning Episcopal church for years, a place where my husband (their father) is deeply involved in the Spanish speaking parish there. So, I have home and it is beautiful, but all of this brings me to a realization: there are a whole lot of white people in America who never even struggle as I have, among other white people. They’re one thing, or two, but nothing in conflict with another part of themselves, and so they can’t “see color.” They can’t understand how we’re all still talking about George Floyd’s death.
Listen, people, if I can get rejected–all my life–by Christians who find out I’m Jewish and by Jews who find out that I have a mother with an Irish last name, then how much more difficult is it for a person of color in America to simply walk down the street in a sleepy neighborhood in Savannah and check out the new houses being built or leave the convenience store at night with his hood up over his head or play with a toy gun in a park in New York or defend herself, in her own house, when it’s mistaken for a drug dealer’s, without being shot? With all the angst I’ve experienced over the years, all the obvious prejudices from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Evangelical (oh, God, let me tell you!) Christians and all flavor of Jews, I still don’t have to fear any of those things mentioned above. I’m a woman, so that brings a daily push-back of its own, but I don’t get followed when I shop in stores and people are not surprised when I tell them I have two masters degrees and studied at more than one Ivy League school. They don’t even blink (well, except, my family, but that’s a different story). I don’t get questioned. If I can experience what I’ve experienced and I’m just two parts white people, how much more can a person of color experience? The daily difference in how my Latino husband experiences the exact same moments as I, is very telling.
America, we have a gigantic race problem, and one of the biggest problems is that white people keep perpetuating the problem and then standing back and saying, indignantly, “I don’t even see color!” Sure they don’t, because they only see white, which is their own skin, the absence of color. The color of the pearls they clutch, the angels in their Nativity scenes, the outside of their Baptist churches. It’s the color of purity in the Western world. The color that represents a fresh start, a clean soul, a washed sheet. Anything with color is a mark, and marks take notice and being white in America means not noticing things. White people are taught not to look anywhere outside themselves and their white god for answers. They can’t even see the prejudices they heap on one another. The denial is deep. It’s going to take a miracle. Most white people see the death of George Floyd on TV and are sick by it. They’re horrified, but they also, turn away after a week or so, because “people have to go to work, you know?” and “There’s a pandemic on” and “There’s nothing I can do about it.” And they have no idea why that’s the core of racism when they go to their segregated churches on Sunday mornings and preach about the God of Israel and how everyone has to love one another. They won’t even listen to my white story. How are they going to sit down and listen to their neighbor who isn’t a Christian or Jew and doesn’t have any ancestors from Northern Europe? The real question is, when will they see how it’s important to sit down and talk with their neighbors at all? I propose that it will come when we start realizing that white is nothing, that it’s the absence of color, the absence of substance. It’s an indication of nothing and not a litmus test.