Our racial politics, like so much else, is often framed as a dichotomy. Activists seek intersectional solidarity and allyship with all people of color (PoC), a giant category that seems to include everyone under the sun except whites. Or, alternatively, activists address African-American and Hispanic/Latino issues and overlook everyone else. This manifests in the diversity rhetoric of university rhetoric and countless other places, and of course it does so in different ways in different cases – life is complicated, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. After all, the idea that this is complicated, that diversity and identity are not a dichotomy, not even a spectrum arranged unidirectionally from white to non-white, but rather a complex mess of factors, is key to the topic of this post: do Mizrahi Jews count as “People of Color”?
The Forward – one of the oldest and most major Yiddish newspapers in America, now published in English too – had a great opinion piece this past August, written by Sigal Samuel. I really love the nuance and complexity Samuel brings to this issue; the author’s journey, wondering whether she counts as a “person of color,” and getting very different answers from people she speaks to, points to the problematic nature of our dichotomous conceptions of race.
Okay, terminology time. Mizrahi Jews are those who themselves, or their relatively recent ancestors, come from the Middle East. The Jews currently fleeing persecution in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq are Mizrahi Jews. They are as Middle Eastern, as non-European, as any (other) Arab. If Ashkenazi Jews – those of Eastern European descent – are arguably to be considered something other than just plain “white,” then surely Mizrahi Jews, and Sephardic Jews – those of Mediterranean heritage, largely descended from those who moved to Italy, Greece, or elsewhere after being kicked out of Spain in 1492 – should count as “people of color” as well, right? But, of course, it’s not that simple.
Samuel’s piece isn’t very long, so I don’t want to risk writing a blog post about it that repeats the entire thing, or that takes longer than her piece itself, though there are many excellent choice bits. I invite you to go read the whole thing, but, in a nutshell, Samuel writes that she, her family, and many members of her community, based both on their own feelings about their heritage (their self-sense of identity) and on the way they are treated in society, generally feel themselves to be something other than white. And yet, when she asks around, various people – including an African-American Jewish acquaintance and a (presumably Ashkenazi) Jewish professor of Middle Eastern Studies – tell her in no uncertain terms that she is not a person of color, because her people have never experienced such discrimination in the US as Asians and blacks. Further, with Ashkenazi being the dominant type of Jews (at least in a great many communities in the US), and with Ashkenazis having come to be considered white, “Jewish” as a category, as a whole, has likewise come to be considered white, separating Samuel from others of Arab or Indian descent, in many people’s eyes.
What I really like about this piece is that it not only illustrates these contradictions, and the failures of our black-white concept of race to accommodate the diversity of real human experience, but that it also highlights the ways in which identity is political. This is not simply about empirical categorizing – coming up with definitive determining factors and categorizing everyone “correctly” according to who they really are, or where they really belong. It is about the personal and political motivations, purposes, and (dis)advantages, in claiming a particular identity. This is why, for example, many Okinawans assert an “indigenous” identity, while Koreans and Tibetans, from rather similar historical circumstances, do not – for political purposes, and because of some sense of cultural affinity with Hawaiians and certain other groups.
Identity in our society is highly political, or politicized. As Samuel writes,
“Was I, a woman who sometimes gets read as white and therefore benefits from white privilege, wrongly co-opting the “of color” label in everything from internal monologues to health insurance forms?”
And in the end, she identifies her choice to identify as a person of color as a choice, and as a political one, not one for which there is a definitive correct answer. She writes:
Claiming the Jew of color identity, then, was not only a way to express my authentic feeling of moving through the world as a perpetual Other — it was also an attempt to destabilize [the idea that Jewish = white, and that Jewishness is opposed to Arab identity]. But was that, you know, kosher? Or did that performative aspect give my story some uncomfortable Rachel Dolezal-ish undertones?
She asks herself “Is there any sense in claiming an “of color” identity?” She decides that within the context of the history of race & discrimination in the United States, claiming a POC identity does not make sense for her, “But if you’re asking, “Does claiming a POC identity have a point, a practical purpose?” then, I thought, the answer might be yes.”
I love the way this piece highlights the complexities of race and identity. Many people seem to feel quite self-assured and self-righteous in policing who does and does not count, even as their own liberal-progressive discourses emphasize self-determination (see: gender identity, gender pronouns, who counts as indigenous?, who counts as black?). And yet, the world is more complicated than that. People – their experiences, their heritage – are more complicated than that.