Race is a complicated, emotional issue, particularly right now in the US. For me, though, my focus lately is much more on something much closer to me than the headlines, but I didn’t realize it until I was discussing recent headlines with a friend who happens to be a person of color.
She said something that suddenly touched a nerve in me. I was suddenly defensive, angry even. It’s really irrelevant what she said because, as we talked further, I realized that how I was feeling had very little to do with what she had said and everything to do with me.
I felt the need to defend “whiteness” and that need came from…feeling as if my own “whiteness” was now in question.
I grew up in a very rural community with just 0.5% minorities in our school. Her name was Lily and she was half Vietnamese and looking back, I can’t imagine what growing up there was like for her. Suffice it to say, the town was REALLY white. I grew up hearing stories of how, just a generation or two ago, people would be judged on what part of Europe their families had come from or what religion they practiced. The KKK had burned crosses in the front yards of Catholics, lacking anyone else to torment. Humans will often try to find ways to divide themselves, even if everyone has the same color skin.
In that world, I liked to think my family was rather enlightened. They didn’t care that I was friends with Lily and we’d have sleepovers at each other’s houses. Kids didn’t pick on kids for going to the wrong church at recess. Still, my father would occasionally utter a racial slur or a racist joke, but at least my mother would admonish him. We were “good” white people, right? Ok, so my father told me that if I ever brought home a black boyfriend, I’d be dead to him, but…weren’t we at least ok?
Similarly, I had friends who others would probably call “good ol’ boys” or “rednecks.” These are the kinds of guys who wear camouflage even if they’re not hunting and drive pickup trucks. They accepted me, even if they sometimes made fun of me. I was part of their people. I was a white woman, someone to be protected by them. Maybe even something that belonged to them.
Until I wasn’t.
Even before conversion, when I met and fell in love with my husband, I discovered what a strange and fickle thing race can be. Suddenly, even though nothing else about me had changed, I wasn’t as white as I’d been. In fact, to some, I was even worse than being completely “not white.” I had chosen to break unwritten rules and I’d thrown my lot in with a foreign group. It was so strange to me that my parents could really like Mr. Safek, but at the same time not want their friends and neighbors to know about him. This simmered a little while he and I dated, but when we planned our wedding, it all came to a very ugly head.
I expected that my immediate family would want to come to our little, low-key civil wedding. I expected that they would be happy that we were no longer just living together, but would be legally wed, solidifying our family. Instead, they were ashamed. Now, everyone would know their daughter was marrying a Jew. Even worse, by then I wanted to convert. Their own daughter and grandchildren…would also be Jews. Far worse, though, was that everyone would know this. What would the neighbors think?
It was like a part of my “whiteness” had just evaporated into the air.
I wasn’t yet accepted as a Jew, but I was also disowned by my family and rejected by the tribe I had been born into. Since then, I’ve faced anti semitism head on, from the people closest to me, the people who loved me and raised me. It ebbs and flows in my life like a diseased tide of algae bloom. They eventually backed away from completely disowning me, but there are “jokes” about feeding my children bacon or cutting off my son’s peyos, should he ever try to grow them. My family has settled on more, “Just don’t be visibly Jewish, you know, in the way it shows to others.” I still struggle with honoring them without straying from Torah and protecting my children.
It’s into this background that the current discussions of race come into my life. Is Gal Gadot white? Should white people fear their culture disappearing? Are white people evil toward people of color? Are Jews white? All of it streams across my consciousness even as I struggle with a principle question.
Am I still white myself? If I’m not a Jew, but I’m not what I was raised as…what am I? And, perhaps more importantly, what does whatever answer there is mean for me and for my children in this world where everyone seems to fear the other?
My friend was kind enough to be patient with me. She’s had a lot more experience wrestling with questions of race than I have. I’m sure I seemed a little like a child, but I’ve been privileged to never really need to ask these kinds of questions. Now, as I feel conversion may finally be within reach and the tide of anti semitism seems to be on the rise, I face them.
I know, regardless of the high price of anti semitism, I would be honored to be counted among the Jewish people. I know also that my ancestry is a smattering of English, Irish, and a little French/German thrown in. I know my skin is pale and burns easily. What all that means combined, though…I’m not quite sure.
And I’m not sure anyone else is, either.