Monday, March 21, 2011

passing as white

(I promise I talk about South Africa at the end of this post.)

Recently, watching Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, I've been thinking a lot about prejudice towards white people in America specifically towards my own people. Being from my generation, I have not had to deal with a lot of prejudice on account of my ethnicity or gender. Most stereotyping I have encountered has come from my (now former) surname, and often it played out more as people just making assumptions about me i.e. elementary school teachers asking if I am going to be absent for Rosh Hashanah or people assuming I do not celebrate Christmas. Though I have a few times run into more negative opinions, usually these are just hinted at and most often they come from people who have never met a Jewish person before. I have had to deal with none of the employment discrimination and overall societal feelings that my father and his parents etc experienced.

I always found being stereotyped into being Jewish ironic as I am not Jewish. Culturally, of course, I am as Jewish as I am Irish, but in terms of what technically makes you Jewish, I am not. And though I will always celebrate Jewish holidays (and I wonder why most Christians do not), though I am not technically Catholic either, my religious beliefs lie on that side.

Though changing my name was mostly a convenience as a result of years of answering the phone to telemarketers to explain that there was no Mrs. Silverstein residing at my house, it was also an experiment in passing. Would I be treated differently if people could not make assumptions about my ethnicity (ironic of course as Cramer was changed from Kramer as a result of WWI era anti-German sentiment)? I have found that thus far I was right. American people who did not know me before do not make these assumptions, they assume I'm just one of the mixed up 12% this, 12% that been in America a long time folks. I don't know that they necessarily treat me better as a result, but it is certainly different. And though I was never a fan of stereotyping, I don't think I like this better as is a constant reminder of the veiled prejudice of American society.

Expressing yourself ethnically is a challenge for white Americans unless you live in an enclave of your ethnicity. I feel much more Irish when I am surrounded by my mother's extended family in New York. Of course, this only happens once every few years and has much less so since I've been off living far from the East Coast. I used to feel much more Jewish walking through the supermarket looking for kosher chicken with my grandmother in Florida as she showed me off to the other old ladies. I have not been to Florida since her funeral and have seen less of that side of the family too in the past few years. I want very desperately to maintain my cultural identity as being a Jewish and Irish identity, but I find this exceedingly difficult when the vast majority of interactions within an American sphere are based on parts of my identity...being a Peace Corps volunteer, a graduate student, teacher, etc, etc.

I find the ease with which white people pass as part of the majority interesting as this is certainly a new phenomenon in America resulting from the immigration of more brown people. Reading the book "How the Irish Became White", paints a very different picture of a 19th century America in which Irish people faced much of the same discrimination that black people did. By the time my family arrived at the end of the 19th/early 20th century, that level of discrimination was disappearing with the arrival of Eastern European immigrants (like the other side of my family), but stereotypes still persisted. Now, being Irish American is seen as this cute thing that doesn't really define a person (unless they are from a working class Irish neighborhood and outside of the mainstream of middle class white America). You can say St. Patrick's Day is for you, but the rest of the year you are just like everyone else. Though discrimination against Jewish people is fresher in our consciousness and there are more Jewish communities within the middle class, it does not have the same weight it used to, and it's easy for people like me to pass as long as your name doesn't sound so terribly Jewish as mine.

Now one of the reasons, I have been pondering this issue lately is that white South Africans really cannot pass unless maybe they live in Jo'burg*. You are Afrikaaner. You are English. You are Jewish. That is it. Though there is a small French Huguenot community in the Western Cape, most of them have assimilated into Afrikaaner culture. According to wikipedia, there are white immigrants from many other countries, but they make up a very small percentage of the white population. Though Afrikaaner people are the majority in terms of white people, the stereotypes that exist about them are not positive. Beyond the worldwide view of Afrikaaners as oppressors, Afrikaaners (especially those not from urban areas) are seen as backward. Not wearing shoes is just the beginning of a long list...The English have fared better in terms of public opinion, but are still seen as a unique ethnic group. Jewish people face the same stereotypes that they do all over the world. Maybe because white people are not the majority, there is no white assimilated majority that you can find your way into. This is a double-edged sword as white South Africans can express themselves culturally much more easily than I can, but they also face all that discrimination that I have run away from.

*Jo'burg is different as is more of a cultural melting pot than anywhere else in South Africa, but I'm not really sure how that plays out as I haven't spent a lot of time there.

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