Most Jews growing up the United States, while sometimes facing questions about their religion, do not think twice about their ethnicity. But for nonwhite Jews like the seven that met on July 21 at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue the ability to be racially ambiguous is a luxury.
Last week’s meeting was Sixth and I’s second in a series of discussions entitled “This IS What a Jew Looks Like,” which is intended to provide a safe space for racially and ethnically diverse Jews to talk about obstacles they often face because of their identity. The event featured a small group discussion on an essay about race by the African-American Jewish social activist MaNishtana followed by an off-the-record conversation with White House speech writer Sarah Hurwitz.
MaNishtana’s essay, “This Is #MyJewish. It Matters.” focuses on the experience of being a black Jew and being forced to live with the constant reminder that his race puts him more at risk than others as he thinks about recent events like the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men.
“I realized that — as much as ‘mainstream’ Jews want to say that they don’t see color when it comes to Jews of Color, or as much as they want to say that they don’t have white privilege, or as much as they want to say that race doesn’t matter and that Jews of Color should be ‘just Jewish’ — all of this matters, especially given the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in America, and overseas,” he writes.
The author goes so far as to compare today’s struggles for blacks with those of Jews during the Holocaust, something group members like Tiffany Harris, a black Jew, felt was an interesting comparison but did not totally agree with.
“I think it’s a hard argument to make because immediately people do think of the six million people and what was committed, which I agree that was totally horrible. But I think he’s thinking about the intolerance for another human being,” she said. “When I see those two together I think it’s not really the same, but I do see where he’s going.”
Harris, who works for the Peace Corps and founded the website youdontlookjewish.com, grew up in Seattle — a place she said lacks a sizable Jewish or brown population. She said while she was growing up, people meeting her for the first time would automatically ask about her heritage, which offended her.
“Sometimes you just want to blend in and talk to people, especially when you’re in a new space where you always get so many questions or you can feel people looking at you differently,” she said. “There is a stigma around growing up mixed race,” she said. People are like, ‘Oh, you have African ancestry but you’re so light,’ and you have all this privilege that comes with that.”
Harris says since she has gotten older, fewer people have asked about her heritage.
“It’s really nice if you can go into a Jewish space and people are like, ‘I don’t need to know what you are to address you and to make a conversation with you,’” she said. “It’s not going to shape our conversation and the words we have together.”
Harris said she has also found the Jewish community in Israel, where she has lived, to be much more accepting of Jews of different ethnicities despite the country’s own troubled history with embracing Sephardic and Yemenite Jews. There are an estimated 2.2 million Sephardic Jews in the world, which is about 15 percent of the world Jewish population.
“You can meet a Jew of any shade, shape or size and they’re just Jewish,” she said. “When you first arrive they’re like, ‘Are you Jewish.’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, my mom’s Jewish.’ ‘Well you’re Jewish then.’ … “I think just because it’s more visible. It’s a smaller
country with higher Jewish numbers, and visually your friends don’t think about that because they’ve seen you and interacted with you.”
Adrian Wilairat, who has a Thai parent, said he has not encountered the same level of questioning in the United States as Harris has, but said there is less acceptance of diverse Thais in Thailand.
“I think there is kind of a stigma about being mixed racially and pejorative words about it,” he said. “There’s a stigma for not being Thai ethnically, but then there’s also a second stigma for being biracial. So I felt that on occasion I have experienced that.”
Wilairat said Jews tend to be monolithic, and the fact that there are Jews of color often does not occur to him. He wishes people would ask more questions about his background.
“I’m curious why we don’t ask more,” he said. “I met someone who went to Smith College. And I was so fascinated by that. I couldn’t stop asking questions. I was just so overcome with curiosity. People don’t ask any questions, and I’m always curious as to why they don’t.”