As a Jew of Color, have you ever felt you needed to affirm your Jewish identity or convince other people that you are, indeed, Jewish? Unfortunately, most JoCs have. A new research study, directed by two scholars who are themselves Jews of Color, is tackling these very issues, shining light on an under-researched phenomenon in our community.
The researchers, Philip Pettis, a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University, and Dr. Elizabeth Webster, an independent scholar, are speaking with Jews of Color of different racial groups, age, gender, and method of arriving at a Jewish identity (such as birth or conversion).
Pettis and Webster are focused on understanding how Jews of Color experience identity not only through internal understandings of oneself but in relation to other people. The social scientific term for this is reflected appraisals. “You can develop an identity yourself, or you can develop an identity in response to others’ perceptions of you,” Pettis said in defining the term.
Reflected appraisals are not something only Jews of Color experience; as social beings, many use this process to make sense of who they are and how they relate to others. But there are unique experiences for Jews of Color, particularly when faced with such dominating assumptions about who Jews are and what Jews look like.
Pettis said that the identity work of Jews of Color is further complicated by the fact that Jewishness is overall a highly contested category. “There is constant contestation over what it means to be a Jew, not just Jews of Color but among Jews more broadly,” he said, referencing debates over intermarriage or who should be “let in” to the community. He argued that this complicated social context may place even more pressure on Jews of Color to affirm their Jewish identity.
Pettis and Webster have documented some of the ways Jews of Color work to affirm their Jewishness, including the use of Jewish symbols, and the way they encourage others to view Jewish peoplehood. Their research shows that Jews of Color may have heightened drive to use Jewish symbols, such as a Magen David (Star of David), to visually denote that they are Jews in a society that assumes Jews look like white Ashkenazim. Another way Jews of Color in their study are challenging dominant assumptions about who Jews are is through “recasting the Jewish narrative,” reminding others that Jews of Color are far from unusual at the global level.
Perhaps another way that JoC identity is influenced by perceptions of others can be found in the terminology we use to describe the community. Pettis and Webster also have found among their participants—and indeed in their own experiences—that even the term “Jew of Color” does not resonate with all who are defined by this term.
Pettis, who is self-described as an Afro-Caribbean American Jew shared, “I don’t identity myself as a Jew of Color. I identify myself as a Jew. And ‘Jew of Color’ is something that has been imposed on me as a response to difference.” He said that in the pursuit of this study, the voices of participants pushed him and Webster to constantly revisit the question about how to define the group we often call Jews of Color. “Is it ‘Jews of Color,’ or is it ‘racialized Jews’?” he asked. He explained that in some ways the term Jews of Color re-establishes whiteness as the “normal” way to be Jewish.
Webster argued that the term Jews of Color also comes from the way whiteness is upheld among white Jews. She explained that to maintain standing within whiteness, white Jews affirm barriers between themselves and those who cannot fit into whiteness. Webster explained the train of thought that is used among white Jews: “If you’re not white, then what are you? You’re a Jew of Color.” The more that white Jews have been included in whiteness, the more they have been socially incentivized and rewarded—whether explicitly or implicitly—for holding up barriers between themselves and people of color, including other Jews.
Webster also pointed out that the assumptions of who Jews are and what we look like have created a whole “community that has been shut out.” “We need to have a wider definition of who is a Jew, and that definition cannot be based on saying ‘you don’t look like a Jew’.”
Both Pettis and Webster spoke to the need for a reimagining of who the Jewish people are that is not so tied to political and economic histories which (eventually) cast (white) Jews as white. Webster said that this reimagining is something the collective Jewish community, as a multiracial people, must claim. “We’re in a time and a place now where it’s time to start saying this is who we are. This is what it is to be Jewish. This is who Jewish is. This is what Jewish looks like. We’re just like every other sector of society. We come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors.”
As Pettis and Webster continue their research, they are constantly reminded of the multitude of identities and experiences that can be found in the JoC community. “Not every Jew of Color has the same story,” Pettis said. While JoCs know this firsthand, Pettis is aware that this is a much-needed reminder to others.
JoCs are too often expected to explain their identities or existence. “[The study] is a beautiful story of the human experience. People have been marginalized and oftentimes left out of spaces, and because they’ve been left out of spaces, they’re constantly engaging in these taxing fights to be recognized in the community that they consider to be their own,” Pettis asserted.
But perhaps the most important reminders Pettis and Webster shared were those that spoke directly to JoCs.
“It’s okay to be different,” Pettis stated. “It’s okay to have a multiplicity of identities without any of them having to be ‘right.’ It’s okay to be Dominican and Black and Jewish, without those having an order.”
Webster shared similar sentiments, reminding JoCs that, even in the face of unequal standards, they are undoubtedly Jewish. “I would want to convey to all my brothers and sisters who are Jewish who happen to be people of color: it’s okay to just be. You don’t have to be fluent in Hebrew, you don’t have to know all the passages in the Torah, you don’t have to run back into the house to put on your Jewish symbols, you don’t have to speak Yiddish. You can just be Jewish and that’s okay. You’re Jewish no matter what, and it’s okay to just be. And that lifts an incredible burden off a lot of people in our community, I think.”
Pettis made a point of clarifying that they are not trying to undo but rather expand definitions of our people. “We are not pushing back against definitions of Jewishness, but we are hoping to expand them so that people don’t have to feel like ‘I’m not Jewish unless I do this.’ I’m personally very religious so it’s not like I’m saying get rid of all the laws, it’s just opening the space for greater conversation.”