In my last two years of Colgate University I stepped out of my comfortable community of young Jewish women to work in various feminist organizations, I worked in a women’s film production company, spent a summer with a multicultural feminist organization and attended countless meetings and workshops on women’s issues. I felt powerful seeing so many women of my own age from diverse backgrounds getting involved in this “third wave” of feminism.
It was at this point that I had to deal directly, for the first time, with the issue of my uncatagorizeable appearance. I grew up simply passing for whatever people assumed I was. My family is a mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazi, but I ended up looking almost entirely Sephardic, My dark hair and skin tone never meant much more to me than jokes about whether I was really related to everyone else in my family and my grandmother’s calling me her “black child”. My father, who has always worn his Jewish star on the inside of his shirt, taught me not to make trouble for myself. So I never gave much thought to my appearance even when I would be followed around by security guards in department stores or spoken to in Spanish. I rarely corrected anyone, because I saw no point in exchanging racism for anti-Semitism.
It was in multicultural organizations that my identity came into question, over and over again, as people assumed that I was Latin- American. I felt support and encouragement, from the men and women around me until I realized that many people’s interest was not in me but in what they thought I was. Once I said I was Jewish, not Latina, I felt people’s interest in me diminish. It was painful to realize that though my appearance remained the same, my value as a person within a self-consciously multicultural context lessened because I was a Jew.
Here’s one example of an experience I had with my sister intern at the feminist production company who was Latin. We were both treated equally well until I realized that our advisors had assumed that I too was Latin-American. After I corrected them, we were treated very differently. The irony of the situation was that my co-worker, with her white skin, brown hair and green eyes was the direct descendent of Russian Jews who had immigrated to Argentina. She was indeed from Latin America, but was not the cultural icon she was taken to be.
Rather than leading to a fuller understanding of other cultures the current ideology of multiculturalism, seems to me to have led to the social acceptability of certain prejudices. In my person-of-color persona, I have had women of color confide to me that they cannot believe that white women ever feel any pain. When I have questioned why white women within a multicultural feminist organization were being ignored, many different women have given me the same explanation; that white women have been allowed to speak for thousands of years, and therefore should be quiet and let others speak. With this silencing of white women’s voices, with no feminist understanding of how all women have been stifled by patriarchy, went the voices of Jewish women as well.
I had thought that the popularity of ethnicity brought by multiculturalism would make it easier to be visibly Jewish. The wave of multiculturalism, on campuses and other contexts, not only excludes Jews, but in fact, often represents Jews as an especially oppressive group. I can’t talk about anti-Semitism without hearing that Jews are rich and politically powerful. I can’t mention the Holocaust without other group members comparing it to the over 60 million Africans who died on slaves ships to the New World. I am constantly asked to justify the displacement and murders of Palestinians as though I could speak for all Jews. These responses silence me by making me feel guilty for being a Jew.
Multiculturalism, as I have experienced it, separates people into two groups: either you are a person of color or you are white. The term “person of color” generally means anyone of African-American, Latin-American, Asian-American and Native-American descent. These complicated identities and definitions are important because ultimately the affect political policies and agendas. They affect who gets encouraged, who gets published, and who gets hired. These same definitions also dictate who gets silenced.
These delineations are reflected in all of our standardized forms. In an attempt to be politically correct, “race” has been changed to “ethnicity,” but the choices have remained the same. There is never a space on these forms for who I am. There is a never a box for “Jewish” and rarely one for “Middle-Eastern.” I am tired of having to check off “other” for who I am.
People don’t know how to categorize Jews within this multicultural view of the world. We fit comfortably neither with whites nor with people of color. Our identities and concerns get lost in this confusion. When I have tried to explain that Jews are a people with their own culture, I have been told by my African-American college deans that Jews are white and that Judaism is “simply” a religion. I have been prevented from defining myself in my own terms by people who have fought hard to define themselves.
It is not that I want Jews to be grouped with people of color or for whites to welcome us into their community with open arms. I don’t think we belong in either place. I simply want us to be respected for who we are, as Jews, and not as something else. I am tired of justifying my presence as a Jew by saying that I am also Middle-Eastern. I don’t want the privilege of being allowed to speak because I am of Middle-Eastern descent if I cannot speak as a Jew and as a feminist.
We live in a world with multi-faceted identities and each person fights many different battles. As a Jewish feminist, I cannot join safely with the Jewish community to fight anti-Semitism without also facing sexism and homophobia. And at the same time I cannot work within feminism to eliminate sexism if racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism are still present there. Multiculturalism must work to build bridges and to find common ground rather than to silence people and to perpetuate stereotypes.