Identity Check: Is It a Copout for Jews to Say They Are 'White'?

Questions about ethnicity on U.S. forms always raise a dilemma for Jews: should they self-identify as members of the powerful 'white' group, or proudly tick the 'other' box?

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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A Jewish man prays before running the New York City Marathon, November 1, 2015.
A Jewish man prays before running the New York City Marathon, November 1, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

A few weeks ago I began the long process of applying to several American universities. So there I was, filling the lines away, until I found myself faced with a nasty old foe - the ethnicity check box.

For any Jewish person faced with the spare prose of official U.S. forms, there always comes that strange moment of stumbling across that stubborn box. It’s not that you don’t know it’s coming – if you’ve been around the block once or twice you know for a fact that it’s coming – but you hope maybe this time they forgot. Maybe this time you won’t have to face that strange decision.

But, time and time again, it appears, out of the proverbial bend, just when you least expect it. You stand facing that monolithic square and try to decide for the umpteenth time what you are: “white” or “other”?

That choice is seemingly easier as a result of the little parenthetical remark next to the "white" option, which now includes “original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East.” That addition should, ostensibly, solve the problem for Mizrahi Jews – Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent – but I’m still stumped. As an Israeli of Ashkenazi descent, am I a people of the Middle East? I mean, I think I am, but then again I’m told I’m not that either.

More recently, the U.S. census bureau, following lobbying by American organizations and activists, started testing of a new separate category for individuals identifying themselves as originating from the Middle East and North Africa ahead of the planned 2020 census. In other words, on that questionnaire they would have the option of choosing MENA, and not "white."

But the issue of Jews identifying themselves as white or not, is not just one of race or complexion or even origin, but of attaching oneself, or distancing oneself, from power. The problem is whether Jews are willing to stop being white.

There was a time, one that perhaps persists, when being white, or being able to pass as white, meant power. It meant you could, in a racist world, move ahead, create a better life for your children. That made the choice quite easy for Jews living in the white world: they would definitely mark down “white,” since every other choice meant discrimination and pain. It’s that Jewish survival thing, where you choose what aids in not being killed, not being marginalized, or at least reduces the chances of both. If white works, go for white.

And, if you asked my grandmother, that’s still the world we live in today, meaning that to even contemplate calling yourself out, marking yourself consciously as “other,” is nothing short of folly and suicide. So, maybe I’ll just go ahead and go white.

The only problem with that choice is that it feels wrong, for two reasons. The first is that white people have not always seen Jews as their peers and equals. Yes, Jews have been allowed to play a significant role in the shaping of the white world, but often grudgingly. You get to be white, in other words, as long as we, white people, feel like it, and checking that box can be seen as a way of acknowledging that Jews recognize that power.

The other reason I find myself resisting the “white” choice is precisely because it stems from that age-old, Jewish survival mechanism that was born out of the way the white world treated Jews. Maybe it’s my stubborn vanity, maybe I just don’t like being told what to do. Maybe I don’t like facing a stern rectangular form that seems to tell me in its Borg-like voice of death: “You will be assimilated, resistance is futile.”

Credit: Youtube

But, in a world that is becoming increasingly multicultural, and in which distinct ethnic groups, including the many Jewish extractions, begin to not only attempt to hide their differences but take pride in them, that “assimilate” part is beginning to take on a much more sinister tone. Passing as white, in this sense, is its own quiet extermination of identity and history, the kind in which one discards any trait that marks them as different in the hopes of surviving another day.

So yes, a good student of Jewish history definitely should go for that “white” box, since it provides you with a sense of security and of proximity to power. But, I think until a different box comes along, perhaps one that reads “accepted as white by whites as long as you’re nice,” I’ll stick with my “other.” It seems that’s what the world is telling me to be anyway. Might as well enjoy it.

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