What’s A Jew of Color Anyway?

Robin Washington discusses the complexity of the term Jews of Color and what that means for whiteness in the American Jewish community.

In the last five years, The terms that we use to describe varying racial identities in the United States have adapted with the changing conversations on the topic. As the term People of Color becomes more prominent in the lexicon of American identity to describe the experiences of Black, Asian, Indigenous, and Latine Americans, the term Jews of Color becomes more utilized to discuss people’s experiences of race, racism and its intersections with Jewish identity. 

I sat down with Robin Washington, one of the first to use the term “Jew of Color,” to better understand what exactly JoC describes. Below are excerpts from our conversation. 

Shekhiynah Larks: When and why did you first use the term Jews of Color? 

Robin Washington: I first used it in an essay in Ishmael Reed’s publication ‘MultiAmerica’ in 1997 entitled ‘Black and Jewish like Jesus and Me.’ At the time, African American was a relativity new term. An estimated 200,000 Black Jews in the US, about 3% of the American Jewish population. (Sources for this estimate include a 1990 Council of Jewish Federations survey, which suggests there may be more than 250,000 self-described Black Jews in a broad definition of “who is a Jew” and 120,000 in a stricter analysis.) 

I  was trying to understand how to define my own identity. Black Jew, Jewish African American, African American Jew, American Jew of African descent; put the adjective where you wish. It still comes out the same. No, I’m not from Ethiopia, I’m not in a cult, and I did not convert. But what difference would it make if I had?

The challenge of defining myself also brought up questions about Black/Jewish relations, further complicated by a paradigm created by Jews who had somehow believed that they were white.

As a Jew of color, however, I’ve often wondered where Jews who think of themselves as white ever came up with that notion. Although they are correct in their assessment of Black America’s perception of them, they surely cannot believe for a minute that white America thinks of them as members of their club, ask any bellboy.’(Washington, 1997)

SL: What does JoC describe?

RW: Given there are no distinct boundaries of race beyond genealogy, the term Jews of Color is a term that distinguishes the political experiences of  Jews of European backgrounds from those who have Native, Hispanic/Latine, Asian, and African descent.

What is of importance here is how we are defining race.

Race is a political construct that is continually shifting. Where I live in Minnesota, people of Finnish descent were previously not considered White. Jews, for that matter, were once not regarded as White. Whiteness, the identities of People of Color, and the language we use to describe their experiences are ever-evolving.  People often perceive more differences between races than there are; the reality is there are more differences between individuals in the same race than there are between races.

SL: Does the term JoC accomplish its goal of describing these genealogical and historical boundaries? 

RW: Any slogan that needs a reader’s guide is not an effective form of communication, especially when it is not universally understood by the people it references. We need to interrogate whether we use terms the community uses to describe itself or a word others have placed on the community; terms bond communities.

While the term JoC is meant to reflect a reality of the complexities of Jewish identity and challenge the assumption and stereotype of jews being exclusively White or of European descent, it does not make space for the complexities of individuals’ identities or group dynamics.

Some groups do not fit into these sociopolitical dynamics at all. For example, Hispanic Natives do not identify as of color but by their tribal nation affiliation as it defines their diplomatic relationship with the United States. I believe the term Black Indigenous People (Jews) of Color (BIP(J)OC) adds more complexity to the political experiences of people who identify as Black, Native, Hispanic/Latine, or Asian.

In any case, the words Jews of Color are not meant to divide the community along color lines instead to expand the narratives of Jewish communal experiences.

SL: How does the term further complicate narratives about whiteness in the Jewish community?

RW: The idea of whiteness in the Jewish community is complicated. There needs to be acceptance of the duality of White identity within the American Jewish community. White Jews, no matter how well they are accepted or have been newly allowed to join the table, need to understand the legacy of whiteness.

German Jews thought they were perceived as part of normative society in both the United States and Germany until they were politically marginalized. They failed to see the conditionality of their whiteness because of the relative comfort of perceived assimilation into White society. As antisemitism increases globally, the Jewish community will need to interrogate that complexity more.

SL:  As conversations about racial identity continue to become more complex and nuanced, how has the term JoC changed the way we talk about race in the Jewish community? 

Journalist Robin Washington. (Courtesy)

RW: The term JoC has helped us start talking about how harmful American racial dynamics are replicated within the American Jewish Community. Although most of us find it insulting to be asked how we became Jewish — our lighter-skinned brothers and sisters rarely face such an inquisition — we are happy to share our heritage and celebrate diverse Jewish experiences in America.

That heritage includes people, like myself, who are the children of intermarriage. It includes PoC converts to Judaism, who despite quiet disclaimers that “they aren’t real Jews” are indeed so according to halacha, Jewish law, and adoptees.

It’s also helped us discuss the confusion over mistaking halachic Jews of African descent for Black Hebrew Israelites or the several thousand members of the Ethiopian Hebrew Congregations, who despite their name are not East Africans but very American and a very religiously observant group that originated half a century before the Black Muslims in the United States.

The term JoC has complicated the narrative beyond the binary of Black and White, and introduced Latine, Natives and Asians into the conversation, shifting the way the community views itself. The term JoC provides an opportunity to build community and learn about the complexity of American Jewish Identity.

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