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  • Writer's pictureTracie Guy-Decker

The Price of Whiteness (Review)

About 2 years ago, I took a course from the curriculum of the Florence Melton School entitled “Jews in America: Insiders and Outsiders.” I was excited to take the course to deepen my understanding of Jews as “insiders and outsiders,” a notion that had strongly emerged during my work on the future core exhibit of the JMM.

Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by the course. The shortcomings are best illustrated by a disagreement I had with the instructor about Al Jolson. This “text-based” course included clips from various movies or television shows for the session about popular culture. One of the clips was of Al Jolson singing Kol Nidre in his movie The Jazz Singer (1927). The instructor for the class made a big deal of how brave and significant it was for Jolson to perform that holy music in a major motion picture. It signaled that Jews “had arrived.”

When I brought up the fact that Jolson “arrived” while performing in blackface, this instructor looked at me like a deer in the headlights. He countered my objection by suggesting the blackface was “immaterial” to our conversation about Jewish acceptance in American society. Indignant, I responded that not only was it “material,” it was actually core to Jolson’s proposition of Jewish Americanness. At least, that’s what I would have said if I had read The Price of Whiteness. (I think I actually said something like “blackface is never immaterial, and it is and always has been offensive,” which I still stand by.)

In the Price of Whiteness, Eric Goldstein convincingly traces what I was only starting to intuit in that ill-fated Melton session: in America, Ashkenazi (i.e. central or eastern European) Jews “negotiated their place in a complex racial world where Jewishness, whiteness, and blackness have all made significant claims on them.” (5).

Goldstein demonstrates how Jews in the nineteenth and even early to mid-twentieth century thought of themselves as a distinct race. As a contemporary Jew (I’m Generation X), I found this whole notion mind-blowing. In 2020, I have completely internalized the American understanding of race as a black-white dichotomy. If I think about my race at all (which my white skin gives me the privilege of not always thinking about), I think of myself as white, plain and simple. Goldstein traces how whiteness was not always so undifferentiated—in the nineteenth century, Irish, German, and Italian whites were not all the same. And Jewishness was often discussed—by Jews and non-Jews alike—as a race.

Though this idea surprised me, as I turned it over in my mind, it also made a lot of sense. We Jews seem to have quite a loose understanding of what “Jewishness” really is. We want it to be a religion, and so a Jew by choice is a Jew. We also want it to be a sort of ethnic identity: someone born Jewish who converts to another religion is still a Jew. (Goldstein mentions one of the most famous of these examples in Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of Great Britain in the nineteenth century. Though Disraeli lived and worshipped as an Anglican, he “became a favorite hero of American Jews, who saw in him an exemplar of Jewish racial traits.”(20)) This both, and approach to Jewish identity fits neatly with pre-WWII ideas of race, and Jews and non-Jews thought of it that way in America.

This Jewish racial identity caused a problem for non-Jewish white Americans who, especially as time went on, wanted race to be cleanly divided into black and white. Goldstein writes “the black-white dichotomy functioned strategically and was employed by native-born whites to obscure complexity and infuse a sense of order and confidence into the national culture.” (42) The “Jewish Problem” in America was that Jews didn’t fit neatly into either category.

Jews themselves were aware of the discomfort they caused among non-Jewish white Americans. For some Jews, this led to a sense of kinship with African Americans who also caused discomfort among non-Jewish white Americans. In fact, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there is significant evidence of Jewish empathy and identification with African American people and causes. However, their own insecurity in America made many Jews feel unwilling or unable to act on that empathy. Goldstein writes that in the 1920s and 1930s, “although it is true that an increasing number of Jews became active in the struggle for black civil rights during this period, a closer survey of Jewish social patterns and Jewish discourse about African Americans reveals that only a small minority of American Jews felt free enough from the daunting social pressures of white America to engage in consistent high-profile advocacy of black causes.” (147).

In other words, many Jews felt the need to do what they could to assert their whiteness and thereby assuage the uneasiness they caused in white America. This often involved adopting the “racist trappings of American culture in order to relieve doubts about their own uncertain racial status” (139). (Al Jolson, I’m looking at you.) To drive the point home that pressure for acceptance in white America drove much of the anti-black racism of white-skinned American Jews in the 1920s, Goldstein points out, “not surprisingly, it was in Yiddish that the most assertive statements of identification with African Americans were made during the 1920s and 1930s. In their own language, unintelligible to a non-Jewish audience, Jewish writers could afford to express their deeply held emotional identification with blacks.” (153).

The phenomenon of expressions of anti-black racism serving a sociological and economic strategy looks very familiar. It supports the core of Ibram X. Kendi’s hypothesis, expertly explicated in Stamped from the Beginning. (I’ve written about Stamped before, here.) There, Kendi writes “Racially discriminatory policies have usually sprung from economic, political, and cultural self-interests, self-interests that are constantly changing.” And, though Jolson’s blackface was not “policy,” Goldstein shared the exploits of the Jewish Attorney General of Maryland at the turn of the twentieth century, Isidor Raynor, who “made disenfranchisement a central tenet of his political credo, arguing in 1903 that the Declaration of Independence was wrong in proclaiming that all men were created equal.” (58)

The events of the past three years have created a great deal of unease, especially around race, for white-skinned Jews like me. Though we had accepted the pressure (and the privilege) to identify as undifferentiated white Americans, the resurgence of antisemitism and white supremacy have reminded us that our whiteness is contingent on others’ acceptance of it. On top of that, the increasing presence and stories of Jews of color who rightly and righteously push back on the assumed whiteness of Jewish spaces have forced us to look more closely at who we are, who we’ve been, and who we want to be. Knowing the history of my forebearers’ negotiation with whiteness has been truly instructive for me. I find a certain amount of comfort knowing that however unique my particular circumstances, there are comparables in history, role models—and a great many negative role models—on whose experiences I can build.

May the wisdom gained from their history help lead us to a more just and equitable world.

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