I’m a Mizrahi Jew. Do I Count as a Person of Color?
Am I a person of color?
You’d think there would be a straightforward answer to a question like that. And for a while, I thought there was. I thought the answer was yes.
When I look at my grandparents — four Mizrahim, or Jews from Arab lands — I see people who were born in India and Iraq and Morocco, who grew up speaking Hindi and Arabic. When I stand in Sephora buying makeup, the shade I choose is closer to “ebony” than to “petal.” When I walk down the street, perfect strangers routinely stop me to ask: “Where are you from? Are you Persian? Indian? Arab? Latina?” When I go through airport security, I always — always — get “randomly selected” for additional screening.
I was pretty sure all this made me a person of color.
And then an acquaintance, who is Jewish and African-American, told me in the course of a casual conversation that no, actually, I don’t count.
This was news to me. At first, I admit, the statement got my hackles up. Who gave this person the right to police my identity? But then I started to wonder: Was I, a woman who sometimes gets read as white and therefore benefits from white privilege, wrongly co-opting the “of color” label in everything from internal monologues to health insurance forms?
To find out, I spent weeks talking to people in the black, biracial and Mizrahi communities. What I learned surprised me. Turns out, nobody quite knows how to categorize Mizrahi Jews.
My family doesn’t know.
My HR department doesn’t know.
Even the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t know.
Right now, the census question asking about ethnic and racial designation gives you : white, black, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. If you’re a Mizrahi Jew — or, for that matter, an Arab American — chances are you’re going to check “white.” But is that accurate?
According to some Arab-American groups, it’s not. The census bureau currently defines “white” as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa,” but these groups are lobbying for a change to the survey, which would make Middle Eastern and North African descent a separate category.
Starting in August, the bureau will test new census content on a representative sample of the population. If the MENA category gets approved, Mizrahi Jews could be checking this box alongside Arab Muslims by 2020. Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, told me that while “there hasn’t been a lot of active participation of Jews from MENA origin at the forefront of the campaign,” she would “absolutely” be glad to see us join.
My parents’ and grandparents’ generations — who worked hard in Israel and North America to shed their Arab identities in favor of more socially beneficial white ones — will probably rebuff her invitation. Millennials are another story.
“One in two Mizrahi millennials I meet nowadays identifies as a Jew of color,” said Jared Jackson, the 32-year-old biracial founder of Jews in ALL Hues, an organization advocating for more inclusive communities. He informed me that I’m part of a generational shift, and that although he’s met some black Jews who side-eye Mizrahim claiming the POC label, he personally doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that. “I mean, there are Moroccan Jews I’ve met who look like they could be my brother from another mother!” Jackson said.
I spent awhile reveling in my relief. Then I called a New York University history professor, Zvi Ben-Dor Benite — and my relief evaporated.
“You are not a person of color in the American sense of the word, period,” Ben-Dor Benite told me. “You never experienced the discrimination that Asians experienced into the late 19th century, and you certainly are not African-American.”
If I were in Israel, Ben-Dor Benite said, it would be another story. There, Mizrahi immigrants have a decades-long history of state-level discrimination, starting with their internment in 1950s development towns and continuing with menial employment under Ashkenazim who called them “shvartze.” By the 1970s, Mizrahim had reclaimed their “blackness” and formed the Israeli Black Panther movement to fight for social justice. Their identification with the African-American struggle for civil rights was so strong that Panther leader Charlie Biton named his daughter “Angela” — after political activist Angela Davis.
But in America, even Ashkenazi Jews had an uncertain racial status until World War II. Although Mizrahim have faced some discrimination here, it was never on a state level. “It doesn’t amount to a history of victimization,” Ben-Dor Benite said, “and claiming that it does means disrespecting true histories of victimization.”
Hearing this, I felt shocked — and also really crappy. Suddenly, my habit of identifying publicly as POC seemed not only naive and ridiculous, but offensive.
And then I talked to other Mizrahi Jews, and what I heard confused me all over again.
Yemeni-Israeli author Ayelet Tsabari rejected out of hand Ben-Dor Benite’s idea that only state-level racism counts: “You experience the kind of daily discrimination that anyone who looks like you would experience — that any POC would experience!” She had never doubted that she counted as POC until I raised the question.
George Itzhak, a 23-year-old Bukharan Jew, told me that his family faces discrimination at airports as a result of their darker skin. “More often than not, we’re pushed to the side for an additional screening.”
A 34-year-old Yemenite Jew who grew up in Boston and asked not to be named explained that his experience is very different post-9/11 than it was before: “At the airport, I’m definitely seen as Arab. To police officers, I’m suspicious. I’ve been stopped when walking around my own neighborhood and told that I have to show ID.”
Many others told me that the general population perceives them as POC. Galeet Dardashti, an Iranian-American anthropologist and performer of Persian Jewish music, said that her African-American peers in grad school often identified her as a woman of color. Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, a Yemeni-Israeli journalism professor, said that she is “obviously brown” and that she gets mistaken for Hispanic or Palestinian on a regular basis.
And yet, despite the fact that they typically don’t pass as white, despite their tales of stop-and-frisk and TSA overzealousness, despite the fact that they’re increasingly treated like brown Muslims in post-9/11 America, everyone except Tsabari felt uncomfortable self-identifying as POC.
By this point in my interviews, I was feeling uncomfortable, too. Although Mizrahim might externally get treated in ways similar, if not identical, to brown Americans, we do not have the same internal narrative that, say, African-Americans have — a narrative of oppression stretching back through centuries of segregation and slavery. So, I asked myself: Is there any sense in claiming an “of color” identity?
I wrote out that question on a piece of paper and stared at it intermittently for a few days. Eventually I realized that it could actually mean two different things. If you’re asking, “Does claiming a POC identity make historical sense?” then, Ben-Dor Benite had me convinced, the answer was no. But if you’re asking, “Does claiming a POC identity have a point, a practical purpose?” then, I thought, the answer might be yes.
It was because of two practical purposes that I first began to identify as a Jew of color — and, consequently, as POC.
In my early 20s I started to notice a weird disconnect in how I was perceived among Jewish friends versus how others perceived me. Non-Jews meeting me for the first time would not assume that I was white or that I identify as such; they would often attach to me words like “ethnic” or “exotic.”
As for my fellow co-religionists, they usually perceived right away that I was not Ashkenazi. And yet, they always assumed that I was white and that I identified as such. How could they be so sure of that when they could see that I was not of European extraction? I soon realized that this equation was rooted in a bias: To them, Jewish = white. And I wanted to challenge that intra-Jewish assumption about race.
Of course, it was pretty easy to trace the roots of this assumption. There are so many more Ashkenazi Jews than Mizrahim that the former — who are coded as white — have come to define the category “Jew” in America. Besides, plenty of Mizrahim choose to identify as white. I can understand that: It’s tempting to let go of the lowest rungs on society’s racial ladder if you can move up to the top. But tied up in that move nowadays is another thing I wanted to challenge: my own Mizrahi community’s internalized racism.
There’s a reason that, from ages 12 through 22, I straightened my curly black hair each morning before school. It’s the same reason that, when a wave of Moroccan immigration hit my family’s Montreal suburb, some relatives decried an invasion of “barbarians” — as if we ourselves had no roots in Morocco. And it’s the same reason that, when I told my mom of my decision to study Arabic in college, she replied: “Good! It’s important to know the language of one’s enemies” — despite the fact that Arabic is also her own parents’ language!
We Mizrahim have so thoroughly internalized the message that it’s bad to be Arab — which is not a race, but is often used as a racial signifier indicating “brown” — that we now erase and demean that part of our identity with no outside prompting. Between early Zionism’s attempt to define Jews as “us” and Arabs as “them,” and America’s systemic war against brown and black bodies, we’ve unwittingly bought into the idea that Jewish = non-Arab. I wanted to reject this idea, to inhabit both identities — Arab and Jewish — with pride.
Claiming the Jew of color identity, then, was not only a way to express my authentic feeling of moving through the world as a perpetual Other — it was also an attempt to destabilize these two nasty equations. But was that, you know, kosher? Or did that performative aspect give my story some uncomfortable Rachel Dolezal-ish undertones?
Contemplating this question, I entered into a weird headspace. “Yes” and “no” seemed equally weighted, and I found myself flipping between them daily, even hourly.
And then, by chance, I heard about a spoken-word event happening in Manhattan’s East Village. “Kaleidoscope,” a show directed by Vanessa Hidary (aka the Hebrew Mamita), featured performers billed as “Jews of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.” I was intrigued. Also, wine was promised.
At the performance, a Jamaican Jew joked about how she can’t find a boyfriend because her “ethnically ambiguous” identity makes her “a Jew repellent.” A Moroccan Jew described being called a “shvartze” by Ashkenazi schoolmates in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. A Turkish Jew said he has “never once checked the ‘white’ box on surveys.”
The 70-plus audience members — bearded Orthodox men, white girls in tank tops, Chinese and Mizrahi and black people — sat and listened, rapt. At the end they gave a standing ovation for a row of performers that included African Americans and Ethiopian Israelis alongside Moroccans and Libyans and Turks. I’m not the type to dissolve into tears when I go to an event with a press ticket in one hand and a reporter’s notebook in the other. But as Mizrahi-style ululations rang out from the crowd — I admit it — I cried.
Here was the less parochial, more outward-looking reason why I’d wanted to identify as POC: this feeling of empathy and kinship, which I believe can help us build productive relationships across communal lines.
I acknowledge the risks inherent in Mizrahi Jews claiming the POC identity. But if a Mizrahi Jew and a black Jew and a Latina and a Muslim American can all think of themselves as partners in a struggle, don’t the advantages outweigh those risks? I’m willing to wager that they do.
Still, as someone who gets to choose this identity label, I’m “wagering” from a position of immense privilege. Some people will disagree, and that’s fine. Tomorrow my own view on this may change.
But for today, I am an Arab Jewish woman of color.
Sigal Samuel is the author of The Mystics of Mile End.