Cultural Constructions, Part 2

I want to have a conversation about different ways in which whiteness is figured in different contexts. Whiteness is constructed as the default identity, the proper one, an invisible one, for contexts in which it dominates. Let’s start with my context.

I live in a country in which the population is ninety per cent white. You’d think that Australian whiteness would be a varied and complex thing, therefore, but it’s actually constructed in a pretty monolithic way. I was talking to Queen Emily of Questioning Transphobia about this, and she said that in the United States whiteness is produced from assimilation and sometimes erasure of a range of ethnic backgrounds and associated cultures in exchange for the hierarchical placement of whiteness. On the other hand, in Australia, whiteness is largely constructed from Anglo-Saxon identity and culture, because that is the dominant background here.

So, what whiteness means here is quite different to what it means in the United States and, I imagine, a lot of other contexts. I mentioned Greek and Italian Australians in my last post, and how white status for those groups is very new. It’s also partial: people of those backgrounds are considered as having a particular substrand of whiteness, a whiteness that isn’t quite. Any form of whiteness that isn’t Anglo Australian isn’t quite as properly white. This throws my Greek and Italian acquaintances and I into some odd moments of sympathy and solidarity in a way that, I gather, wouldn’t be possible in a context in which people of those backgrounds are considered to be unconditionally white.

You’re only considered properly Australian if you’re white. I’ve spoken before about the idea of the “Aussie girl” and how she is always figured as a white one. There are similar dynamics going on in France, in the UK, in the US, I don’t doubt a lot of other countries with a majority white population. So, here, whiteness is being used to construct national identities – and national identity is being used to shore up whiteness’ power. There is only one way of being properly Australian, and both non-white immigrants (and their descendants, like me) and Indigenous populations are expected to emulate whiteness and the associated culture. In this country with a strong sense of national identity, there’s a strong, partially obscured sense that whiteness is what advocates of a unified national identity are really going for.

Next time, we’re going to talk about shifts from non-whiteness to whiteness.

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38 comments for “Cultural Constructions, Part 2

  1. December 6, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    I am really enjoying this new series, and the nuance with which you talk about race. It’s so true that if you have an “ethnic” name or features, people will ask “where are you really from”, because saying “Australia” isn’t good enough.

    On the flip side, people are assumed to be white when they are not. My partner, LM, often has people assume that He’s white because He is pale skinned, despite the fact that He isn’t. I’m ashamed to admit I made the same assumption. They never assume this of His brother, however, because His brother is much darker. (actually, there’s a whole ‘nother post there about Hs brother being stopped at customs Every. Single. Time. he flies…)

  2. Dorian
    December 6, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    This series continues to be really compelling. I know very little about Australian racial dynamics, so having you explain them so lucidly is really helpful to me personally.

    The “default Canadian” is also, I think, white. I’m pale, and frequently mistaken for white, so I don’t get the “but where are you really from?” bit, but I definitely know people who do, because the idea that they were born here (and often so were their parents and grandparents!) is apparently unthinkable.

    Because Canadians are white.

  3. Silver
    December 6, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    I’m not sure I necessarily fully agree with your construction regarding Australia. My parents are both immigrants; my father Estonian, my mother Peruvian. My skin tone is relatively light; I can pass for, and consider myself ‘white’, but have very dark features. My sister’s is more olive, but she also considers herself ‘white’. Neither of us have ever felt that race has ever really affected us growing up in and living in Australia. Certainly, I’ve never felt excluded because of my lineage.

    There are few incidences I can think of, but nothing that we’ve felt is terribly discriminatory: My sister once had a boyfriend who said he liked her because she was ‘ethnic’. I’ve been asked if I am Muslim, because my colouring gives me a slight Arabic look.

    I’m not saying I disagree that ‘whiteness’ is defined differently in Australia to the US or Europe. I also readily agree that there are race issues in Australia. I’m just saying that I’ve never felt it, and if it was at really awful levels, I probably should have. It may just be that the ACT is slightly more progressive than other parts of Australia.

  4. December 6, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    I’m really glad to see this series, and how racial and cultural constructions work in other western countries.

    “I mentioned Greek and Italian Australians in my last post, and how white status for those groups is very new. It’s also partial: people of those backgrounds are considered as having a particular substrand of whiteness, a whiteness that isn’t quite.”

    This has always been an uneasy topic for me because I know that in society, I am white, but I always felt that I was that… but Italian, and that any discussion of it is denying that I do have white privilege. And at the same time, my grandparents, who came to the US from Naples in the 20s, assimilated into anglo-culture, made sure their children spoke English when they entered school (my dad being the second-to-last born speaks very little Italian), so I feel, I don’t know… cheated out of a culture that is part of who I am?

  5. December 6, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Erm, in that case, I don’t think we’re disagreeing about anything to do with racism in Australia, Silver! :)

  6. Silver
    December 6, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Well, perhaps I’ve misunderstood, but really it is this line:
    ‘Any form of whiteness that isn’t Anglo Australian isn’t quite as properly white.’
    What I’m saying is that I never had to even consider race growing up. It’s only something I’ve thought about recently. (I’ve only been asked if I was Arab since 2001.) I just assumed my ‘whiteness’. So, saying Italians and Greeks are only recently white, and there are levels of white doesn’t really mesh with my experience. It may be that there is a large element of culture in here as well. I can certainly see as being able to pass as white and being reasonably middle class has been a privilege, especially compared to indigenous Australians.

    My parents largely didn’t associate with others of their background. They largely made their own friends out of work colleagues. I suppose we assimilated early, not having a large extended family network to fall back on. That’s not to say that we didn’t celebrate our cultural heritage. Both parents are very proud of their backgrounds.

    I suppose, I’ve found religion and lack of interest in sport to be more divisive in Australia than racial background.

  7. December 6, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    In the United States, there are certain determining factors in place regarding the ease and the pacing of assimilation into some mythical “whiteness”.

    The Irish, for example, were not considered “white” until they embraced racism, which is the premise of Noel Ignatiev’s book on the subject.

  8. Athenia
    December 6, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Latinos have varying skin color and sometimes I wonder if at some point latinos will be considered “white” as well—at least a wider range than it is now. (The people in my community often don’t look like the latinos on telemundo, for example)

    But as someone else mentioned, there are other markers besides skin color–maybe hair or eye color, facial features which makes it just more than just about skin color.

  9. December 6, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Silver: Okay, cool, that’s your experience, but it’s not that of a lot of other people, like Greeks and Italians who are just being absorbed into whiteness, who are being asked to assimilate into an Anglo kind of whiteness. Which is kind of my point with this series: there are lots of different experiences of whiteness and racialisation. :)

  10. Kristen J.
    December 6, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    Great post, Chally.

    I loved Queen Emily’s understanding of whiteness in the US and your succinct expression of it. I think I’ll quote it every time I want to talk about the construction of whiteness in the US.

  11. December 6, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    My grandfather emigrated to the US in the late 1910’s – at the time, he was not “white”, but about 10 years later, he was officially “white” in the US; mind you, he did not change at all, just the legal issue. as a white, he was in a group of people whose immigration quota was larger.

  12. Miss S
    December 7, 2010 at 12:12 am

    As a result of the focus on being identified as Australian by whiteness, is there a large focus on complexion in Australia? Or is it simply white=Australian and everything else does not?

  13. Miss S
    December 7, 2010 at 12:25 am

    That question was for Chally or anyone esle in Australia.

  14. December 7, 2010 at 1:03 am

    That’s an interesting question, Miss S. Regarding skin colour/complexion, there’s some stuff right at the bottom of this thread you might find helpful. I guess that whiteness is considered the mark of “proper” Australianness, like you can only truly be Australian if you’re white, even if you’re a citizen or were born here or identify as Australian or whatever. I’m not sure I’ve answered your question properly, but feel free to let me know!

  15. Miss S
    December 7, 2010 at 2:27 am

    You’ll have to forgive me if this doesn’t make sesne. It’s late here :)

    Here in the U.S, there’s… tension surrounding the issue of complexion. I’m aware that it happens in other places as well; Africa, Japan, India, where skin lightening creams are heavily consumed. The idea is that the whiter or lighter one is, the more attractive they are considered, and other things.
    I’m wondering if that’s true in Australia- are people who are more similar in appearance to white people more accepted as “australian” than someone who is darker? Or is everyone that doesn’t fit the ideal- assuming blond hair and blue eyes) simply identitified as “not really Australian?”

  16. December 7, 2010 at 5:55 am

    Ah, right, I think we’re on the same page now! Yep, I’d say that there is a colour gradation going on there. Like, I as a light skinned non-white person am more likely to be understood as Australian than my more obviously (appearance-wise) non-white friends. So when I’m walking down the street with my mother, who is darker than me and has a foreign accent, people might ask her where she’s from because of that combination of factors. And then they might turn to me and say, ‘but you’re Australian, right?’ meaning that I was born here, that I have the Australian accent, that I’ve (apparently) assimilated enough to be properly Aussie. So it really is that combination of things, with a heavy boost of appearance factoring in. (And then, as you say, that slots in to the idea of who gets to be attractive, in a country in which the beauty ideal is of a thin, tanned white person, basically.) (Though skin lightening creams are uncommon here, but that may just be because this country is so heavily white.)

    But then you get things linked to what Lauredhel was talking about in the thread I linked, where darker skinned Indigenous Australians are understood as embodying a kind of genuine Aussieness (and indigeneity) in a way lighter skinned ones, who are caught between conflicting models of proper Aussieness, cannot.

  17. Ruchama
    December 7, 2010 at 9:26 am

    In the US, I’ve experienced this differently in different places. I’m Jewish, and my coloring is fairly dark for a white person (dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin.) My ancestry, as far back as I’ve been able to trace it, is Jews from Germany, Austria, and Poland, and possibly Hungary. When I was growing up around New York, I was white. People would sometimes look at me and think I was Hispanic (or, once in a while, Indian), but people who knew my background accepted that I was white, no question. Then I went to New Orleans for college, and for the first time encountered people — quite a few people — who questioned whether I was “really” white, since I was Jewish. Like, if the only available categories were black or white, then I was white, but people asked me whether Jews are actually white or not. It didn’t occur to me until later to ask whether they asked Jews with lighter coloring the same question.

  18. queen emily
    December 7, 2010 at 11:20 am

    One thing I think is worth reminding our American friends is that Australia had the White Australia Policy which limited immigration to basically white English speaking immigrants from the UK until after WW2. Greeks and Italians were the first significant wave of non-UK immigrants in the 1950s, and the policy wasn’t totally dismantled until 1973. So the understanding of “white” as both a racial and ethnic category solely derived from the UK was institutionally supported much later than the US’s “melting pot” policies I think…

    Even now, the country’s still something like 93% Anglo-Australian (that is, English/Irish). So I think there’s a greater sensitivity to ethnicity and gradations of whiteness because its so monolithic, and a concurrent greater “not quite” (or “not always”) for first and second generation white ethnics. Which isn’t to deny institutional privilege at all – especially given the virulence of Australian racism – just to note that whiteness in Australia has its own history and norms.

    At least, that’s been my experience that my ethnicity (Greek) has been frequently interpreted as “not Anglo” in Australia but is easily subsumed into whiteness in the US.

  19. December 7, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    In Canada (southern Ontario to be specific) my experience as an default white person (the extent of my non-Canadian heritage that I know is Dutch, Irish, and Scottish – I was raised very much as WASP), is that basically the first rule of white club is that we don’t talk about white club. “Multiculturalism”, which is a very popular and terrifically misunderstood and misused buzzword here, means that white is normal, but some people are like “decorated” white people, with interesting skin tones “yellow, brown, purple or green!” and this is inherently “cultural” and exciting and makes for great theme parties and all that rot. The experience of whiteness, on the other hand, went unspoken and unacknowledged – as a white person I simply was, and was the default audience as well for all this entertaining colourfulness. Any time I was asked to tick off a box that said “white” or “Caucasian” on a survey or something, it was a great novelty, because I was otherwise exempt from ever contemplating or identifying myself as a person with a racial identity. And from my perspective, racism was something that was mostly an issue in the States and which Canadians might be at risk for because we were always being overwhelmed with American influences, but which was not inherently our own – left to our own devices, we were “better than” racism (the post-racial fallacy – it’s not a new thing!). And what racism consisted of (at least this is how I understood it as a child and through my adolescence) was primarily people saying forbidden and rude words.

    I think my experiences are probably decently representative of white Canadians in my demographic (including my upper middle class social status, I believe, because “racism” and “race” were also kind of gauche and lower class). I don’t think any of this is a revelation or new insight, though – I just wanted to represent a Canadian experience of whiteness as it hasn’t been touched upon yet in this thread.

    After the last post in this series, I decided to make myself an early Christmas present of Lawrence Hill’s Black Berry Sweet Juice, which I recommended previously. I’m studying for an exam so I haven’t had a chance to read it much of it over again, but Hill, who grew up in largely white, middle-class Toronto suburb (not dissimilar to my own background) as a lighter-skinned biracial person of a black father and white mother who hailed originally from the US, describes in the very first few pages how it took him a very long time to understand that he was not white the same way his white monoracial peers were, and even longer see and identify himself as black. He attributes this partly to what he describes as a “racial limbo” in the place (and time) in Canada in which he grew up, and suggests that had his parents stayed in the US, he would have been clearly identified, by himself and others, as fundamentally black from much earlier.

    I don’t think either Hill or I would argue that this kind of anti-race/absence of a race narrative is superior (it’s pretty obvious how problematic it is, given that it’s still occurring in a context of actual racism), but it’s another twist as well – that not only is whiteness unspoken, but that in some contexts the concept of race itself is minimized and understood in only the most superficial ways, even as complex structures of discrimination based on race persist.

  20. December 7, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Really interesting series of posts Chally.
    My experience, growing up in rural Australia, very much meshes with your analysis. At my school, there were only about ten non-white students (which meant non-Anglo Saxon students). Included in that group were three girls with Greek heritage. They weren’t technically considered non-white (and nor were they teased or ostracised) but there was certainly an awareness that they were ‘different’ (if anything they were seen as exotic beauties, obviously problematic in itself), and I think the idea that their whiteness was somehow ‘lesser’ is actually the best explanation for that. Interestingly, the two students who I know experienced outwardly racist attitudes from others were one Chinese Australian girl and an Indigenous girl (who left after only a short stint at the school: I think her family realised it was not a welcoming community for her). There was another very popular girl at the school who was also Indigenous but as she had a pale complexion, was able to ‘pass’ as white and she actively hid her background, to the point where she became very angry when others ‘exposed’ it. I seem to recall that her parents discouraged her from revealing her ‘true background’ as well. Given what happened to the other Indigenous student at the school I’m really not surprised, although incredibly saddened, looking back. This was in the 1990s. I’d like to say a lot has changed in two decades, but I still have relatives who are openly, unabashedly racist and encourage the same in their children.

  21. Miss S
    December 7, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Thanks for the reply Chally, that’s exactly what I was asking.

    Interesting that you mentioned the Australian accent as well. I wonder how many people outside of Australia would identify someone as Australian based on accent alone? Even if the person had darker skin?

    Your comparison of the darker skinned indigenous populations being identified as ‘genuine’ Australian reminds me much of Indigenous populations in the U.S. American = WASP to some people, but Indigenous (Native Americans) are deemed authentic Americans. Many times by the same people who exclude them.

    Very interesting discussion.

  22. beatricks
    December 7, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    In Part 1 Chally noted the following:

    I was really surprised to find that there are so many ethnically Jewish people of European descent who ID as white in the US. I don’t think that’s terribly common in other parts of the world!

    Combined with Ruchama’s comment above, I’m really curious to hear the experience of European-descended Jews outside of the US. As a pale, redheaded Ashkenazi Jew in the US, I’ve always been considered white by the white majority — but the gradations of whiteness (read: non-Jewishness) are very noticeable in my family. My sister has thin, straight, light brown hair and blue eyes, and was given a ton of hassle when she flew to Israel because she didn’t read as Jewish. I don’t read as extremely Jewish to the WASP eye, but other Jews always seem to know me, probably because my eyes and hair are darker and I’ve got the stereotypical thick curls. And my father has darker skin, a prominent nose, and black curls — nobody would ever mistake him for a gentile*, and during times of heightened public security (during a local manhunt when I was a child, in the wake of 9/11, etc.) he becomes an immediate target of suspicion.

    * the actor David Krumholtz looks a LOT like my dad. In the past several months I’ve seen two different discussions on racially-focused forae on whether David Krumholtz is white. By the standards of US Ashkenazim, probably; my dad considers himself white although he’s obviously on the margins. That outside the US they both might be not white is really interesting to me.

  23. Amy
    December 7, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    I’m a white Australian, and my complexion is very pale. People often ask me where I’m from, usually assuming I’m from Britain, apparently because of my skin. I agree that the stereotypical “Aussie girl” or “bloke” or whatever is definitely considered to be white, but they’re definitely a tanned white person.
    Thought that this might be relevant because the issue of complexion came up, and this is just my experience.

  24. Fine
    December 7, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    Queen Emily, I’d like to know where you got the statistic that 93% of Australians come from an English/Irish background. That doesn’t sound at all accurate to me.

    Neither do I agree with the notion that Anglo/Irish are seen as whiter than everyone else. During the post Words War 11 migration, immigrants from Northern Europe and the Baltic countries were encouraged in particular, precisely because of their ‘whiteness’.

  25. Fine
    December 7, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    I’m also curious about the statistic Chally states that Australia is 90% white. I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘white’ in this sentence.

  26. December 7, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    Neither do I agree with the notion that Anglo/Irish are seen as whiter than everyone else. During the post Words War 11 migration, immigrants from Northern Europe and the Baltic countries were encouraged in particular, precisely because of their ‘whiteness’.  

    Yep, I’m aware. The White Australia policy just goes to show that whiteness can expand and contract for political (nationalistic) purposes. Things have changed since that time, and Australian whiteness continues to have a distinct Anglo flavour.

    The 90% statistic is from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

  27. Fine
    December 7, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Chally, I’m not trying to pick an argument, but given that ‘whiteness’ is a slippery term culturally, which statistic at the ABS? I’d agree that ‘whiteness’ very much an Anglo flavout. It’s alwyas so strange to me that the image of the all-Australian woman is Elle McPherson; white, tanned, sporty relaxed. It’s how Australia often liks to projects itself out into the world, but obliterates the Australianess of those who don’t fit into that. Especially and most obviously, indigenous women.

  28. December 7, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    I know you’re not trying to pick a fight :). I looked it up a few months ago and can’t go trawling through census data and analysis right now, but if someone else wants to, by all means.

  29. Fine
    December 7, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    No worries. I’ll poke around if I get time, Chally.

  30. Li
    December 7, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    “Neither do I agree with the notion that Anglo/Irish are seen as whiter than everyone else. During the post Words War 11 migration, immigrants from Northern Europe and the Baltic countries were encouraged in particular, precisely because of their ‘whiteness’.”

    I don’t think Anglo/Irish people are seen as more white than everyone else, but I do think that they are more readily accepted into white Australian status than other white people. The dualism of being, for instance, Scottish and Australian is very easily accepted by most Australians in a way that say Swedish/Australian or even USian/Australian would not be. My grandfather emigrated from Scotland after the war, and his Australianness was very rapidly accepted by people, even though he was a migrant. Certainly his migrant status was irrelevant to my dad’s Australianness.

    Australian’s of anglo/irish backgrounds have the advantage that their background are seen as absolutely coherent with their Australian nationality. I’m not sure this is really true of other white backgrounds.

  31. Medea
    December 8, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Latvians and other Northern Europeans were encouraged to immigrate to Australia, but only as a poor substitute for the real thing–they were considered “second-class Englishmen”. I don’t know if people from the British Isles were considered whiter than everyone else, but they were certainly, in some way, much better.

  32. WestEndGirl
    December 8, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    For me, (Mixed Jew, living in London, UK), growing up I perceived that I wasn’t “English”, due to my culture, my looks, my religion, my food choices (the weird ethnos that is Jewishness). I really can’t speak for how I would feel as a Scot, Irish, Welsh Jew etc. But I felt that I was most definitely British, definitely a Londoner, but not English.

    Today, I think things have changed and are changing, but still an “English” man pictured in my head is a white one, despite numerous captains of the English football team being mixed-race or Black. Although a British man could be absolutely anything.

    From an “ethnic” perspective, English people are a mixture of Angle, Saxon, Jute, Celtic, Norman (and the rest) tribes coming together: in a white, relatively fair-haired but not blonde mass. But the construct of Englishness itself is, I think, fairly similar to whiteness but is not the same as Whiteness (as used in this space). I say this because I think English-ness is just as much about the difference between who is “foreign” and who is not, as much as it is about skin colour (and other ethnic/racial characteristics).

    You have Maltese, Hugenot and North African descended people (from first waves of immigration, hundreds of years ago) who are considered entirely English, but are much much darker in colouring than the average and often have corrupted surnames from original “foreign” languages. But at the same time you can have people of their colouring who are later arrivals or indeed people of exactly the same level of “whiteness” as the Anglo/Jute/Celt melange, (Poles, Estonians, Germans etc) who would be considered “foreign” or not English.

    So there is a sense of Englishness that is racial/ethnic but at the same time not. English people will happily refer to themselves as a mongrel race, even though it was, until recently (early 00s), *overwhelmingly* white i.e. c.97%, but the sense of English-ness does not exist without a set of self-conceived cultural characteristics (see Bill Bryson, Jeremy Paxman and here ) – regardless of skin colour, race, religion etc.

    Put simply, it seems to me you are more likely to be considered English if you are white, but without the cultural bit, you won’t get anywhere, you will always be a foreigner. I think it’s like English-ness is incidentally white, but not White. I know Poles (who fought for the Allies in WW2 and then were naturalised) who’ve been in London since the War, who no-one would think were anything other than English and Poles who would only be identified as Poles, despite being in the country for the same length of time.

    I can think of an example. My mother helps out a 96-year old lady. English, lived in our area all her life, which was originally an all white affluent garden suburb but which has become middle class multi-ethnic/racial/religious. She told my mother a few weeks ago that she doesn’t like her new neighbours because “they aren’t like us”, but her other new neighbours across the road were lovely and typically English. The kicker, the first lot of neighbours – old school white, but poorly mannered, don’t keep their garden well etc; the second lot – an Indian origin family, and “like us” included my mother, a dark, Jewish woman.

    So really, I don’t think that English-ness is conceived as White, although it historically has been white.

    So, as a London Jew, do I think of myself as White? No, definitely not in the construction as used here. In fact, it really really really bugs me at the USian commentators – I’m looking at you Racialicious! – who insist this *must* be the case. The black/white binary, just doesn’t make sense in our context.

    As a Jew, I may have pale skin, so I am white coloured (although my family vary from deathly pale to very dark) but I am still seen perceived to be “foreign” in many ways. Jewishness still sets people apart in England, although not to the same extent as previously, because the cultural aspects (big, loud families, focus on food, guilt etc) are different. And then there is the physical characteristics thing – I just do not have an “English” nose :-)

    I have no idea if things will continue to change, where Englishness expands to be more explicitly recognised by its undoubted cultural characteristics or not. But I’m not English, not quite yet. And – I’m talking to you again Racialicious – I’m not blummin’ White!

  33. Donald
    December 13, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    I can well understand how Jewishness is a barrier to being seen as white in England. However I’d suggest it is cultural indicators rather than anything else. There are plenty of Jews who have assimilated well enough to be completely indistinguishable. A good example is the recent Labour leadership contest. It was billed as four white men and a black woman. Yet 60% of the candidates came from ethnic minorities – two of the white men are Jews. In the same way a white woman who marries a muslim and adopts the headscarf will be seen as a foreigner and her whiteness becomes suspect.

    Englishness is more problematic. I’ve rarely seen or heard it used to describe anyone who wasn’t white. It is also often used to mean someone with the same cultural values as the speaker. Given the different cultures among white people born in England that’s really silly.

  34. December 13, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    Well, it’s probably a mix of factors, isn’t it? I don’t know if we can locate whether one is indistinguishable from a white majority entirely in assimilation. People of Jewish ethnicities have a wide mix of colourings and features and places of origin, so it’s a really specific set of circumstances, cultural, political, temporal, appearance-wise and otherwise, and a relatively rare set at that, that can let Jews be positioned as white.

  35. Donald
    December 14, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Clearly a black jew is going to be positioned as black but the vast majority of Jews in Britain are white and unless they reveal their religious identity in some way they will generally be treated as part of the white majority. Of the Jewish men I’ve known I’d say less than half could be identified as Jewish by someone they’d just met. With women the proportion is even lower.

  36. WestEndGirl
    December 17, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Donald, please do not disrespect me and other Jewish commentators by defining our racial or other identity according to your assumptions, presumptions and biases.

    Your post is hugely offensive on so many levels, I’m going to have to keep pretty calm to respond to this.

    “Clearly a black jew is going to be positioned as black but the vast majority of Jews in Britain are white”

    >> Assuming we are merely talking about paleness of skin pigmentation and ignoring other physiological characteristics here, I find it very impressive that you personally have managed to do an in-depth study of the composition of the Jewish community in the UK. Particularly given the fact that I don’t believe *anyone* has actually done such an in-depth study previously. Well done you, you must be quite the social scientist Donald.

    And this particularly bearing in mind there are significant groups of Mizrahi and North African Sephardi communities (particularly Moroccan, Iraqi, Iranian and Indian communities in London and in the North of England), not to mention Jews of mixed origin like myself, very dark full Ashkenazi Jews, Ethiopian Jews and a whole variety of converts.

    It’s almost like, in fact, you are making vast assumptions that those who seem to be most visible to you in the media or in public life are the only Jews in the UK. It’s almost like you are assuming that because *you* think that these people are taken for white, everyone else agrees with you. It’s like the Jews you don’t actually know are Jewish – Craig David, Sophie Okenodo, Anish Kapoor among many – don’t exist because of your own very invisible template of what a “Jew” looks like. Presumptuous much?

    “Unless they reveal their religious identity in some way they will generally be treated as part of the white majority”

    >> Firstly, re: the “ethnic/racial” aspect of your statement, this is not the case for me and many many other Jews I have known, and I guarantee I’ve known more than you. I have been asked ‘where are you from?’, ‘where are your family from?’, ‘you can’t be English what are you?’ by traditional English people and a huge variety of people from all countries and my Jewish friends and family. I am fairly atypical in the way I look among my Jewish community, so frankly go take your half/less than half judgements of our Jewish ethnicity/race, and check your privilege and presumptions.

    Re: the other religious aspect of this comment, you completely contradict yourself that Jews are white because identity is based on skin colour and the “vast majority ” of Jews have pale skin. Never mind that of all minority groups in the UK, Jewish people are most likely to be targeted because of their religious/racial background. Because as you clearly say, our Whiteness is, in fact, contingent due to our religious/racial heritage. When it’s revealed, guessed or assumed, we are not treated as white REGARDLESS of the pigmentation of our skin. In fact interestingly enough, our very ability to blend into a wider community is taken as a sinister trope by classical anti-Semites.

    And regarding your statement that the Labour leadership contest “was billed as four white men and a black woman.” It was very occasionally referred to as such – chiefly in the Guardian. All other media referred to the Miliband’s Jewishness pretty much constantly; highlighting their religious background, their radical immigrant background (in a system where Marxism is pretty much synonymous with Jews) and questioning their loyalty to the UK and focussing on their attitudes to the I/P conflict. Something that would not have been done if they were “white”.

    So again Donald, check your privilege. Here might be a good place to start:

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