I had coffee with another biracial Jew last week. The difference is that he is not adopted and so grew up knowing his black family, and also he is a he and not a she, and also he is vaguely Orthodox and at least Conservative, whereas I am a lax Reform Jew. Still, it was fun to compare our experiences of being in college and finding out who we are, even though he has 2 1/2 years on me. Though he’s older, I will graduate from college first, because he attended a yeshiva for two years, which is something else that is very cool.
I’ve found that college has made me much more tolerant to other religions. (I had a big paragraph about why I think I have a lot in common with Mormons in terms of intellectual beliefs, but that’s kind of irrelevant for this post, so I deleted it.) It has also made me understand that when I used to say that I was black, I didn’t really have any emotional attachment to saying that. It was just a racial fact, which I think is fine, because I had no ethnic or cultural ties to being black, and I wasn’t really part of any black community. I still don’t feel that I have a lot of ethnic attachment to being black, but college has given me more of an understanding of how the fact that I am racially black (well, half) does have some bearing on how the world sees me, and in that respect, I am becoming more mindful of the fact that being black is a piece of my identity.
The aforementioned guy said that it’s common that black and mixed women find their racial identity in college after being exposed more to a black community. I don’t know where he got that fact, but it seems valid enough. Still, I’ve found that most of the black friendships I have made and kept have been with other people who feel more racially black than culturally black, if that makes any sense. I feel like I am more a part of a black outsider community than a black community. But is there one cohesive black community? That seems like a vast generalization, but not feeling a part of any black community, it seems like there must be some big community that is just out of reach. The guy mentioned that he felt it was hard to find that he belonged in the black community on campus is because it’s not a very intellectual one, which was a sad and almost racist thing to say, but also true. Then again, our campus is just not a very intellectual one, because it is a state school with low admission standards and low prices, so it attracts a lot of out of state kids of all colors who are just going to college because their parents are making them, not because they want to learn.
The identity that I’ve felt most comfortable with throughout my life, but also the one that I’ve felt most challenged with throughout my life, is my Jewish identity, and maybe some of the confusion lies in the fact that it is a religious identity and an ethnic identity, so it’s double the work. The religious part is the one I feel most challenged by, because I am now far more Jewishly religious than anyone else in my immediate or extended family, which makes me a bit of a weirdo (especially since my mother and sister have already married me off to this Orthodox boy and bemoaned it, when in fact he and I are not, at this point, even dating, and I don’t know what it says about their opinion of me that they’ve decided I will convert to Orthodox Judaism). And yet I am not even remotely religious compared to any of my close friends who are Jewish. And the point that I participate in religious activities is defined by my cultural and intellectual upbringing.
Then there is the fact that in terms of the food I eat, the jokes I tell, the slang I use, the foreign languages I speak, the university I attend, and a ton of other daily life kinds of things, I am Latina, and that’s because my sister is Latina, my dad is Latino, and I live in a city where being Latin is pretty much the norm. People who meet me first by my name will assume that my racial identity is Latina, but people who meet me first by my appearance will likely be a little confused. Until I reference Brazilian things, which then settles their confusion. But my identifying as Brazilian is a bit of a lie, and sometimes I feel guilty about that, because it is an identity I’ve given myself, even though it also kind of comes from my upbringing (my dad grew up in Brazil, we have Brazilian friends, and Brazil remains the only country–until Israel, at least–where I did not have to explain myself).
I hate having to parse this out. It makes for interesting conversations with other people who are mixed and don’t fit into one neat box, but it’s also incredibly tiresome. I am just me, but I am also my ethnicity (ies). I am beginning to understand that racial identity is probably the weakest identity of them all, but also the most important, because it is what other people see first, and because people assume that race and ethnicity are the same thing, they think that when they see you, they have your culture figured out. The only time I find that my race–just my race–is the main defining factor of myself is when I’m looking for help doing my hair, doing my makeup, or finding clothes to wear–namely, when I’m reading lifestyle magazines. Since I’ve started reading blogs and literature on sociology and race and culture, I’ve found that the easiest term, and the one that most closely aligns me with other intellectually minded, culturally minded, not the status quo people is the term “person of color.” I think it’s becoming my favorite.
I think I started this post out with the objective of defining something, but I definitely just muddled things further.