You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

OpEdge: Who is Black? Who is a Woman? Who is a Jew?

Marc Jampole
June 18, 2015

by Marc JampolefacesAS A JEW, I come to the current controversies over who is a woman and who is an African-American with a special perspective. The defining of who is a Jew has haunted the Jewish religion, culture, race, and/or nation for millennia.

Internally, Jewish courts have long enforced the concept that religious identification comes through the mother, probably because before DNA-testing, we could never be 100 percent sure of the father’s identity. This basic definition through birth attempts to cut through all the arguments regarding what it means to be Jewish, what is the essence of Jewishness as a culture, religion, nation, and/or race. But since the industrial revolution, this strict adherence to the matrilineal has become problematic, especially to the literally millions of Jewish men who marry outside the faith/culture/nation/race.

Externally, defining who is Jewish has been a necessary process for all organized anti-Semitism, and one of the first steps towards the “Final Solution” for the Third Reich. Defining who was black for the purposes of discrimination was also an essential part of American jurisprudence for centuries. These identification systems for both Jews and blacks have always depended on identifying ancestors.

Another external issue involves the problems of cross-identification that derive from the fact that the definition of Jewishness usually involves religion and/or culture, and for some people (not me!) nationality and/or race as well: Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American? Are you a Jew if you don’t practice the customs and rituals? And if you do practice, but as an atheist, are you a Jew?

Of course, someone can always convert to Judaism, a purposely arduous process. One can also become an apostate, which may not protect a former Jew from the dangers of an anti-Semitic roundup.

That the definition of Jewishness has always presented these ambiguities can be a stickler for those who need everything to be cut-and-dried, black and white with no gray area. Yet these ambiguities are central to any discussion of Jewishness, especially in an age when the intermarriage rate for American Jews is about 58 percent.

BY CONTRAST, the ambiguities regarding the nature of manhood and womanhood raised by the transgendered, and the nature of “blackness” raised by Rachel Dolezal, exist at the margins and are not central to an understanding of womanhood or blackness.

By saying that the issues of womanhood as it relates to Caitlyn Jenner or of blackness as it related to Rachel Dolezal are marginal, I do not in any way mean to demean these people or others in their situation. What I mean is that the numbers of transgendered/transsexual individuals and of whites passing as black are so small as to be statistically insignificant in considering how we define womanhood or an African-American.

There is, of course, absolutely no implications to accepting Caitlyn Jenner as a woman (once she has her final surgery) or Chaz Bono as a man. Having a sex-change operation and undergoing hormone treatment pretty much completes the transformation from one sex to another. In no way has the definition of womanhood undergone alteration, nor do we have to consider the issue of what constituent’s a woman’s mentality.

The problems arise in defining those who believe they are one sex trapped in the body of another sex; if those who identified by others as men but self-identify as women are considered women, then the presence of a vagina no longer defines womanhood.

The Rachel Dolezal controversy reduces to a similar dilemma: Dolezal self-identifies as African-American and has made superficial changes in her appearance to look more African-American. She passes, although in the opposite direction of most “passing” in American history. Dolezal believes she’s African-American in the same way that a transgendered individual believes she/he is really the opposite sex. We accept and respect the transgendered person’s perceptions and actions. Why then does Dolezal get fired from her job and accused of lying?

There is also the uncomfortable idea of mentality. If we accept the argument that Dolezal has an African-American mentality that makes her African-American, the next step is to define that African-American mentality as innately inferior to a European mentality. The Charles Murrays and Richard Herrnsteins of the world must be salivating at the thought of using the concept of mentality to build another disgustingly false case for white superiority.

Genetics is not going to help us out of any definitional conundrum, since all of our ancestors came from Africa and everyone has DNA that traces back to our African origins. There are about 7 billion people in the world, all with absolutely unique genetic codes, so I’m extremely confident in saying that there are people who have black ancestors going back four generations with fewer African genetic markers than Dolezal has. But that still doesn’t make her black. Or does it?

A NON-JEW can convert to Judaism after undergoing a lengthy intellectual boot camp, and someone identifying with a different sex can take hormones and undergo surgery. But there is no such process or operation that turns one African-American, French, Italian, or Chinese, and let’s hope there never is. For the most part, race and nationality are artificial constructs, as artificial and mutable as culture itself.

Dolezal is free to live in an African-American neighborhood, hang out only with African-American people, eat only foods traditionally associated with African-American culture and engage only in cultural events identified as African-American. In fact, she is even free to pass. She just can’t lie and say she’s black on a job application, census forms, or to get a scholarship. She can live black, but she just can’t be black.

Which would also describe the situation of a man who identifies as a woman and practices a transvestite lifestyle even in public. Such a person may identify as a woman, but he-she better use the men’s room and better not try out for the girls’ basketball team.

At the end of the day, these definitional problems don’t matter once we begin to consider individuals on their own merit and make certain that all individuals get the same opportunities. It will take more than ending discrimination against all minorities. It will also take making sure that every child has the same educational and cultural opportunities and the same access to healthcare, nutrition, and personal technologies. If we marginalize minorities economically, the fact that they have full civil rights doesn’t matter. Racism and discrimination against sexual minorities is only half the problem. The other half is the growing inequality of opportunity, income and wealth.

Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.