On Passing and Not Trying to Pass

I am black, and I am Jewish.

I’ve always found comfort in the and of my identity — that simple part of speech that joins together two disparate things: two families, two histories, two cultures, two heritages, two skin colors, two lineages of trauma, two pathways to North America. As the offspring of both, I am equally neither.

Lately, I spend a lot of time within the proverbial “walls” of the organized Jewish community. As a Jewish professional, my day-to-day life is dedicated to synagogue operations — specifically, membership and communications. While in many ways I am “at home” in the Jewish community, to this day I still feel out of place within the communal mainstream. And, contradictory as it may seem, it is the fact that I can easily pass for the Ashkenazi majority that leaves me feeling this way.

I should say: I never asked to pass. The fact that I can walk into Jewish settings and instantly fit in leaves me with a bad taste. At the same time, I remember recognizing my own thoughts when I read Katya Gibel Azoulay quote her son in her seminal book, Black, Jewish, and Interracial: It’s Not the Color of Your Skin, but the Race of Your Kin, and Other Myths of Identity: “I’m not going to put up a sign that says I’m black just to be accepted,” she relays, writing, “as far as he was concerned, the idea of ‘learning how to act Black’ was the theater of the absurd.”

My blackness — the history and culture that it brings — has formed me into who I am just as much as my Jewishness has. Yet throughout my life, I have often been asked to prove that I belong in black spheres that I have entered. I have been asked to recuse myself to allow the voices of those more phenotypically black to come forward. As a result, I have often avoided these spaces. Proving your legitimacy is exhausting.

If you look at family pictures, you can see my father’s family in me. But most people never look beyond skin tone — “You look exactly like your mother,” they say, contrary to the photographic evidence that suggests otherwise. I grew up to taunts: that my father wasn’t really biologically mine, that I wasn’t really black, that I didn’t understand what “being black” even meant. Despite this, I carry both sides of my family with me, always. The positives and the negatives. Klezmer and Calypso. Gefilte fish and black-eyed peas with ham hocks. The Holocaust and slavery. Anti-Semitism and contemporary racism. Jewish trauma. Black trauma. Together, they form the patchwork of my reality.

Posted on July 22, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning.com are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy