A Jew­Asian July 4th

Ear­li­er this week, Helen Kiy­ong Kim and Noah Leav­itt deter­mined the three take­aways on rais­ing Jew­ish-Asian fam­i­lies worth shar­ing from their research for their coau­thored book Jew­Asian: Race, Reli­gion, and Iden­ti­ty for Amer­i­ca’s Newest Jews. They are blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

The pub­li­ca­tion of Jew­Asian, com­ing just pri­or to the 4th of July hol­i­day, pro­vides a unique lens through which to observe the Unit­ed States and try to learn about the state of our nation in 2016. Indeed, the way that young mixed-race Jews think about them­selves allows us to make larg­er obser­va­tions about our society.

On one hand, we are in the hot sea­son of a mean-spir­it­ed pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in which race and diver­si­ty are focal points for vot­ers’ anger and activism. On the oth­er, on this final Inde­pen­dence Day dur­ing the admin­is­tra­tion of America’s first mixed-race Pres­i­dent, the mul­ti­cul­tur­al cast of Hamil­ton is on mag­a­zine cov­ers and red car­pet run­ways, chal­leng­ing us to think in new ways about our nation’s found­ing sto­ry and cur­rent iden­ti­ty. More­over, the Unit­ed States Supreme Court’s recent deci­sion to uphold the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas affir­ma­tive action admis­sion plan reminds us that we can­not avoid tak­ing race into con­sid­er­a­tion when we attempt to describe America.

Writ­ing Jew­Asian helped us con­front the cen­tral role that race plays for the young peo­ple at the cen­ter of our inves­ti­ga­tion. Like our nation, our mixed-race Jew­ish inter­vie­wees feel both the stress and the opti­mism of their com­plex identities.

Demon­strat­ing the depth of ingrained racial stereo­types and expec­ta­tions, they told us that they often were chal­lenged in Jew­ish spaces because they did not appear ​Jew­ish” (by which they meant white and of Ashke­nazi descent). Their racial pre­sen­ta­tion led peo­ple around them to make unwel­come and often incor­rect assump­tions about their reli­gious beliefs and prac­tices. Whether those com­ments were made out of racist moti­va­tions or a sim­ple lack of racial aware­ness we will nev­er know, but the impact of such com­ments does not change for peo­ple receiv­ing those com­ments, what­ev­er the speak­ers’ intent.

At the same time, our inter­vie­wees were proud of and rev­eled in their racial com­plex­i­ty. Many used terms like ​spe­cial” and ​kind of unique.” They delight­ed in the oppor­tu­ni­ty for open­ness to the world that their iden­ti­ties offered — ​the avail­abil­i­ty of hav­ing more choice and oppor­tu­ni­ties to appre­ci­ate cul­tures,” as one of them told us.

They also felt con­nect­ed to oth­ers in ways we did not expect. Inter­vie­wees described them­selves as being both Asian and Jew­ish and also part of a larg­er bira­cial com­mu­ni­ty that includes peo­ple with many dif­fer­ent racial and eth­nic tra­di­tions, not just Asian or Jew­ish. And our inter­vie­wees fre­quent­ly felt includ­ed in that and want­i­ng to con­tribute to the well-being of oth­er bira­cial individuals.

Their pride in their racial iden­ti­ty often gave them a foun­da­tion for engag­ing in civic and polit­i­cal debates around them. They told us that their par­tic­i­pa­tion was root­ed in their expe­ri­ences mak­ing mean­ing from their own racial iden­ti­ties which led them to feel con­nect­ed to oth­er racial and eth­nic minori­ties. Their racial posi­tion afford­ed them a plat­form for jump­ing into cam­paigns for equal­i­ty, includ­ing racial as well as oth­er mark­ers of iden­ti­ty, like gen­der and sex­u­al orientation.

Accord­ing­ly, as demog­ra­phers pre­dict a sig­nif­i­cant increase in the num­ber of mixed-race house­holds and indi­vid­u­als in Amer­i­ca, and as the country’s pop­u­la­tion becomes more diverse, we draw the fol­low­ing insights from our Jew­Asian interviewees:

  1. Race con­tin­ues as the mas­ter cat­e­go­ry for social organization.
  2. We must cre­ate more ways to learn to decou­ple our visu­al expe­ri­ence of peo­ple from our assump­tions about them.
  3. Bira­cial or mul­tira­cial iden­ti­ty can be both spe­cif­ic as well as general.
  4. How one iden­ti­fies racial­ly can­not be iso­lat­ed from one’s social inter­ac­tions and larg­er context.
  5. Con­fi­dence in one’s racial iden­ti­ty can be a plat­form for con­nec­tion and activism and engagement.

So, this July 4th, we toast the opti­mism of the young peo­ple we’ve met over the past five years, who despite the chal­lenges of their racial pre­sen­ta­tion nev­er­the­less gain strength from who they under­stand them­selves to be, using that strength in turn to both chal­lenge and edu­cate those around them as well as ally them­selves with many oth­er mixed young peo­ple around our increas­ing­ly mixed country.

We find it poignant and hope­ful that our poly­glot immi­grant nation can derive wis­dom from the expe­ri­ence of our interviewees.

Helen Kiy­ong Kim is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Soci­ol­o­gy at Whit­man Col­lege. Noah Samuel Leav­ittis an asso­ciate dean of stu­dents at Whit­man Col­lege and has served as the advo­ca­cy direc­tor for the Jew­ish Coun­cil on Urban Affairs. Both authors are cur­rent­ly tour­ing for the 2016 – 2017sea­son through the JBC Net­work on their book Jew­Asian: Race, Reli­gion, and Iden­ti­ty for America’s Newest Jews.

 

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