Our labels are often only skin deep

A couple of days ago, I got an email about an Asian rabbi, and another about a group of people who are being booted from the Nooksack tribe. The notes were about groups trying to preserve themselves in different ways.

I’d just made my third visit to the exhibit, “RACE: Are we so Different?” at the Pacific Science Center, which reinforces an idea I try to keep in mind when I think about labels.

The assigning of identity to ourselves or to other people is a shortcut that can be useful, even necessary, but always falls short of reality. Every single one of us straddles a bunch of lines, but it’s easier to process the world if everyone is assigned a box.

If the people around you have decided you are the quiet one, then they’ll likely ignore the times when you are a cutup. If you are the funny one, people may discount your profound thoughts. Tall, short, fat, you are tagged, bagged and defined. And the process is magnified with group identity.

In the case of Native Americans, people aren’t defined with a casual glance, but through official documents — proof of lineage, blood-quantum calculations and government decisions.

I’ve gotten several emails about the Nooksack situation since the tribal council informed 306 people early this year that they aren’t officially tribe members.

This summer, a Seattle Times story on the case, said the 306 are descendants of Filipinos and Nooksacks, and those fighting disenrollment claim they are victims of bias.

The tribe denied that in the story — “Enrolled members must have appeared on the 1942 tribal census, received an original 1942 tribal-land allotment or be a descendant of someone who met either of those conditions. The tribal council says the 306 do not meet these membership requirements.”

Identity is not to be taken lightly. People’s lives are shaped by culture and community. And in the case of Native Americans, there are also issues of resources and rights to be considered, which is why membership requirements exist and why disenrollments happen all around the country. But with people, you never get purity.

A few years ago, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience had an exhibit based on the links between Asian Americans and Native Americans, “Cultural Confluence: Urban People of Native American and Asian heritages.” The exhibit was based on artwork by artists of mixed heritage, many of them with Filipino and Native-American heritage. People have always mixed, regardless of boxes.

Recent DNA evidence suggests Native Americans have Western European and East Asian ancestry. But none of that has to do with culture and community any more than old documents alone do.

Whatever is in our genes, people lean heavily on culture and community for a sense of identity, like the rabbi in the other email I mentioned, which was from Noah Leavitt, assistant dean for student engagement at Whitman College, where his wife, Helen Kim, is a sociology professor. They’ve spent the past few years studying Asian-Jewish marriages.

Leavitt, who leads a program in which Whitman students teach high-schoolers about the civil-rights movement, was in Seattle to visit the “RACE” exhibit. I took him up on an invitation to go with him and discuss race and ethnicity.

Monday, Leavitt told me the families he and his wife have studied tend to lean toward Jewish culture and religion. Later he sent me a link to a story about Reform Judaism trying to attract and keep members. That’s another issue groups wrestle with. The story included mention of a service led by Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl of New York’s Central Synagogue. Buchdahl, who is also a rabbi, is from Tacoma. Her father, who is Jewish, met her mother in South Korea where she was a Buddhist.

Identity seems so clear on the surface, but seeing what’s real requires a deeper look.

In some way or another, identity is always cropping up as an issue, whether it’s about immigration or cultural appropriation, or intermingling or conflict, benefits or demerits. We’ll always be dealing with it in some form or another because we rely on shortcuts to create group boundaries that are comforting, confounding and never completely true. We need to remind ourselves of that from time to time.


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