The Challenge of Being Me
One of the very first reviews I received for my debut novel was in Z!NK magazine. It was a rave which obviously made me happy, but what stuck with me was the following comment:
Davis . . . explores (and explodes) racial boundaries with the book’s charming protagonist, Sophie Katz, a half-Jewish, half-black best-selling mystery writer.
Explores and explodes? Really? If that’s true then I’m exploring and exploding racial boundaries every day of my life just by existing. And if that’s true then I’m certainly not doing it by myself. There are lots of “Jews of color” out there. But in the eyes of mainstream America we’re still an anomaly. The general public tends to see all multiracial individuals as being “original” and “exotic,” but when you’re a member of two minority groups that have been saddled with completely opposing stereotypes . . . well that’s radical indeed.
Except I don’t feel radical. I feel like a normal person going about my life. I also don’t feel like a societal misfit, but according to daytime talk shows the Jews in my life are supposed to hate blacks and my black friends are supposed to be severely anti-Semitic. Based on most media reports I should be rejected by everyone even while I plead for acceptance. But that hasn’t been my experience nor has it been the experience of any of my multiracial friends.
That is the biggest challenge multiracial people face today. Not an inability to be accepted, but an inability to communicate to the world that (on the whole) we have not been rejected. People are always asking me about what it’s like to be “mixed.” They want to know if I’ve been called an “Oreo” or if I feel self-conscious when I walk into a synagogue and note that I am the darkest person in the room. When I was in middle school a girl actually asked me if my mother permed her hair so she could look more like me. The answer to all these questions is a big NO. Of course I’m aware that there are a few racist Jews out there and there are some anti-Semitic blacks, but I’ve encountered very few of these individuals and I’m convinced that’s because their numbers have been greatly exaggerated.
The perception that multiracial people are troubled and victimized creates a very unhealthy dynamic. People want to handle us with kid gloves; they look for emotional problems. When I was in grade school I had a teacher who always treated me like I was a ticking time-bomb ready to explode despite the fact that my behavior in class was always highly cooperative. She explained to my mother that she suspected I was going through an identity crisis . . . at seven. I’ve had my fair share of crises in my life but none of them have been in relation to my identity. I have always known and liked who I am. My race and religion wouldn’t have been an issue for me if that particular teacher hadn’t been so desperate to make it one.
Other challenges I’ve been faced with relate more to my upbringing then my race. I was raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and Irish Catholic stepfather in a California beach town, so my behavior and tastes tend to diverge from what many people expect to see in a woman of black ancestry. I don’t read Essence, I love shellfish, and my slang is more likely to resemble that of a valley girl than a hip-hop artist. So basically I am living breathing proof that the stereotypes don’t always hold up. But humans are funny creatures. If a man who has been raised to believe that blacks are illiterate, violent people and Jews are cheap, deceitful money grabbers, meets a black and/or Jewish individual who is educated, gentle and generous, he will usually assume that his new acquaintance is the exception to the rule. Never mind that he’s never met anyone who does fit the stereotypes he holds so dear. The point is that this is the worldview that was pounded into him as a child and nothing short of divine intervention is going to get him to rethink it.
But it’s okay to be friends with the “exceptions.” It’s better than okay, because most people today are uncomfortable with their own prejudices and if they can befriend an “exception” then they can point to them and say, “See! I have a Jewish/black friend! Color and ethnic heritage mean nothing to me!” But it’s a rare person who can truly discard their ethnic biases. There have been numerous occasions when a friend or co-worker of mine has actually forgotten that I was ethnic at all because I just act so “white.” And that’s usually when the racial slur slips out in my presence. If the offending person catches himself (and that’s not always the case) he or she will usually say something like, “Of course, I don’t mean you. You’re different.”
I’m not different. I am not the exception. When I look in the mirror I see a woman with brown textured hair and a broad African nose. I am black. And when my son and I look through the pictures of my mother’s family we see the faces of young Eastern European immigrants clutching the Torah as they celebrate their Bar Mitzvahs. We are Jews. The fact that I speak neither Ebonics nor Yiddish does not dilute my ethnicity. When someone insults blacks or Jews they are insulting my people.
That’s the challenge of being black and Jewish. That is the challenge of being me.