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 – 2017 season through the JBC Network on their book JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews.