WHO’S WHITE? WHO CARES?

A few weeks ago, Rachel Dolezal stepped down as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. Ms. Dolezal claimed to be—and still identifies as—Black. However, she is the child of Caucasian parents. I’ll let African Americans decide whether or not they’re offended. But I do share something in common with Ms. Dolezal: I don’t identify as white.

There’s nothing wrong with being white. Some of my best friends and all that. But being Jewish, I identify primarily with all Jews regardless of their genetics. The Jewish people are Caucasian, Black, Latino and Asian. Maybe a few Native Americans. And mixtures. Loads of mixtures. Jews come from the Arab world and India, too. Are they white? Other? I have no idea. I simply don’t care who’s white and who isn’t. It’s just that being white’s not my thing.

I’m not alone in this thinking. Remember the 1990s TV hit Northern Exposure? Each Thanksgiving, Native Americans in the fictional Alaskan town of Cicely pelt “whites” with tomatoes. Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) protests. He’s Jewish. White people—Russians—persecuted his ancestors in the Tsarist Empire. No tomatoes for him. Then there’s the Ku Kux Klan and its ilk. All espouse white pride along with hatred of Jews. Dylan Roof, the alleged killer of nine African-Americans at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel AME Church, wrote a manifesto. He not only ranted against Blacks but also cited “the Jewish problem and other issues facing our race.”

A statement by Chip Johnson, the common-sense columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, bolsters my point. In his June 16 piece on Rachel Dolezal, Johnson wrote: “Throughout history there have been light-skinned African Americans, people of mixed race and those of Jewish heritage [italics mine] who have passed for white to escape oppression, improve their prospects or simply to survive.” Johnson’s comment leads me to believe that I’m not the crank I may appear to be.

Ethnic makeup and identity certainly can be complex. In my novel Flight of the Spumonis, Jimmy Q, who accompanies 13-year-old Marco Spolini on a cross-country journey, is equal parts Chinese, Native American, Jewish and African American. The world pigeonholes him as Black, so that’s how Jimmy sees himself. He knows that puts him behind the eight ball, so he persuades the white Marco to hit the road with him.

Racism, of course, can work both ways, changing colors like a chameleon. Some Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans—people from ethnic groups who’ve had precious little to do with each other—band together with African Americans under the banner “People of Color.” They assail “white privilege.”

Being white has been and still is an advantage in American society. But people don’t get to pick their genetics. Many leveraging “white privilege” study, work hard and, while succeeding, open their hearts to all of their fellow Americans. The opponents of “white privilege” see skin, hair and eyes, not human beings.

Is race a social construct? Given the large number of Americans with mixed genetics, that’s becoming true. Whether or not race means anything, it should never be taken as the equivalent of species. Whatever our colors or features, we’re all part of the same human family. That should privilege all of us

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

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2 Comments


  1. Claudia
    Jun 26, 2015

    This is a risky thing to write. Congratulations on your courage! You will get a lot of feedback, and it will bring the trolls out of the woodwork, so I applaud your daring.

    I am about 99% in agreement with you. I am Jewish, half of Sephardic descent, and grew up in Mexico. I am born in the US, am fair-skinned (though not in an ethnically Anglo way), and I am fluent in Spanish. My neighbor was born in Mexico, is as prototypical Mexicana as they come, came here when she was two, and sounds like a valley girl. She calls herself an American. I call her an American. I call myself an American.

    I am bi-cultural, multi-lingual, and proud of all of my heritages. But I am never Latina enough, Jewish enough, White enough for anyone who would restrict inclusion. And therein lies the rub. The “white” people worried about “white privilege” are those who want to see racism end. Racists don’t think of it in terms of privilege, but rather as a “right.” And for them, you and I will never be white enough. But when I go rent a house, no one asks. It’s all good.

    In conclusion, it’s your conclusion I support most strongly. But again, that’s the legacy of Jewish Civil Rights, so ignored in all the Black/Jewish issues. “Whether or not race means anything, it should never be taken as the equivalent of species. Whatever our colors or features, we’re all part of the same human family. That should privilege all of us.” Well said.


    • David
      Jun 26, 2015

      Thanks, Claudia. Awaiting the trolls. But who knows? Maybe they’re hesitant.

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