Black and White, Jewish and Christian

Mixed race, mixed religion. To what extent are these parallel states of being? What experiences do we, as children of racial and religious intermarriage, have in common? And at what point does this powerful metaphor break down? I have spent a lifetime contemplating these questions, most recently this week, when I read an essay by author Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New York Times, in which he worries that “a new multiracial community could flourish and evolve at black America’s expense.”

Williams and I are both the “mixed” children of blond-haired and blue-eyed mothers. We were both raised to identify exclusively with our paternal half: in his case African-American, in my case Jewish. We each, nevertheless, “intermarried” in adulthood–he married a white woman, I married a Protestant. The comparisons between white/black and Jewish/Christian identity resonate in part because of all the ways in which Judaism has functioned historically as a race, culture, and civilization, as well as a religion.

Several writers of African-American and (white) Jewish parents have written memoirs exploring the convergence and divergence of race and religion in their own families, and the usefulness and limits of the interracial/interfaith metaphor, notably Rebecca Walker in Black, White and Jewish, James McBride in The Color of Water, and anthropologist Katya Gibel Azoulay in the more scholarly Black, Jewish, and Interracial. Williams himself compares the two states towards the end of his recent essay, writing, “I am struck by the parallels that exist between my predicament and that of many Western Jews, who struggle with questions of assimilation at a time when marrying outside the faith is common.”

How did Williams become aware of this Jewish struggle? It is worth watching this engaging and disarming video produced for the release of his memoir in 2010, in which he discusses the role of books in his life with his father, a sociologist and huge bibliophile. Both men feel a special attachment to Jewish scholar Maimonides, and have read deeply in Jewish history and philosophy.

In this week’s essay, entitled “As Black as We Wish to Be,” Williams acknowledges the right to self-identify. He concludes that his (theoretical) children “will have to make up their own minds” about their racial identity. My children will also have to make up their own minds, which is why I adapted Maria Root’s Bill of Rights for Mixed Race People into the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.

On the other hand, Williams worries that “the cost of mixed-race blacks deciding to turn away” from the African-American community “could be huge.” He asks, “Do a million innocuous personal decisions end up having one destructive cumulative effect?” This is precisely the fear expressed by institutional Judaism when faced with those of us who insist on educating our children about both Judaism and Christianity. But why does learning about both have to be interpreted as abandoning Judaism? Why does checking both a white and an African-American box on the census have to mean turning away from the black community?

And, I must ask, how can those of who are “mixed” ignore the race, religion, culture, and influence of the “majority” (white or Christian) people in our families? I understand the compelling political and sociological argument for choosing blackness, as outlined by Williams, and as explained by my friend Denise in a comment on one of my previous blogposts on this topic. But I find that the parallel electric lines of this metaphor converge, cross, and short out in sparks of frustration, when I feel like I am being told I should only be Jewish, or my children should only be Jewish. My children may choose Judaism because they feel the Jews need them more, or simply because they love the ritual or history or theology or culture. But I feel exhausted sometimes by the domination of this discussion by the imperative to maintain Jewish continuity: the pressure, the guilt, the disrespect for the experiences and feelings of those who marry Jews, and for those of us who want to celebrate kaleidoscopic identities.

Williams plans to teach his children “that they, too, are black–regardless of what anyone else may say–so long as they remember and wish to be.” In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, I have insisted on teaching my children to identify with their Judaism, and have provided them with the education to be able to defend that identity, if they so choose. But I have also taught them to acknowledge and understand and appreciate the complexity of their identities, and to acknowledge everyone who contributed to that complexity.

3 Replies to “Black and White, Jewish and Christian”

  1. Hi Sue: We’ve had this discussion before. This is beautifully written. But you lose me when you think of Judaism as an ethnic choice. I think it’s a faith-based decision, hence my discomfort with practicing both faiths at the same time. And yes, we Jews want those numbers and that diverse gene pool!

    Having contributed my two shekels to the subject, we’re blessed to live in a time where we can explore various approaches to interfaith living. No more cloak and dagger–all out in the sunshine.


  2. In theory, I understand your argument that it should be a faith-based decision. In practice, many people claim Judaism (or ascribe it to others) based purely on “matrilineality,” or they get comfort from regular Jewish ritual in spite of being atheists, or they feel deeply Jewish without ever performing any rituals at all. So I don’t believe it can be as simple as a faith-based decision for Judaism. And for some religions, for instance Buddhism, faith (belief in a particular theology) has little to do with it (Karen Armstrong has written extensively about this). I understand your discomfort. I am not arguing that we return to an era when Judaism was considered a race. But I do experience Judaism as a civilization (my rabbi’s descriptor of choice for Judaism), encompassing faith, cultures, history, languages, tribe. Thus, my desire to educate my children about as much of this as I can and give them permission to feel connected to all of their civilizations. As adults, they will make their own decisions about faith, as all of us do, whether we grow up with one religion, or more than one.

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