This is a guest post by Monica Routman.
I cannot count the number of times in my life that I have been asked, “What are you?” I’m frequently asked this because I have dark brown hair and brown eyes, and my skin has an olive hue to it. I used to answer, “White,” or “Caucasian,” or “American,” or “Just Jewish,” or, when I was really annoyed, “Human.”
After twenty-two years I have come to accept that when people meet or see me, they do not identify me the way I identify myself. They ask me what I am because they are trying to classify me. They are curious where I come from and how they can relate to me. My appearance complicates reality. It is important to recognize that identity has to do with much more than just the way we look, but for me at least, looks play a big role.
Now when I’m asked about my ethnic and racial background, I refuse to divulge any information until they first tell me what they think. I’ve turned a process that used to drive me crazy into a game that I play with people. Answers range from the most common—Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish—to the slightly less common—Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or Native American—to the interesting guesses like Pacific Islander or Bulgarian. Pretty much, you name it and I’ve been assumed to be it—except for Northern European. I’ve never been confused for Scandinavian.
I find it interesting that I get different answers depending on how I’m dressed, the way I’ve styled my hair, or how I’ve done my make up. I have revealed my religion many times to help people—strangers usually—get a grasp on where I come from. People can’t believe I’m Caucasian or an Ashkenazi Jew. People used to ask me if I was adopted, because my sister has far fairer skin than me. Neither of us is adopted, though it confused me why no one ever asked her. It made me feel like an “other” in my own immediate family.
One time when I was about thirteen, my father, who has a shortly groomed beard and glasses, took me to the Hennepin County Library to get a state ID. At the counter, a middle-aged Caucasian man was assigned to help us. I handed him my passport and birth certificate. Without looking at the items in his hand, he looked at me and asked me for my I-90. I looked up at my dad in confusion. The man then looked down at my birth certificate and passport, then toward my father and said in a defensive tone, “Well you don’t look American either!” Needless to say, even at that young age I was shocked and offended—as was my father, who later explained to me that an I-90 is a type of immigration paper.
When I was younger, I identified as a Caucasian Jewish American (not to be confused with Caucasian American Jew, as those are debatably two very different things). Presently, I don’t identify inwardly as Caucasian because I am never received or treated as such. According to the 2010 census, I would be classified as “White.” I don’t know any other “White” people that are spoken to in Spanish almost every time they enter a Chipotle or randomly when walking down a street. People do not believe me at first when they speak to me in Spanish, and I tell them I don’t speak the language.
These misguided interactions have not been limited to my upbringing in the United States either. When I was in Tel Aviv, I was standing in line at a pizzeria. The woman in front of me turned around and began speaking to me in Spanish. When she saw the bewildered look on my face, she switched to broken English. One of the guys in line with me, much paler and more Caucasian looking than I, who spoke proficient Spanish, was able to give her the information she was looking for. It took me a minute to realize that this wasn’t just the typical Mexican American interaction I was used to. There I was in Israel – a country where I would have thought my appearance would be closer to the norm – and I was still being approached in a foreign language that was not Hebrew.
Growing up in a strong Jewish community, being surrounded by Jews in my private and public schools, and attending quite a bit of Jewish programming over the years, I have often been asked if and when I have ever experienced anti-Semitism. I don’t think I have. At least none directed at me personally. I have, however, experienced prejudice and racial profiling against races and ethnicities to which I do not belong. Ninety-five percent of people see race first. For me, that means being assigned a set of stereotypes that typically do not remotely apply to my actual background or cultural heritage. Even some of my closest friends have joked about “my people” having “jumped the border.” Many times at airports my traveling companions have had to wait for me to be more thoroughly searched after the TSA has “randomly selected” me.
The fact that I’m Jewish makes me a member of a minority group, but as a white person, I am technically in the majority in America. Yet, based on the way that others see and treat me, I actually identify more often as a racial minority. Because it has been so repeatedly made clear to me that I do not look “White,” and because I am so often assumed to be from so many other racial groups, I feel that I am representing each of the minorities I am assumed to be, while at the same time I feel judged as if I do belong to each of these groups.
I relate and associate so strongly to these ethnicities that I feel insulted when any one of these minorities is being singled out or stereotyped. It is as if I am receiving that prejudice or stereotype since I have been assumed at one time or another to be part of that group. So, though I am a member of a minority, one that cannot be determined by looking at a person, my experiences have lead me to identify as a racial minority.
Today, I inwardly identify as a Jewish person of many colors.
Monica Routman is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas with a BA in English Creative Writing. When she isn’t expressing herself through the written form, she can often be found doing so through other mediums.