When to Hide Your Race & Religion – Kveller
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black and jewish

When to Hide Your Race & Religion

In Tamara Reese’s recent piece on kids being more open-minded than adults, she wrote the following phrase: Would I encourage (my son) to hide his heritage in an effort to make life easier on him, or myself? Absolutely not.


This is a subject my husband and I have discussed at length. He is African-American. I am a Jew from the former Soviet Union. And when it comes to: Would we encourage our children to hide their heritage(s) in an effort to make life easier for themselves or us?

We agree that, under certain circumstances, the answer is: Absolutely yes.

I spent the first seven years of my life in Odessa, USSR (now Ukraine), and my husband his whole childhood in Harlem, NYC.

In Odessa, as in the entire Soviet Union, all citizens carried an internal passport, on which the infamous Fifth Line asked for “nationality.” And that nationality said: Jew. (And if your nationality said Jew, good luck with getting a place at a university or a high-ranking job or a non-communal apartment.) There was a way around it, however. Children of one Jewish and one ethnically Russian parent had a choice as to what they would put down (or have put down for them). They also had a choice between taking either parent’s last name. I don’t know anyone who opted for a Jewish name and a Jewish listing if they had an alternative. (On the other hand, a popular Russian saying was, “They don’t punch your passport, they punch your face,” suggesting you could wiggle bureaucratically all you like, it’s what you look like that ultimately matters.)

By the same token, my husband learned from an early age that, when applying for a job, it’s optimal not to be laid eyes upon until the very last minute. As late as 15 years ago, he was hired sight unseen by one company due to primarily phone and e-mail interviews, and he still sweated the first day, wondering if they’d suddenly decide they had made a mistake.

Taking it further, when it came to naming our kids, my husband had only one stipulation: That no one would be able to tell from their name on a resume what race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion our kids were. (A sensible precaution, as proven by the book, Freakanomics. Candidates with identical credentials but stereotypical African-American names get called up much less often for interviews.)

Conversely, whenever we fly on an airplane as a family, we have an understanding: In case of terrorist attack, my husband is to take our kids, move as far away from me as possible, and pretend we don’t know each other. If there is any Entebbe-style selection taking place, my kids are going with their dad, no ifs, ands, or buts.

In a considerably less extreme example, when it comes to hailing a cab in NYC, I take the lead, and he hangs around in the background. We’re more likely to get where we’re going in a timely manner that way.

As noted in the “punching your face, rather than your passport” example, “passing” is easier for some people than others. Just like my husband looks exactly like what he is, anyone familiar with 20th Century Eastern European Jewry has no question regarding my origins, either.

But, our kids are a different story.

African-Americans recognize they’re Black, Hispanics tend to think they’re Hispanic, and white people assume they’re white. We’ve also been asked whether they might be Greek, Rumanian, Pakistani, Israeli, or Turkish.

In other words, my kids could “pass” for pretty much anything.

And that’s a good thing.

And that’s a bad thing.

While we’ve made it clear to them that, in cases of emergency, there will be no discussion, they’re denying anything we tell them to deny and that’s that, I’m concerned (and pretty ambivalent) about less life or death situations.

I can easily imagine my kids sitting with a group of casual acquaintances at work, or in college or even high-school. Somebody makes a racist joke. Are my kids obliged to speak up? Are they duty-bound to “come out” as Black or Jewish (or both)?

There are those who would say yes, absolutely. How are widespread, bigoted attitudes supposed to change if those affected don’t speak up, if they don’t educate and chastise?

That’s a hell of a lot of pressure to put on any one person’s shoulders. Especially a child’s. Not to mention that it can get you into trouble. Big trouble.

I know that in an ideal (Afterschool Special) world you should stand tall and proud and proclaim your unique individuality far and wide, thus earning your bully’s respect and instantly changing hearts and minds. Cue the slow clap.

We don’t live in an ideal world. We live in the real world. Where knowing when to proclaim your individuality and when to keep your mouth shut is quite possibly the most important survival skill any parent can pass on to their child.

There is a time and a place to wave the diversity flag, and there is a time and a place to lie, forge, deceive, and anything else you might have to in order to get away unscathed.

And that doesn’t only apply to lynchings and pogroms. Sometimes keeping your head down and your opinions to yourself is the best way to get through a job or a happy hour or a soccer game or a black-tie function at the Plaza.

It’s easy to say, “Oh, I would definitely do this in that situation.” Especially when the issue is primarily abstract and outside your scope of personal experience. And when any potential downside is abstract, as all. 70 years out, everyone would have defied the Nazis and Stalin and Jim Crow and the Klan. Everyone is brave and noble in theory, before they’re actually tested. It’s a lot harder to encourage your children to be that way, knowing that the consequences can be grave. Even in the 21st Century.

When my husband learned that my daughter’s Jewish Day School takes a class trip down South as part of their Civil Rights unit, he responded, “I know what happens when Jewish kids go down South. I work in the Andrew Goodman building!”

From our perspective, does a living child beat a dead martyr? Absolutely yes.

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