Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Is it racist that I think Jews are cool?

I should probably flag right at the beginning of this post that I am on heavy doses of cold medicine, though I will confess that this is something I have wondered about for some time.

Obviously having negative ideas about an entire race is racist.

If someone truly admires, say, Native Americans and finds them totally spiritual and groovy and adapts their rituals into spiritual practices that have lost something in translation, I think that's sort of lame and I understand the argument that it is racist, though I don't know that I 100 percent agree.

I absolutely get that it's annoying.

But I will confess that I've always thought that Jews were cool, collectively, as a people. And I wonder if that's racist of me. I don't have any specific expectations for any specific Jewish person whom I meet, but my overall impression is that Jews are funnier, more down to earth and miles hipper than people of my WASPy background. Many of the Jews I know have a very cool sense of identity, one that I've written before that I envied as a kid and probably on some level still do if this is the post I write when the DayQuil kicks in.

I personally don't feel this is racist of me. But I can't explain why I don't.

There are likely cultural reasons why Jews seem cool. My impression is that as a culture they value scholarship, maintaining the integrity of their group and a humor that manages to be self-deprecating without ever getting lame. (My observation is that much WASP self-deprecating humor quickly becomes tiresome.) Their cultural image is one of wry steadfastness. As one hears it, every Jewish holiday can be summed up in seven words: "they attacked us, we won, let's eat."

But the cultural justifications are not enough to make the general belief that Jews are cool not racist.

Because, to put it blunty, the assumption that Asians are good at math is pretty racist. One could argue that this assumption is a cultural thing given that Americans have the impression that Asian parents push their kids very hard to excel academically. But still, the general assumption has a racist feel.

To me thinking Jews are cool doesn't feel racist.

Is that just me fooling myself? If not, what's the difference?



Comrade Kevin said...

Like most UU men, I'm pretty atypical.

I'm not the average ordinary alpha, grunting, crotch-scratching, unable to deal with his feelings, car maintaining, sport-obsessed male.

And I have always found comfort with Jewish men for many of the same reasons you have.

For some reason, gentleness of spirit in male rather than this macho facade is valued in Jewish culture more than WASP culture. And the same goes for Asian culture, might I add.

So to answer your question, my answer is emphatically, no.

Anonymous said...

Comrade Kevin, I love that:

"I'm not the average ordinary alpha, grunting, crotch-scratching, unable to deal with his feelings, car maintaining, sport-obsessed male."

Can I borrow that?...LOL.



The Jotter said...

Is it racist? Absolutley not. Is it a wee bit starry eyed? Probably.

You obviously never met my grandfather-in-law. God rest his soul, he was one of the meanest cuss-es ever to write some novels, raise some kids, and become a gentleman rancher on the rolling Virginia hills. Real hateful guy. And Jewish.

Now though, here I go remembering... he was pretty cool. Not nice nor sweet, but he had a greatest generation swagger with some amazing life experiences.

You might be right.

epilonious said...

I would say that you know a lot of cool Jews and you appreciate/respect Jewish culture and doctrine. There is nothing wrong with saying a majority of the Jews you have come across or heard about seem to be excruciatingly cool.

I think you broach into racism if you met a Jew that wasn't cool and your reaction was "Hey, you're supposed to be cool, dammit!"

Steve Caldwell said...


Racism isn't just a matter of negative stereotypes. Positive stereotype can also harm others.

Any stereotype has the potential to obscure the individuality of a person. This is especially true for the Asian "model minority" stereotype or the grooming and entertainment-savvy gay male stereotype presented by the "Fab Five" on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Imagine how a non-hip, non-cool Jew is going to feel living in a community where everyone expects you to be cool and hip. Would you want to live with this pressure?

Finally, I found this comment about "positive" stereotyping that may be relevant here:

"The model minority stereotype can also damage AAPI (Asian and Pacific Islander) students’ self-image. As one AAPI high school student said about the model minority stereotype:

'They [whites] will have stereotypes, like we’re smart… They are so wrong, not everyone is smart. They expect you to be this and that and when you’re not… (shook her head) And sometimes you tend to be what they expect you to be and you just lose your identity… just lose being yourself. Become part of what… what someone else want[s] you to be. And it’s really awkward, too! When you get bad grades, people look at you really strangely because you are sort of distorting the way they see an Asian. It makes you feel really awkward if you don’t fit the stereotype.'"


Rather than using your own personal feelings as a Gentile to decide if this is racism, anti-semitism, or something else, perhaps you should ask someone who is Jewish what they think about your opinion?

Steve Caldwell said...

CC wrote:
"But I will confess that I've always thought that Jews were cool, collectively, as a people. And I wonder if that's racist of me."

Then CC wrote:
"I personally don't feel this is racist of me. But I can't explain why I don't."


From what I read, it sounded like you had raised the question and it looked like had mostly answered it yourself and were looking for validation. Since it sounds like I had mis-read your post, please accept my apology.

However, your post does raise some other questions.

Is it really healthy to exoticize the racial or ethinic background of others and belittle one's own background? Does this lead to a healthy identity development for those of us who are white?

Chalicechick said...

What's the difference between appreciating the values of another culture and exoticizing another culture?

That I would even ask the question indicates that I don't know. The line between cultural stereotype and cultural anthrolopology is a hard one to draw.

After all "All Asian kids are smart" is racist.

"Asian kids tend to do well in school" is supported by test scores.

"Academic excellence is highly valued in many Asian cultures, thus Asian-American parents tend to push their kids to put effort into schoolwork and thus the kids tend to do well," could be overgeneralized, of course, but my understanding is that it is often true. Certainly my Asian friends believed it was true when we were growing up, and they bitched about it incessantly.

My hypothosis on this at this point is that cultural/national stereotypes, particularly benign ones, are generally pretty acceptable, particularly as there is a certain amount of truth behind them.

e.g. Canadians are, as far as I know, well-known for being over all a quite polite and reasonable people. Nobody gets called a racist for telling:
"How do you get a bunch of Canadians out of a swimming pool?"

(said softly) "Excuse me, will everyone please get out of the pool?"*

Racial stereotypes are of course a different matter.

Perhaps that Jews straddle the line between race and nationality is the reason that Steve is accusing me of "exoticizing" them for admiring qualities that actually, I like to think I share a bit. (I value scholarship, I'm down to earth, I look back on what I've survived with a certain degree of dark humor.)

At the same time, Jews are just another shade of white people to PG.

I can see where both points of view come from.


*Which might be the funniest joke ever told about any nationality.

PG said...

I'm quite freely racist (if this is the correct term for "grossly generalizing") about various sorts of Indian people. Christian with a European first name? probably from Kerala. Overeducated socialist? ditto. Owns a small business? Gujarati or Punjabi. Academically inclined -- not for the sake of monetary success, but for the sake of knowledge? possibly Bengali. Can't dance? Southie!

To be honest, I'm not sure to what extent academic excellence is really valued generally within various Asian cultures, and to what extent the Asian American sample is skewed by the people the U.S. government lets in. My dad got in during the 1970s because the gov't wanted more highly skilled workers. Even the Vietnamese refugees often were people who'd been affiliated with the U.S. government (which is why they had to get the hell outta 'nam) and thus more likely to be better educated than the average Vietnamese person.

The one Asian immigrant group of which I know that hasn't been as successful, the Hmong of Southeast Asia, were a quasi-tribal group living in highly remote, rural areas, whom we allowed to mass-refugee here after we asked them to help us fight the Commies directly and then we ditched on that. Few of them came speaking English, and relative to most Asian American communities and possibly even to white Americans, they're more likely to be low income, relying on the government for assistance, etc. Hmong culture may not necessarily be much less oriented toward academic success than other Asian cultures; it's just that we didn't get the academic cream of the Hmong in the same way we have of many other Asian communities. (Something worth noting about old Cuban immigrants, incidentally; if your life was better pre-Castro than post-Castro, you probably were doing better than the average Cuban.)

Anonymous said...

It's my impression that there are some un-cool Jews, but the Jewish culture definitely has some really cool things in it.
similar to what pg said about selection: Jews have been selected for intelligence in a couple of ways: first, they respect it in the sense that the rabbi's son was always the hottest catch in town, the rabbi being the smart guy*, and second, other groups have been systematically killing off Jews who weren't bright enough to escape, for centuries.

*as opposed to those others who make their "best and brightest" celebate....(i.e. take them out of the gene pool).

PeaceBang said...

Okay, now we're getting into some really offensive territory.

Kim, your comment about "systematically killing off Jews who weren't bright enough to escape" is one of the most vile, ignorant things I've ever seen on-line. On behalf of all my relatives who weren't "bright enough" to escape the concentration camps, Kim, and in their words, you're dead to me.

CC, I appreciate your question and your post. But let me make one important correction to your wonderfully witty assessment of Jewish holidays as commemoration of "they attacked us, we won, let's eat." It isn't just "attacked." It is "They tried to EXTERMINATE US, we are still alive, let's eat."

If Jews get especially twitchy at being either exoticized or demonized, there's good reason for it. It's a very complicated identity: religious, cultural, "racial" and so on. The big problem here is that defining Jews as a "race" in the first place is what has allowed our enemies to organize extermination efforts so effectively.

If you had to go around and find out who the Jews were by attendance in the synagogue, or by bar/bat mitzvah records, the numbers would be tiny. But those of us of Jewish ancestry know that that's not how it works. To our friends and foes alike,Jewishness is based on blood kinship first, then religious affiliation. That's what makes these discussions so nerve-wracking to me: well-meaning, non-Jews going right along with the idea that Jewishness is inherited genetically, not by immersion in the Jewish religion.
To a Jew, I'm not legitimately Jewish because my Mom isn't a Jew. To a neo-Nazi,I'm unquestionably Jewish enough to kill. My point is, the actual question of whether Jews are another "race" has a very scary history.

To the broader question, though, my experience, this is what discussions of the Other inevitably leads to. Whether you begin by saying, "Gee, Jews/Asians/Blacks are so smart and cool" or "Gee,Jews/Asians/Blacks are awfully tribal and too powerful and funny-looking with weird beliefs --let's get rid of them," it becomes a forum for the majority to hold an Other together as a group for examination, evaluation and critical discussion, using the few specimens they personally know as emblematic of the whole people. (e.g.,"My Jewish father-in-law was a real bastard, but he had some good points. Gosh, you might be right! Maybe Jews ARE cool!") And that, for my money, is where the kernel of CC's question is important.

Notice that ChaliceChick didn't ask any of us what we thought about Jews, good or bad. She asked us if we thought it was racist to generalize about Jews as a group. And yet several people jumped right in there with their own personal opinion about The Jews ("In MY opinion,some Jews aren't cool, but then again, there are some aspects to Jewish culture that are cool" --THANKS for your affirmation, Kim, Jews everywhere were breathlessly waiting for your approval) because that's what this kind of generalization leads to.

The folks who answered in the affirmative, "I like Jews so this question isn't racist," are sweet, but that's not the point. The point is, when we launch discussions about a particular People based on their collective identity, we're objectifying them, and objectification is where racism and all the other "isms" begin.

PG, "grossly generalizing" is not synonymous with racism. Racism and stereotyping are not the same.

Chalicechick said...

It feels mean to thank you, PB for that post in that it looks like it must have been terrbily painful to write, but it really did answer the central question in a way no one else had.

I learned "they attacked us..." etc by sitting in on my friend's bat mitzvah class and it makes sense that the rabbi might have taught the kids a watered-down version of the phrase as you might know it.

Associating Jews with being smart and cool and valuing things I value felt so benign, but I did have the sense that there was something wrong about it and now I know.

Again, thank you.


Chalicechick said...

First off, PG, I don't think you're being racist when you talk about cultural stereotypes in the way you do, though I will grant you that you're on safer ground talking about Indian stereotypes and I am on safer ground talking about the American stereotypes than we would be talking about each other's cultural heritages.

But to provide an American example,and one you may appreciate as a Texan yourself, my father is from Texas. But he was a child prodigy opera singer who was exposed to a sophisticated way of life at a very early age. He grew up to be very East Coast in his presentation of himself, his style of dress and his pronounciation. You did not meet my father and think "Texan." (Meanwhile, his older sister lives here too and retains her accent, her turquoise jewelry and her southwestern decorating style to this day.)

This was all until my father would get angry. Then the Texan would come out in a massive burst of accent and metaphor that was truly jarring given his usual demeanor. To this day, Texas accents make me mildly nervous as on some level I associate them with getting screamed at for some childhood sin by an ex-opera singer, which I can assure you is no picnic.

We can react against where we were raised, but the culture of our birth is always with us, and assumptions that people have retained some of the cultural imprint of where they are from are likely not completely off.


Chalicechick said...

I'm not sure why that distinction matters, Kim. Are the Jews in concentration camps the only ones who could have been related to PB?

Even if you actually meant that her dumber Jewish relations five generations back got killed, that doesn't make the statement less offensive.


Anonymous said...

Ok, Peacebang, I think I have figured out the disconnect between you and me. I think you are assuming I am offering "wisdom" when all I am offering is my opinion. I feel I am just throwing one more piece of data into the mix, and you seem to think I am offering the answer to something. My relationship to my opinion is just not that grand.

Anonymous said...

CC -- what is offensive about it? Are you saying that I am not to acknowledge that we had some forbears that were less intelligent than others? Am I not supposed to acknowledge that people have been killing us off for thousands of years? Is it that you think I am blaming the victims? I am not, or at least not intending to: it isn't that some forbears were unintelligent, but that the ones with exceptional intelligence had a slight edge. How do you think we got smarter than chimpanzees to begin with?

Chalicechick said...

((what is offensive about it? )))


Well, let's try it in this context:

If someone were to claim that the slave traders were only able to catch the stupider Africans and that person used that claim to draw conclusions about African-Americans today, would THAT be offensive?

If so, why is that idea offensive and what you're suggesting not?


Anonymous said...

I can't say anything about the Africans and intelligence because I don't know anything about how Africans were selected for slavery.
I certainly can see that many people would find just talking about this offensive, and I assume you do, and PB does. So, do you think that we should just close off any thought processes in this area? Or are you saying I just shouldn't write it down?
I remember taking a course in Physical Anthropology at Berkeley in the 60s: we discussed such things as blacks averaging longer arms than whites -- and even then the professor cautioned that we shouldn't talk about this outside of class because some people would get offended. We can't even speculate over measurable facts? So, yes, personality traits aren't measurable facts, and we can't really accurately measure intelligence, and what does it mean anyway? You didn't define or measure "cool" either.
So, it was incautious of me to mention my thoughts on this subject. You countered with claiming that people would be offended, when you could have just shot down my "facts". Who does that serve? Are you saying that emotions are more important than facts? (that is a position that I have argued in the past, so it won't be surprising if you say "yes").
As i've said before, I don't really identify with my opinions: I'm very persuadable. I have no obligation to be consistant. If you want to feel that I'm persuaded that I was wrong to sound so racist, then you have to give me an opportunity to do that. I would expect it of you, but not of PB.
I apologize, I was wrong.

Anonymous said...

I really don't want to argue with you. I apologized. I said I was wrong. I acknowledged that I could see how you would find it offensive. I even said I didn't intend it to blame the victim -- that's not what I meant.
Anything else I can do? May I ask you to delete the whole series?

PG said...

The point is, when we launch discussions about a particular People based on their collective identity, we're objectifying them, and objectification is where racism and all the other "isms" begin.

PG, "grossly generalizing" is not synonymous with racism. Racism and stereotyping are not the same.

PB, thanks for your input. At what point would you consider stereotyping to become objectifying? Clearly objectifying should be avoided because you identify it as easily leading to racism, but I'm not sure I can discern the line between objectifying and stereotyping.

When my sister briefly dated a Punjabi guy, I was pushing her not to be worried about his being more creative and entrepeneurially-oriented than my family and people from our area of India (which among immigrants tends to produce hyper-educated professionals -- all three of my parents' kids will have a different professional degree). I worried that we had a kind of internal prejudice in favor of people like ourselves: MBAs, JDs and *especially* MDs, and to a lesser extent engineers, accountants and other people with highly specialized and profitable skill sets. A guy who wanted to start his own business and was a part-time DJ? Further proof that Punjabis are *much* cooler than We are.

The relationship didn't work out, and in retrospect I wonder if I'm the one who was generalizing and objectifying. Because she told me he was Punjabi, I was worried that she would dismiss him for the wrong reasons. But if being with someone who has a certain educational background/ career ambition is important to her, then it doesn't matter where his family is from. In a way I was sort of exercising a soft bigotry toward this guy. I was anxious about not blocking off someone who happened to be of a slightly different cultural background, while ignoring that *even if* the qualities that might make him a bad match for my sister *happened* to correspond with generalizations about his culture, that didn't mean I should ignore those qualities.

Anyway, I know this doesn't mean much to 99% of the people who read this blog, but I think it's sometimes easier to talk about issues of racism, stereotyping and generalizations when it's pulled back from something close to oneself (such as attitudes toward Jews) and put on something still real but quasi-hypothetical in its remove from oneself.

djlorenzen said...

Yes it is racist, but in a good way.

And you are right, jews are cool! Why? Because they are smart, smarter than the rest. Most nobel price winners has been jews. The jewish people have contributed much to the world.

And they make cool music too!
(ok this music is irish but the girl has a davids star on the forhead, so it counts ;D)

Anonymous said...

Get the definition of racism right and then you shall know, yes it is indeed racist to think like that....
And if you do think like that it is obvious that you need the jewish-collective to feel cooler about yourself....that's pathetic!

Miss S. said...

I wish more Jews thought that they were cool...

Unknown said...

@ kim etc..

yes, natural selection is a crude force and it is not generally acceptable to talk about it in context of human society.

I like American Jews, too.