Practicing Black, Practicing Jew – The Performance of Ethnicity

Being Black is somewhat like being Jewish. There is an obvious link to an ethnicity, that for Black people is especially obvious, but there’s more to the category than just genetics and ancestry.

There is also an action that comes with being Black in America. It’s much like if a Jewish person is differentiated when they are asked if they are a practicing Jew. We all know what that means, mostly. A person can be Jewish and come from a long line of Jewish ancestry, but in their home they may not necessarily keep the Sabbath or eat kosher. The same goes for being Black.

My first experience with this was in high school. All through elementary and junior high school, I was either one of the few minorities or the only somewhat Black kid in the school. I knew that was the case, but it wasn’t a problem or anything that I worried about. Likely because the population of Black kids wasn’t enough to create any groups or cliques. That changed in high school.

My high school was mostly white, but there was enough of a minority population, both Hispanic and Black, to allow people to form into groups. During lunchtime, outside of a few exceptions, the Black kids hung out near the ramp in front of the snack lines and the Hispanic kids hung out just on the other side of the central ramp in the quad. White kids had all of their own various groups based on their musical tastes and likelihood of being into sports, cheer, or drugs.

Joining the school as a sophomore, I didn’t come into it with an established group of friends, so I had to make my way into somewhere. Because I played basketball, I knew most of the Black boys already. (Yeah, I know…) So I gravitated towards people I knew. And I’ll never forget the first new person in that group to talk to me. Well, I don’t know if talking would best describe it. It was more like an interview. Some young lady looked at me and kind of shouted out, “Are you Black?!” It was pretty awkward, for me at least. 

She seemed totally comfortable and even enthusiastic. Later, realizing that she was the matriarch of all the Black kids, it made sense that she would be the screener for who could and could not gain entry. My answer, being a shy kid in a new place, was just okay for her. Being “half-and-half” put me on probation. It didn’t really work out. I was never rejected, but I was never on the inside.

Not being raised in a Black home but by two white women and a Chinese man while living in a middle class neighborhood, I didn’t fit in exactly. There was a performance that I didn’t understand and could not imitate. My little brother was able to do so, but it was just not one of my skills.

Although I was genetically or ethnically Black, I was not a practicing Black. Apparently, my years of listening to Run-DMC and N.W.A didn’t prepare me. Where in junior high I was referred to as “Tommy-the-Rapper,” amongst this group, I was on the edge of not belonging unless they needed help with science homework.

I imagine this dynamic must get played out a bit in the Jewish community. And I have seen it firsthand. Dating an Israeli girl for some time, I would hear them discuss other Jews and refer to them at times regarding how they did or did not practice Judaism. It was never judgmental, but it did create some dynamics around relationships.

It sometimes feels like being “authentically Black” is akin to being a practicing Jew.

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