Sexual Mutants of the Multiculture
Issue #33, September 1997
Miscegenation: marriage or sexual relations between a man and a woman of different races.
— from Webster's New World Dictionary
My parents grew up in segregated neighborhoods. Cynthia was raised in a small Texas town where everybody she knew was white and Christian. Marty lived in a Jewish section of the San Fernando Valley in California. His school was so Jewish-dominated that the team chant was "Hit 'em in the kischkes!" At some point during their courtship, which began during their days at a less segregated high school, my mother decided to convert to Judaism. And so she did several years later, studying Jewish history and culture with a reform rabbi and professor at UCLA where she was attending college. But her ethnic transformation, although legal under reform Jewish law, would never be complete. To my father's parents, she was still an interloper. It was as if Christianity were written into her very DNA, as unchangeable as blue eyes and blonde hair. And, I must admit, I have never thought of her as Jewish either. She is my WASP mother.
So I have come to be an ethnic hybrid: half-WASP, half-Jew, the product of two supposedly segregated identities. Such a condition lends itself easily to jokes. If you combine my heritage with that of my partner, you get one Jew and one Christian. If you combine my heritage with my partner and our friends up the street, you get 1.2 Jews, 2 British, .5 Scots-Irish, .5 Italian, .01 African American, and of course the inevitable imaginary .0001 Native American.
What this tongue-in-cheek laundry list of ethnicities manages to explain — in a quite serious way — is the extent to which all racial identities are already hopelessly miscegenated. Nevertheless, the terms "race" and "ethnicity" grow out of the old-fashioned idea that there are measurable, anatomical differences between such groups that make them obviously distinct. Even "multiculturalism," a concept which suggests racial plurality, takes for granted that racial groups can co-exist peacefully only by maintaining cultural separations and particularities. But I would argue that the "multiculture" might more aptly be understood as a series of cultures that are being experienced all at once, often in a single individual or group. The racial logic of multiculturalism should be conceived of as "multiple and hybridizing," not as "separate and plural." To acknowledge this, in my opinion, would simply be to admit what we've known all along.
Fetishes are only symbols, highly compacted stories that subliminally signal their fuller meanings.
— Robert Stoller
For my parents' and grandparents' generation, being Jewish meant being part of "the Jewish race." They were part of a not-quite-white racial category, caught between assimilating into dominant WASP culture and finding themselves cast out of it. Although most Eastern European Jews could "pass" as white, their religious and cultural heritage made them a breed apart, a group that would have to be taught the ways of American Christianity (implicitly, American whiteness) whether they liked it or not. Although my father's elementary school was 99 percent Jewish, they were forced to have a Christmas pageant every year. My mother's parents called Jews "clannish," accusing them memorably of "eating greasy food." Telling me this story, my mother bursts out laughing. "A Southerner saying that someone else ate greasy food!" she snorts, still incredulous after more than three decades. "I'm always amazed that Marty was able to like me," she adds, "because he hated Christians so much." Once, when they were first dating, my mother referred to Brazil nuts by the only name she knew, a name she had learned in Texas: nigger toes. Marty claims he intended never to speak to her again.
I used to ask them all the time what brought them together into the unlikely union that made me. It all came down to a sandwich. "I saw Marty eating these gigantic sandwiches for lunch. I'd only ever had these white bread sandwiches, with one slice of meat and mayonnaise. Maybe there would be a layer of lettuce, but I don't think so. I had to find out why this guy was eating such huge sandwiches." It's so American, that fetishization of the "other" through food. We avoid thinking about the way "difference" often means "subjugation" by trying to convert social identity into tasty, consumable objects. Foreign identities become synonymous with the restaurants immigrants build (or through their simulation). We come to know the other literally by consuming them.
But my mother was consumed. They come to visit me, and I ask her about it.
"I had always assumed, not knowing that there could be any other alternative, that Marty would convert to Christianity," she explains to me as my father watches her from across the room.
"But I would never have done that. Never," he cuts in, "That just wasn't an option. Christians were the enemy."
"But why did you want to be Jewish?" I ask Cynthia. "Was it a way of escaping your family?"
"Yes, my family was very ... narrow-minded. Jews seemed cosmopolitan, sophisticated. In Marty's family, people talked out loud, and spoke their minds. And they were a handsome family, not the stereotype of the wrinkled, hunched people my mother imagined."
"Cynthia's father thought that since I was a Jew, I must be a communist," my father remarks dryly.
"So you didn't want to be part of a group like that," I turn back to my mother.
"No, and I didn't want you to grow up with religious conflict. So I converted."
"You know, I don't think of you as Jewish," I remind her, "and didn't you think I might wonder why your mother celebrated Christmas?"
"Well no, I never thought of that," she replies, giggling. Then, seriously, "But I feel like a Jew, as if I have more in common with Jews. People see me as Jewish. Maybe being Jewish did allow me to see my own culture, Southern Christian culture, as somewhat alien. It seems alien to me now."
My partner enters the conversation. "People would definitely think you are a Jew," he says, "most Jews would."
It's true. Cynthia has been Jewish for more of her life than she has been white. I, on the other hand, have been white and Jewish for exactly the same amount of time. In fact, I have been white and Jewish simultaneously. One could argue that such an experience is the very essence of being Jewish in the United States today, especially if you have pale skin and blue eyes like I do. Looking at me, and many Jews, most people would think "white" rather than "Jew." Yet the not-quite-whiteness of being Jewish has never gone away. When I declare myself Jewish, or part-Jewish, people do respond to me differently. Because being Jewish is not usually something people see immediately, they can't prejudge me they way they would an African-American or Asian-American. But once they know that I'm Jewish, many of their preconceptions shift, and I seem suddenly strange. They have to gather more data to feel comfortable. "Are you kosher?" they'll ask, or, "Are you religious?" Then there's my favorite, "Do you speak Jewish?" I wouldn't describe any of these questions as anti-Semitic, only as indicative of the way being Jewish somehow marks you as "other," as needing some kind of an explanation. When you're white, it's far more rare that you're asked to explain your identity. Most people don't regard whiteness as a race, only as the absence of it. However wrongheaded this attitude may be, it's the kind of "common sense" that constitutes our first impressions of one another.
I go out to breakfast with my partner's family in Long Beach. His grandmother Dorothy, from the Jewish side of his family, is there with her boyfriend, Charles. We talk about the past.
"I'm from Williamsburg. Do you know it?" Charles asks me. I don't. He is shocked, then amused. "It's the Orthodox section of New York."
"C'mon Charles, they don't know about that," Dorothy teases him. But I'm interested; I'm always interested to hear about the past. I ask to know more.
"My father wanted me to be a rabbi; he was very religious," Charles says, "But I rebelled because I wanted to be an engineer." I try to imagine a scenario in which a Jew becoming an engineer would constitute rebellion. It's like watching someone eat a sandwich stuffed with some bizarre form of vegetable. You want to get up close and find out what it is.
"Wasn't it hard for Jews to get into college in those days? Didn't they screen you to make sure they weren't admitting too many Jews?" I ask, remembering my Ethnic Studies courses.
"Yes, that's what they did," Charles says, "so I became a teacher."
Several months later, we go out to dinner with them in Los Angeles. Charles and Dorothy have just been to see me give a book reading in which I talk about whiteness, and stereotypes of whiteness.
"I never had to deal with white people when I was growing up," Charles says. "It was Williamsburg. Do you know it?" He looks at me. This time I do know it, and I remember.
"Yes, I know Williamsburg. What you had to deal with was really horrible," I say, referring to anti-Semitism in the early twentieth century. But in retrospect, I realize what I've said is ambiguous. Charles takes me to mean that growing up in a restrictive Orthodox environment was horrible. He couldn't agree more.
I think I must have tried, like every kid, to imitate my parents' relationship. When I started dating, I developed a predilection for people who came from a biracial or biethnic background. I also dated outside my race, usually ending up with Asian-Americans, who enjoy the dubious privilege of having inherited the "model minority" label once reserved for Jews. My first true love was Korean-American, and I was his ultimate "other." His Christian, traditional parents were more than a little reluctant to allow their only son to date a Jewish white girl. They referred to me as "that American girl." When I came to visit his family once, I was filled with shame when I awkwardly took off my shoes inside the door, nearly stumbling in my effort to demonstrate cultural sympathy. What was ridiculous was that I took off my shoes to enter my own house. I did it every day. And when we visited my parents' friends' houses, we did the same — Asian customs were ordinary to me. But I felt suddenly, stupidly white in that long-ago boyfriend's house. I was an invader, a son-stealer, grubby-fingered and clumsy. Later that same year, his older sister, a church-going woman, came home late one night to find him in bed with me. That clinched it. I was a slut, just like all the other white American girls.
Being Jewish was easy compared to that. It made me interesting, gave me a special angle on things. I knew how stupid Christmas was several years before the other kids knew it. As a Jew, I could do things in the name of Judaism that would have gotten someone else in trouble. I gave a book report to my ninth grade class on Philip Roth's novel The Ghost Writer, about a young man who is sexually obsessed with Anne Frank. Dressed as "the writer," I read a long soliloquy from the novel which praised the erotic magnetism of a dead girl, the seductiveness of the ultimate Jewish victim. What kind of teacher would risk forbidding me to read erotica out loud to a ninth grade class when I was doing it for Judaism? Anti-Semitism was not allowed at my high school, at least not out in the open. Once some boys in the hallway yelled, "Dirty Jew!" at me during lunch. I wheeled around, glowered, and screamed "FUCK YOU!" at the top of my lungs, giving them the finger too, just for good measure. A teacher tried to upbraid me for yelling obscenities in the hall. "They called me a DIRTY JEW!" I said. "But is that how you should respond?" he asked condescendingly. "Yes," I replied, and never heard another word about it.
When I think about race, fucking — even the word "fuck" — just seem to come to mind. And I think of family, which most psychologists would agree is a fairly typical connection to make. My sense of my own racial identity always comes back to my parents' miscegenated romance, which has isolated our family from their families for most of my life. Fucking, and worse, breeding, is what made their union scary during the early 1960s. Although there were other conflicts between my parents and their families, I know — having seen the way those purebloods looked at me, the mutant offspring of Jews and hicks — that they were disturbed by what I might represent. I was the hybrid corruption of their own segregated cultures, proof that Jews and whites could mate and even produce something pretty, something smart, something that could yell "FUCK YOU!" and not be sorry at all. I was the living embodiment of their racial and sexual transgression. And I knew it.
As I grew up, my racial identity blurred and changed as I moved from one romance to another. I fell in love with whites who fetishized my Jewish "otherness," women who fetishized my gender-bending butch "otherness," Asian-Americans and blacks who fetishized my white "otherness," and biracials like myself who fetishized my ability to pass as white, my bourgeois "otherness." I was everybody's "other," just as they were mine. Even when I dated nice Jewish boys, I was fascinated by the idea of making it with one of those purebloods, somebody whose Jewish genetics had never been thinned by whiteness. Difference was my fetish; it had to be.
For years I articulated my racial politics by fucking. In fact, that's how I articulated all my politics: no one was too strange, too ugly, too different for me to fall in love with them, even if it was only for a day. I had to keep reiterating that fundamental difference I saw inside myself, to make every racial relationship sexual, and every sexual relationship racial. Families and couples that were monoracial upset me; they were a personal rejection. When I would see two Asians walking hand-in-hand down the street, I would wonder, "What non-Asian person have they each rejected to get there?" A white family made me ask, "Why did they need to make their children into little racial versions of themselves?"
Later, I turned to theorizing. "You know," I told my students one day in the midst of a discussion on race, "we could eliminate a lot of racial problems in the United States right now if everyone would just agree to breed with people of a different race. Then, the very next generation would have a totally different racial makeup." Everyone laughed. But I was only half-joking.
Multicultural Mutation Tree
The Mutation Tree ... lets you see random variations (or "mutations") of your sphere. Clicking on any of the balls in the mutation tree will produce a new sphere, with randomly determined properties. The higher up the mutation tree you go, the more variation you will see ...
— from the instruction manual for Kai's Power Tools 3
We are always in the midst of a vast social mutation that could lead us into new ways of being racial, and forming racial identity. Indeed, it's fear of the changing racial character of the United States that has motivated the recent outbreak of dysgenic hysteria books like The Bell Curve and Emotional Intelligence, and Darwinian horror movies like Species and the forthcoming Alien Resurrection. These books and movies all take as their central premise one basic problem: there are "others" out there who are breeding, and they want to breed with "us." The really scary part is that if "they" breed with "us," then it will be a lot harder to separate the "good" races from the "bad" races (whatever you might think those are). People who identify as more than one race or ethnicity challenge the old, separatist ways of doing things. Since racial separatism is founded on the idea that the races can, in fact, be sorted out into easily defined categories, it is virtually impossible for hybrids like myself to maintain such a system. Even the US census has acknowledged this, and is debating whether to change its categories to include "multiracial."
But what does this mean for us in our everyday lives? Finally, I think, it suggests that progressive social transformations are possible in one lifetime. My mother lives as a Jew, and Charles lives outside Williamsburg. What strikes me about the distance they've both come is how their identities haven't just moved toward idiosyncratic personal goals, but towards a society which is actually capable of recognizing the choices they've made. For my mother really does pass as a Jew, whatever I might think, and Charles can choose from a whole range of Jewish practices that will not restrict him to Orthodoxy. The changes they made in their identities did not take place in isolation, but were part of large-scale social movements. Charles' generation broke away from the old world traditions of Judaism to find less constraining cultural identities in the melting pot. Cynthia's generation reinterpreted their ethnic heritages and embraced a multicultural ideal where each racial and ethnic group could celebrate itself. And I, the inheritor of their unmade traditions, will have to climb the mutation tree myself and aim for a more just and egalitarian variation on the culture I live in today. I hope this culture will have a place for people whose racial identities are multiple and compounded.
It's possible that multiculturalism could give birth to divisiveness, warfare, and separatism. Certainly, it's a system that has, at certain points, discouraged political and economic coalitions between racial groups; it can lead to a fetishization of difference to the point where any move to emphasize human commonalties seems like oppressive homogenization. Spike Lee, one of the black community's most visible advocates in the US media, argued for the benefits of multicultural separatism in Jungle Fever, a movie about why interracial sex easily gives rise to violence and hurt. But the fact is that multiculturalism, in spite of its many drawbacks, does mean that people of different races are going to get thrown together more often. And they are going to fall in love, and fuck, and have children. Perhaps Spike Lee, like my parents' families, would view me and my polyracial peers as mutants of the monstrous sort. Like Godzilla or something from The X-Files, we represent the end of all that was once called "civilization."
If that's true, then I welcome the end of civilization. I want to see race get weirder, harder to define, more and more like a cheesy movie rather than a melodrama. I look forward to a future when "miscegenation" is no longer possible, because it has become clear that everybody is already miscegenated. In fact, we've been miscegenated for thousands of years. I hope my peers, and their children, will generate a new language and iconography to describe my current condition. Biracial, transracial, multiracial, polyracial, pseudo-racial, post-racial — maybe through our experiences these terms will acquire meaning.
I'd rather be a mutant than a separatist.
Annalee Newitz is Chair of Bad Subjects, a non-profit organization, and a Ph.D. candidate in English at UC-Berkeley. She is also the co-editor of White Trash: Race and Class in America (Routledge Press).