A close friend and I sat outside the movie theatre. Incredibles 2 was showing — a movie we had both already seen, which provided a perfect opportunity to chat about our lives, and reflect on our ongoing experience facilitating a pre-orientation program for incoming first-years.
The program consisted of 80 first-years and 40 upperclassmen. While the program didn’t have quite the diversity of students that the Duke campus does, it did include a diverse crowd across all areas of identity. The vast majority of students, first-years especially, did not know one another before coming to this program. In theory, everyone had an equal opportunity to introduce themselves, make first impressions, and forge friendships. This made for quite a unique sociology experiment, my friend and I thought, as we discussed our observations.
We were particularly interested in observing the friendships that formed as the week-long program progressed. Now was the time we could share our observations and compare our “field notes.”
“Did you see who people sat with during lunch today?” he asked.
I answered affirmatively, laughing to myself, as I was about to ask him the same question. Perhaps it was because we were both hungry, or perhaps it was because we both intrinsically knew that food brings people together in a way nothing else can. When people eat, they satiate an instinctual desire. People want to eat in good company.
“Yes, I did. People sat with others who looked like them, who identified with the same race and came from similar ethnic backgrounds,” I quickly replied.
My response was met by a nod of agreement from my friend who remarked, “It’s interesting that race and ethnicity seem to be the most impactful categories of identity, the categories that both separate and bring us together most.”
He paused for a second, considering something and then asked me a question about my identity. A question I have been struggling to answer my entire life:
“Hey, Andrew, I know you’re Jewish… Do you consider that to be your race, ethnicity, or something else?”
Thoughts about my identity started rushing through my mind. What did our observations imply for a Jew living in a Christian society, on a secular campus that features a 210-foot chapel at its center. Most importantly, how can I answer the questions “what is my ethnicity?” and “what is my race?”
I began answering his question by giving him context.
“When people ask my family their race or ethnicity they answer ‘Jewish’ without hesitating, as if it were an ethnicity, a nationality, a race, and a religion all scooped up into one. I learned this at a young age. And, when I learned it, I thought it was pretty cool that all my identities could be expressed with a singular word, so I began asking my friends at school what they considered themselves, preparing myself to proudly say I was Jewish after they had answered with their singular ethnic-national-racial-religious identity.
“However, much to my elementary-school-self’s surprise, none of the responses were what I had expected. I received answers ranging from ‘Italian’ to ‘African American’ to ‘Latino(a)’ to ‘Chinese,’ and while these answers did talk about race, ethnicity, and nationality, they only spoke about one or two of them at a time. And, most shocking to me, not one of my friends answered with their religious beliefs. My young self didn’t care about the complexities among race, ethnic, national, and religious identities. All my young self cared about was how special and efficient it was to say I am Jewish, as it answered all identity questions with a singular word.”
“Whoa! So you have considered Judaism your one-word identity your entire life. That’s super cool,” my friend responded, intrigued.
“Well, not quite,” I retorted. “As I got older and progressed through school, I began to question my answer to the question ‘what am I?’ I learned about racism in the U.S., about its historical context internationally, and about how important race is to people. I learned the difference between race and ethnicity, how people are born a certain race and how race is entirely a societal construct. I even learned about diversity among Jewish people. And, I no longer found it sufficient to say I was Jewish. Judaism after all is just a religion. One can convert to Judaism, but it is impossible to convert to a different race, ethnicity, or nationality. So I began answering the question ‘what am I?’ differently. My new answer was ‘A Caucasian American-Jew.’”
“Okay, that makes sense,” he exclaimed. “So you have since called yourself…”
“Not quite,” I said, cutting him off. “I called myself that until I explained my new identity to my grandparents, Holocaust refugees. They responded to my explanation with their experience living through anti-semitism in a world that wanted to ‘destroy the Jewish race.’ My other set of grandparents supplemented this with their experience having difficulties finding employment options because they were Jewish, calling it a form of racism. I did research of my own and found numerous articles documenting anti-semitism in the U.S. and abroad, calling it a form of racism. I was back to square one. When people asked what was I, my response would be ‘Jewish,’ just Jewish. This went unchallenged up until my first few weeks at Duke…”
“What happened then?”
“Well, as you know, on Duke’s campus many are proud of their identity. Most students, myself included, are put in a new environment with a diversity of peers they are not akin to. I grew up in a mostly white and predominantly Jewish community. In my neighborhood, one street alone had four synagogues on it. Now, at Duke, most of my peers were not Jewish, and were more racially diverse than I was accustomed to. Now, there were no streets nearby with anything remotely close to five synagogues.
“So, I felt a drive, stronger than I ever felt in high school, to embrace my heritage, my Judaism. I felt that if I didn’t express it, it might be lost and drown in the sea of cultures now surrounding me, and, while I looked forward to understanding other traditions, I felt a strong need to protect and express my own.”
I paused as my friend sat pensively. Sewing his thoughts into words, he said, “I imagine your experience is similar to other students at Duke. I imagine the drive you felt to both understand others and express yourself is the main reason multicultural groups and spaces exist…”
“Hmm, maybe. That’s an interesting thought,” I responded. “But last year, Orientation Week taught me a lot and really set the stage for further discovery about my identity.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when O-Week came, I mustered up the courage to socialize. I mastered the script quickly: ‘Hi my name is Andrew, I’m planning to major in economics and statistics (changed to economics and environmental science and policy and ethics since then), I’m from New York, and I live in Gilbert-Addoms.’ Typically there would be a few follow-up questions and occasionally the conversation would drift to a different topic, but for the most part, that script would sum it up. I couldn’t tell you how many people I met, nor could I tell you their names more than five minutes after interacting with them.
This pattern of mindless introductions continued until I met someone special, someone who broke the script.
‘Well, it’s great that you are from New York, but I want to know what you consider yourself. What are you?’ she inquired as we stood outside a dorm.
‘I’m Jewish,’ I responded almost instinctually.
‘Wow, my first Jew,’ she cheerfully exclaimed.
It is astounding how many times I have gotten that response since….”
My friend chuckled a bit as I continued.
“I later became her first ‘White male friend,’ which was both an honor and privilege, one I am still grateful for. Coming from her mostly non-white neighborhood, the most identifying factor about me was the color of my skin. As I made more friends at Duke, this pattern continued. I was considered a Jewish-Caucasian, while I considered myself a Caucasian-Jew. I struggled with this greatly, reconsidering once more if Judaism is a race. I thought, perhaps I can be both Caucasian and Jewish. This was a good compromise after all. It pleased my grandparents and my friends, and gave me peace of mind. My search for identity was finally solved.”
“Okay, so you consider yourself Jewish and Caucasian. That’s easy,” he said frankly.
“Well, I did… up until reading period.”
“What happened then?” he asked.
“During reading period, I was walking from East Campus to the Freeman Center when I came across a poster from a white-supremacist organization advocating for the ‘creation a pure white, European race,’ the first step of which was to ‘eliminate Jews.’ I researched more about groups like this, and found many neo-Nazi organizations looking to create a pure White race through eliminating Jews, among other racial minorities.”
“Whoa. How did that make you feel?” he asked.
“This was my first encounter with blatant anti-semitism and the first time that I was forced to make a decision about how I identified. I was fine with calling myself Caucasian and Jewish, but it seemed society wasn’t. These groups were racist, and Jews were on their list as races to exterminate. Judaism must be a race then, right? No. You cannot convert to a race but you can convert to Judaism, and you don’t have to have a certain skin color to be Jewish. Race is something that can be seen, and Judaism is not. How can I call myself just Jewish, when I benefit from White Privilege in other aspects of my life?
“These thoughts buzzed around in my mind, as my anger grew at the sight of the poster on Duke’s campus — my campus. I was in an identity crisis. I was angry. I was confused. To other minority groups, I was considered ‘white,’ and to Caucasian groups I was considered ‘Jewish.’ No matter where I turned I felt like an outsider.”
“I never realized you felt like that. That was only a few months ago. How do you feel now?”
“Still confused,” I said. “But instead of feeling like an outsider, I feel welcomed. I am talking to a close friend after all.”
“While I still struggle with defining my race, my ethnicity, my nationality etc., the importance of finding a clear definition has faded. I am talking to you, a close friend. A friend who will accept me for being me…”
We sat there in silence for a bit, and I thought:
Perhaps that is the beauty of diversity. Perhaps we are striving toward accepting others while embracing what makes us unique, getting a little closer to this ideal everyday. I like being me, and no matter how others choose to define me, I will refuse to be anything but me. I am still searching for how to categorize my Judaism. I still am unsure about how to define my identity, but I am now comfortable with the unknown…
The movie ended, and my friend, the comedian that he is, said, “Now wasn’t that movie really incredible?”
Once more I agreed with him, and I added. “The conversation was too.”
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