Many of my pieces are aimed at clarifying confusions surrounding concepts of race and ethnicity. Two previous discussions dealt with “looking Jewish”: the first concerned Eastern European Jews, and the second discussed Sephardic Jews.
Among the comments I received, several were by non-Jews who had had experiences of being assumed by others to be Jewish and were treated either benignly or with anti-Semitism based on that assumption. People don’t enjoy having their identities labeled differently from the way they label themselves—and they certainly don’t like being the target of bigotry. But instances of cultural mislabeling also raise interesting questions about the cultural categories involved.
There are a number of ways—all of them fallible—that people make judgments about the cultural identities or group memberships of others. These include people’s physical appearance, clothes, and names. (See my five part series What Do Names Tell Us? mainly part 3 on race and religion, but also the other parts on popular names, last names, social class, and gender .) What we are interested in here is physical appearance—traits that Americans think of as racial or ethnic identifiers.
Here is an example. Decades ago, while I was finishing my doctorate in clinical psychology, an Italian-American graduate student told me about an experience she had had on her internship at a university-based psychiatric hospital in the south. She was in an elevator with a white man who read her nametag and, seeing that she was a psychology intern, said “You’re a credit to your race.”
Rather than focusing on the man’s questionable views about race and his naïve assumption that he was offering a compliment, I’d like to draw attention to his racial category error. Because the intern in question had tan skin, black hair, and dark eyes, he assumed she was black, although she and others in her social world considered her white.
Social scientists sometimes make a distinction between marked and unmarked categories, where “unmarked” is the normal state of affairs that need not be referred to--it is the social air we breathe or water that fish swim in--the background within which social relationships and discourse exist. (The terms come from linguistics, where a verb like smile is unmarked, while smiled is marked, because the -ed ending indicates the past tense.)
In the United States, where people considered white are the majority of the population and hold the preponderance of power and status, white is an unmarked category. Most white folks are initially perplexed by sentences like “I saw this guy talking to this white guy.” In contrast, a sentence like “I saw this guy talking to this black guy” might appear merely descriptive to them, because the unmarked term guy is assumed to mean white guy. The situation is different in an all-black setting, where one might indeed hear a sentence like “I saw this guy talking to this white guy.” However, in a racially mixed setting, a sentence like “I saw this guy talking to this black guy” might not provoke comment by blacks, because they recognize that white is an unmarked category in the society at large.
Just as black is a marked category in our predominantly white country, Jewish is a marked category in our predominantly Christian country. As I explained in my piece on Sephardic Jews, there is considerable overlap between the physical appearance of Jews and non-Jews who come from the same part of the world. Hence, when speaking of European immigrants and their descendants, it is to be expected both that some non-Jews look Jewish and also that some Jews do not. In the case of Jews who do not look Jewish, the issue need not arise because they are assumed to be part of an unmarked category (though, as with blacks who “look white,” they might sometimes be exposed to bigoted comments because of their unmarked physical appearance).
The case is different for non-Jews who look Jewish, because their physical appearance leads others to assume that they are part of a marked category. As a result, having others call attention to their apparent classification is something they have to put up with.
Wikimedia Commons: Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 film Niagara directed by Henry Hathaway. Digital trailer from SabuCat Productions, distributed by 20th Century Fox. (This image is a screenshot from a movie's public domain trailer. Trailers for movies released before 1964 are in the Public Domain because they were never separately copyrighted.)
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