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We are not White 

As I child I tried to pray my brown away, until I got to the US and heard 'where did you get your tan?' With time I had to decolonize my brain
Photo credit Rachel Wahba

Jews are not and have never been White. All it takes to turn that premise upside down is to look at Israel, filled with Jews of every race and color.

Like Arabs, Hispanics, Asians, Blacks, Jews come in varying shades of color. The Black/White binary lumping Jews as White is a perversion.The category is off in more ways than one.

Color? How are my much lighter skinned Hispanic and Arabic friends automatically considered People of Color and darker skinned Jews like me not? How is leaving out Jews, with our unique cultural and ethnic tapestry, out of American Ethnic Studies curriculums not antisemitism? How are Jews left out of the intersectional embrace?

My personal skin color dance began in India at four-ish, hearing my Iraqi-Jewish grandmother and other adults comment on my color “…such a pretty girl, pity she is so dark.” It only got worse the rest of my childhood and adolescence in Japan, where my brother and I were the darkest kids in Ashiya-gawa.

Our world was rudely punctured by shouts and racial taunts, “Kurombo!” (the N-word in Japanese), on the streets where we lived.

As a little girl I placed my arm next to my mom’s lighter one whining, “why can’t I have your skin color?”

“You have your father’s color, it looks healthy” she repeated so many times.

“But I want yours!”

“Chalas, enough, go brush your hair.” Curly and uncombable, another sore spot.

My Egyptian Jewish father tried to soothe me,“in Egypt we think dark skin is beautiful…there are songs…”

I tried to pray my brown away. But somewhere in middle school, after seeing the American movie “Damn Yankees,” I worried.  In the movie the devil appears and grants a baseball player his greatest wish, a home run in exchange for his soul. In Catholic school (my only option at the time), we thought of temptation a lot. I was terrified, if the devil came for me, my young self would trade her soul for white skin.

And then suddenly, almost overnight, my world turned upside down. My parents, still stateless, waiting for immigration to America, put me on a plane with my Red Cross issued student visa. I landed in Los Angeles to hear for the first time, “Where did you get your tan?”

I expected a lot from America, but I never expected that one plane ride out of Tokyo into Los Angeles to turn me White. In the United States there were African Americans, that changed everything. Out of Japan, I was no longer kurombo.

On top of that, my unwelcome skin color, the object of dismay, taunts and slurs, my Jewish skin color, was suddenly a desirable, envied “tan”– people seem surprised it’s so “even.”

It took many more years to fully de-internalize my racism, my perverted sense of self hate. I actually grew up thinking anyone with “fair” skin was automatically prettier.  When I healed, I was shocked to see the distortion in my brain and how disrupted I would become when anyone pointed out my color. Now, when asked, “where did you get your tan? ” I love answering, “from my father.”

Jew was never an issue for me, being stateless, it was the only national identity I had. It was the devalued skin color that occupied me. Jews who haven’t had issues with skin color but have internalized antisemitism can grow out of it too.

How others see you, how color is reflected in movies, magazines, that old “skin color” crayon, the compliments, the insults–on the street, in the home–over and over again–it matters. It gets internalized. The degree of misery it causes colonizes your brain. It did mine.

When the scenery changed, I began to heal. Reading Malcolm X on skin color, (despite his unexamined antisemitism), went deep into my consciousness. If he could be a proud Black man owning and loving his color, I could outgrow my internalized racism and become whole — as comfortable with my color as I was being a Jew.

Jews with white/light skin, Jews who are seen as White, pass as White, identify as White, Jews with white skin privilege in the United States or elsewhere, do not make Jews White. In Europe not so long ago, six million Jews with white skin were slaughtered for not being Whites.

Ancient Jewish communities from all over the Middle East and North Africa have been driven out, targets of pogroms, persecution, and most recently, ethnic cleansing. You won’t find Iraqi or Egyptian Jews in my parents native lands today.

Jews have participated in their miscategorization as “White” in the United States. The unfortunate collusion of Jews thinking themselves White and allowed to be White (until they aren’t, as in Germany), with the ongoing refusal by the world at large to understand us as a People (antisemitism), is intensely problematic. Let’s make the time to decolonize our brains and reclaim our identity.

About the Author
Rachel Wahba is a San Francisco Bay Area based writer, psychotherapist and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of her exile and displacement are a constant theme in her professional work as well as her activism as an advisory board member for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).
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