Katya Gibel Azoulay seems perfectly placed to interrogate the
intricacies of interracial and biracial, especially Black/ Jewish,
identity formation. Azoulay’s mother was an Austrian Jew who fled the
Nazi invasion. Her father is West Indian of mixed racial descent who
migrated to this country as a child.
In the United States, her mother was classified as White and her
father as Negro. The one-drop rule rendered her and her children Black.
Jewish law made them all Jewish, this latter determination borne out by
the fact that her identity card from Israel, where she has spent much
of her adult life, listed her nationality as “Jewish.” Although Azoulay
attempts to explore the complexity of identities in the case of
children with one Black parent and one White parent, as a living
embodiment of her subject matter she is at once too close to the
material and perhaps not quite close enough.
There’s the rub: too close for comfort and yet not close enough for
insight. Too enamored with theory for its own sake, and yet so
overwhelmed by theory that it gets in the way of and drowns out what
looks to be promising and insightful material. Thus the author spends
the bulk of the book struggling with, and against, abstract
contemporary identity theory in cultural studies, post-structuralism,
and anthropology. By the time the reader reaches the interviews
contained in the last chapter, exhaustion has set in for both author
and reader – and one finds just snippets of the interviews embedded in
more theory. The snippets may be enough to pique interest, but the data
base on which so much is premised is small.
Azoulay asserts as the heart of her argument that “to be Black,
Jewish and interracial is to occupy a three-tier standpoint position:
It is a cognitive and physical process of being in the world – in, and
as a result of, a race-conscious society – to be an interruption, to
represent a contestation, and to undermine the authority of
While it is true that interracial identities incipiently challenge
racial categories and formations, to assume that they do is to give in
to the essentializing logic they are challenging. Azoulay seems aware
of this, although she fails to pick up on the nuances in some of the
interview material she cites. For instance, Frantz – whose mother is
Jewish and father is Black – at one point expressly declares himself to
be “Jewish first,” although he earlier says that he “still maintain our
heritage” while referring to Jews and “they” and “them” with a desire
to “maintain their heritage and their culture.” This belies the
author’s insistence that Black/Jewish interraciality is necessarily and
sufficiently predicated on the assumption as “a common past of
oppression and suffering.”
It is likely that most Blacks in the United States, as Azoulay
insists, have some mixed background. Since almost all “American
Blacks,” as she puts it, are mixed race, identity is hardly anomalous
but repressed. Thus the reality of double consciousness raises not just
the questions about the relationship of racial and national
identification, but also about the constitutive condition of
interraciality. Nine interviews can hardly scratch the surface of the
discussion, especially if a central question concerning racial
configuration is treated almost as an exotic anomaly.
This raises questions about Azoulay’s point of view, questions that
mark the text in the codes of race itself. Azoulay articulates much
more Jewish than Black cultural sensibility and commitment. One might
say that she seems more comfortable discussing – from the inside, so to
speak – Jewish culture than Black culture. Additionally, she seems to
assume that embracing Zionism is the only way to be an authentic Jew.
By denying that there are different ways to be a Jew, she implicitly
denies that there are different ways to be Black. Thus the discussion
shifts from a privilege-denying “Black and Jewish and Interracial”
focus to a privilege-infested “Jews and Blacks in America” tangent.
The shift is followed by accounts of “Jewish Identity” and “Jews and
Intermarriage” with no comparable analysis of Black experiences. When
she returns in conclusion to “The Logic of Coupling” between Jews and
Blacks, her standpoint is clearly that of a Jew. Similarly, the rather
thin analysis of historical memory is predicated largely on an
understanding of Jewish experience.
The author is fully aware of this, explicitly calling it to the
reader’s attention in the afterword. The reason for such privileging
“is simple,” according to Azoulay. Privileging Jewishness in a text on
biracialism in the United States supposedly “demystifies” the
assumption that Jews are White.
Such a response is unsatisfactory. Demystification hardly
legitimizes the privileging of a group already, for the most part,
privileged socio-politically and economically in a racializing order
that has a long and devastating history of Black devaluation. Which is
not to deny the history of anti-Semitism that has also tainted this
Although Azoulay insists that “interracial” is a “Euro-American”
idea and has no place in Jewish discourse, this is again disingenuous.
Jewishness, especially in the second half of this century, has
definitely been influenced by its Euro-American legacy as well as by
discursive internalization. And there is a good deal of alienating
exclusion of Jews in Israel as well as in the United States on racial
grounds. Syrian or North African Sephardi Jews in New York and Tel Aviv
know this all too well.
Jews may not have been White upon arriving in America, and all Jews
certainly are not White today. But as a group, Jews in the United
States are presumptively White. The history of that transformation is
perhaps more interesting than the now-presumptive fact of Jewish
Whiteness. However, nothing about this justifies the sort of narrative
privileging Azoulay’s text assumes.
Thus Azoulay concludes too quickly that, “It’s not the color of
one’s skin that matters, but the race of one’s kin.” It’s not that the
race and community of one’s kin don’t matter, they do for quite a few
people – notably the growing number of biracial children. But to assume
that in a country like the United States it altogether crowds out the
visceral experiences associated with skin color is to fail to
understand a deep and abiding reality of an America still deeply
divided between Black and White.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com