Accidental Racism in the Jewish World


A “harmless” joke highlights the problem of racial sensitivity in some sectors of the Jewish community.

Earlier this year, my wife attended a program on Jewish education. The presenter made a seemingly harmless joke:

“A couple stopped having children after their fourth, because they read a study that said that every fifth child born in America is Asian.”

There was no way for him to know that among the sea of white faces in the audience, one of them was married to me.

I contacted the presenter to inform him that his joke was racially insensitive (it implies that having an Asian child is a negative outcome to be avoided). His first reaction was not to apologize, but to explain.

“The joke is not about race.”
“It doesn’t really disparage Asians.”
“I ran it by some Asian friends!”
“I teach courses on cultural diversity, so I’m well-versed in hot button issues like racism.”

The irony of that last point eluded him.

I responded by quoting the cardinal rule of comedy: If you need to explain your joke, the joke isn’t funny. The lesser-known corollary : If you need to explain why your joke isn’t racist, the joke is racist.

He eventually did apologize. “I’m sorry if you misinterpreted my joke.” In other words, the fault lay with the person who found the joke offensive, not the teller. It was a stunning abdication of responsibility—from a professional educator, no less.

I do not believe the presenter is racist. By all accounts, he is an upstanding, civic-minded, Torah-abiding Jew—the polar opposite of a white supremacist brandishing bigotry and tiki torches. He is not an agent of hate. And one joke in poor taste does not a racist make.

But racism exists on a spectrum. The hateful invective of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, and gun-wielding domestic terrorists occupies one extreme. The other encompasses a far subtler form of racism: the inborn, unconscious biases that shape the worldview of anyone raised in a predominantly white society.

It is not malicious. Most people are not even aware of it. It manifests most commonly as a lack of racial sensitivity—a gaping blind spot to the perspectives of marginalized peoples. It finds expression in comments and questions and jokes that seem harmless, but are actually hurtful.

And it is distressingly common in the Jewish world.

My life as a convert has been charmed. In the 12 years since I joined the Jewish people, I’ve enjoyed the wholehearted embrace of countless families and individuals who have gone out of their way to make me feel like a vital thread in the broader tapestry of Judaism. They’ve welcomed me with open arms and shown me nothing but acceptance and friendship.

Tolerance is a hallmark of Judaism, and I can attest to its truth.

It comes as no surprise that I have never experienced overt racism from fellow Jews. No taunts of “go home, Bruce Lee!” which I heard as a child in the suburbs, and even occasionally as an adult in the streets of Manhattan. Tolerance is a hallmark of Judaism, and I can attest to its truth.

However, to say that I have not experienced any racism whatsoever would be a lie.

I have heard children chant “ching chong, ching chong!” in my presence at Shabbos tables. I have heard adults quip that someone was so tired that their eyes “looked Asian.” I have been asked by the Jewish owner of a neighboring town’s kosher Chinese restaurant if I was a customer or one of the cooks. I have been complimented for speaking without an accent (never mind that I was born and raised in New York).

At their core, these “innocent” comments touch a raw nerve shared by every minority in America. They boil us down to physical traits, linguistic sounds, or vocations. They dehumanize, reducing individuals to stereotypes and tropes. They make us feel different, “othered,” and lesser. We are conditioned to think of ourselves as outsiders, and these comments reinforce that insecurity.

And the effects are amplified for children.


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