Robin - Lewis

Lewis Gordon, a renowned philosopher and founder of Temple University’s Center for Afro-Jewish Studies, and Robin Washington, editor for the Duluth News Tribune, talk about race during the Ida and Arthur Silver lecture on Sunday evening./Photo by Naomi Yaeger


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Are we black, white or somethin’?

By Naomi Yaeger-Bischoff
Duluth News Tribune
Published: June 12, 2011

Two black Jewish men were having a conversation at Temple Israel last week before an audience of mostly white people.

At least, that’s what they appeared to be.

“Your identity is as much defined by other people as it is by how you view yourself,” said Duluth’s Robin Washington, who spoke with Temple University professor Lewis Gordon on Sunday evening on “The Joys of Jews of Color.”

Washington, a Temple Israel congregant who is editor of the Duluth News Tribune, talked about the first time he lived in the Northland, as the editor of the Lake County Chronicle in Two Harbors. He said that when he had his job interview in 1986, the then-owner of the publication, a woman who was in her 70s, looked at him and said, “What are you?”

Washington said that even in 1986 labor laws didn’t allow her to ask that question.

“Rather than suing her and making a fuss, I wanted her to have the best black Jewish experience she could have,” he said.

Gordon, a renowned philosopher and founder of Temple University’s Center for Afro-Jewish Studies, talked about how his race is fluid and can change according to the person he is with at the time. When he sat next to an East Indian woman on an international airplane trip, he was perceived as “just a black man sitting next to her.” When he deplaned and caught a cab, the driver thought he was Arab.

“The punch line was, ‘Well I’m all of those things,’” he said.

The Ida and Arthur Silver lectures were begun in 1982 by Warren and Judy Silver in honor of Warren’s parents. The lectureship trust provides funding that enables Temple Israel to bring speakers of intellectual note to the Duluth area.

Temple Israel member Jim Perlman, who organized and emceed the event, introduced the duo, saying: “Here in the Great White North, we rarely come into contact with anyone else other than our white selves.”

Yet Washington said that perhaps because of its isolation, he found Temple Israel very welcoming to Jews of any color. In more urban areas, he said people assumed he was from Ethiopia or Israel, or that he had converted.

While the professor said most of his personal experiences relating to questions about race have been positive, his work as a researcher has put him in contact with people who have had difficulty. One story he told was of an adoptee who found out that a grandparent was a person of color — news not well-received by the adoptee’s spouse.

Regarding Jews — a central focus of the interfaith lecture series co-sponsored by Temple Israel and the Oreck-Alpern Interreligious Forum at the College of St. Scholastica — the two addressed the perception of Judaism as largely a white religion.

Washington said he was part of a group two decades ago that estimated there were 200,000 African American Jews; a more current estimate, he said, suggests that one-fifth of the world’s Jews are people of color.

That prompted longtime Temple Israel member Shirley Garber to ask. “When you meet a black Jew, should you acknowledge that they are black?”

“Yes and no,” Washington answered. “Are you sure that they are black?”

To the audience, he asked: “Raise your hand if you thought I was black when you first met me,” A few hands went up. Then he said, “Raise your hand if you thought I was Jewish.” Also a few hands went up. “Raise your hands if you thought I was ‘somethin',’ ” he concluded.

The audience laughed — and this reporter’s hand went up.


Originally published here: