In a recent Zoom class, which included 14 participants from Nova Scotia, Toronto, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, the instructor read me as mixed race.
Her assumption came as an apology. “I noticed when someone said, ‘We are all a bunch of white women,’ today in class,” she emailed after our first session. “But I didn't act fast enough to correct her...I am so sorry I didn't respond to her in the moment, for your sake, and for everyone's sake.”
For my sake? Had she noted something in my Zoom-box cameo that semaphored “not white”?
A shorthand for identity?
From a glance, it’s evident that my people didn’t sail here on the Mayflower: skin that’s more olive than peach; hair that’s more kink than silk. Once upon a childhood, my Mediterranean/Semitic nose might have given me away. But my mother acceded to my adolescent pleas to have it “fixed,” which is an assimilation story for another day.
“I’m Jewish,” I wrote back to the teacher, “with roots in Russia and Romania. I identify as white. Curious about what made you think otherwise.”
Her reply came four minutes later. “I wasn’t sure...your ‘hands raised’ icon was not the usual glaring yellow-orange, but more brown.”
I had to laugh. At some point, while claiming my toehold in the Zoomiverse, I must have set my “hands-up” to a tawny shade that struck me as more natural than the lurid lemon default.
I didn’t think it would be read as shorthand for identity, but it’s an understandable mistake. Especially right now, when we meet one another out of context, from the shoulders up, in virtual spaces, smiling in our tidy tic-tac-toe. As if faces, names, and pronouns tell us everything we need to know.
Complicated and contextual
When I first moved to Portland, Oregon, at 22, a stranger eyed me on an elevator and declared, “You must be from New York!” Meaning—I think—a little alien. A little something-I-can’t-place.
He followed up with what became, over my decade in the whitest major city in America, a familiar litany of questions: “Are you Greek? Italian? Puerto Rican?” How not-white are you, exactly? How distant from the norm?
If I’d waved a placard with an olive-tinted hand, would that have answered his confusion? Or would it muddy the matter even further? My whiteness, I learned while living in the City of Roses, didn’t protect me from a colleague using the expression “Jew him down” in front of me, or from the anti-Semitic hate note tucked under my windshield wiper one April morning. My whiteness was complicated and contextual.
The same with gender. In my red skirt with the asymmetrical hem, wearing a swipe of merlot lipstick and dangly silver earrings, I pass easily as straight and cis. But catch me on a different day: In paint-splattered overalls, gray curls cached under a Wild Things baseball cap, wearing Converse high-tops and not a lick of makeup, my identity becomes a bit less scrutable. Butchy woman? Small-boned, femme-y guy? Gender nonconforming something-or-other?
There’s a pragmatic reason to find out if someone prefers “she,” “he” or “they,” so we can refer to that person in the way they wish to be known. And asking everyone to state their pronouns reminds us not to make gender guesses based on how folks look.
But I’ve begun to wonder what those tags actually reveal. “She” might be a trans woman, a lesbian, a cisgender femme, a nonbinary person who—at least, at this moment—leans female. The pronoun doesn’t mean we’ve got her pegged.
The whole story
In the days after I first came out, I recall wishing that a neon light would flash above the heads of anyone lesbian, bisexual, or gay (it was the mid-80s; those were the choices), as a way of affirming “see, we’re everywhere,” and easing the burden of having to declare oneself at every turn.
But that imaginary light—like gender pronouns, like the shade of the raised-hand icon—would actually mislead. Not because those indicators lie, but because they’re incomplete. Because they fail to capture the entire, paradoxical, evolving story.
I’m a human who goes by “she.” Who wears skirts (sometimes) and lipstick (rarely) but also has days when she prefers to camouflage her chest and hips in boyish clothes. A human whose pencil hovers uneasily over the standard race-group check-offs—Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, Native American, Asian/Pacific Islander—because she feels at once the privileges of whiteness and the fear, pain, and vulnerability that come with being a Jew.
Until we can talk…
There’s so much that remains invisible in the Zoomiverse, or even in the face-to-face world to which we will eventually return. Does this person I am meeting have a disability? Do they get panic attacks? Are they depressed? Did they recently lose someone they loved?
I think about the ripped black ribbon Jews wear for the first month of mourning after someone dies, a kind of “handle with care” signal for those in the know. These days, maybe we all need a sign like that—a bespoke emoji, a visible manifestation of what this past year has wreaked on our lives and hearts.
Meantime, my pal Douglas tags his emails “Stale. Pale. Male.” I’m playing with something similar, enlivened by alliteration instead of rhyme: “Queer. Querulous. Quirky.” Show me your markers, and I’ll show you mine. It’s a start. But there’s so much more I want to ask. There’s so much more you need to know. When we get through the pandemic, let’s talk.
Image description: A color illustration showing 16 hands raised in the air. They are all different skin tones and their arms have different sleeves and accessories.