Black and Blue All Over
Everyone I know can't stop talking about the Stephen Lawrence case. Jewish friends especially seem to feel a liberal concern that such a terrible thing should happen to a boy from such a balabatish family.
But however much we feel that our own immigrant experience precedes that of the black community, and so we understand, there's a crucial difference. Obvious but significant; we have the choice to reveal our identity.
Imagine a world where Jewish people were blue. You know, that kind of Jewish blue that is the corporate colour of Jewish charities, the blue of the Israeli flag, related to the Tesco's blue, and not dissimilar to motorway-blue (significant for wandering Jews).
In a meeting at work, you realise that you are the only blue person in the room. In a tube car, you notice other people noticing that you're the only blue person and wondering if you're going to try and sell them something or make them some lunch. When you go for a job interview, you can't agonise for hours about how and when and whether to say you're Jewish - your blueness is the first thing people notice when you walk in, and with it come their own prejudices about blue people.
The police stop blue people who double park in Golders Green. Companies market products for blue hair. When you walk down the street, people stare. You'll never be asked to go on the company fun-run again: your co-workers will say "Oh, don't ask her, you know that blue people never exercise". Pale-blue people think that you are too bluish. Your parents want you to go out with someone nearer navy whereas you are a more middle-of-the-road blue.
There's a magazine called Blue and Funky and it's not about soul music. The mantra of your childhood was "blue and insecure" and everyone knows the Blue Power symbol of a slightly balding guy with round glasses shrugging his shoulders. When you go out to a bar with a lot of your blue friends, the other customers feel uncomfortable. Blueness means that people presume things about you before they even talk to you.
Experiencing blueness gives you an outside-in perspective on ethnicity. It's the difference between having no option and an underlying yet compelling low-level anguish. When you're blue, gone are the hours of angst about whether to say that you don't eat pork at a business lunch. Having a standing meeting every Friday afternoon in the winter. Just saying you're taking holiday when it's Yom Kippur.
Sure, for every Jew who wants to conceal their identity, there is the "hello, I'm Jewish" Jew, but the point is that we have a choice. When to reveal our difference. How to tell the truth. Whether to play at being white and Anglo or not.
Personally, I have had only one or two experiences where I really understood how it is to be in a minority without that choice.
1991: working in Singapore, living in the non-expat area, I am uncomfortable at how often people stare at my fair hair. Getting a cab one day, before I have a chance to state my destination, the cab driver says "Victoria Street". Perturbed, I ask him how he knows, and when he says that he has seen me there, I realise that I am the only non-Asian in that part of town.
1992: seeing Malcolm X at the Streatham Odeon with a group of black friends. There's a scene in the movie where two white girls rush up to Malcolm on a college campus and ask how they can help with the struggle. And when Malcolm responds "keep out of it" and everyone in the cinema cheers, I realise that I am the only white person, and suddenly know how it is to be in a visible minority.
Maybe sensing my own bluekeit has given me a more complex insight into how other immigrant groups feel. The privilege of having an option to be a minority, a privilege no other group has, implies a particular obligation. The obligation to build black-Jewish relations, the obligation to look without as well as within, and the obligation to stand up and be counted when we see racism in action.