I still remember when I first recognized the extent and reality of racism. I was in middle school, and I thought, well, when enough people have intermarried to make the whole world more or less the same color, that would take care of the problem.

At that age, I was blissfully ignorant of the tribalism that would make mankind unlikely to reach that simple “solution”–or the likelihood that if we were all the same skin color, we’d find other ways to distinguish between “us” (the good guys) and “them” (the suspect “others.”)

What made me recall the naïveté of my long-ago “insight” was a really fascinating essay in the Hedgehog Review, titled “My Identity Problem.” In it, Alan Shapiro–a poet and professor of English– muses about his lifelong experience of “belonging, yet standing apart.” Shapiro focused on the relationship between his Jewish-ness and his American-ness, and  explained how that experience affects his approach to contemporary arguments about cultural appropriation: is a given example an exercise in empathy, or an unjustified (and inevitably inauthentic) intrusion into someone else’s culture?

That led him to a consideration of the way group identities serve us, and then to a really wonderful anecdote from one of his classes that–at least for me–illustrated the impossibility of avoiding “appropriations.”

A student of Japanese and Latino descent in one of my classes pushed back strongly when I advanced that line of reasoning: “That’s different,” he said. “Black and brown people can write from a white perspective because they aren’t part of the white power structure. When you do it, it’s cultural appropriation. We should just focus on our own culture, and not raid someone else’s. It just isn’t kosher.”

I thought at first that he was joking, using the word kosher. But no one laughed, and he wasn’t smiling. I said, “That’s an interesting word, kosher. A hundred years ago it was a word only Jews used, and only among each other. Now it’s so mainstream it’s hardly even a Jewish word.” I wanted to ask the student what he meant exactly by “white power structure,” but frankly, on this occasion (as on others), I was afraid to give offense.

Still, I continue to wonder: By “white power structure,” do people mean redlining and other unfair lending practices, police brutality, or biased hiring? Does it also include the cars we drive, the latest devices we avidly consume, the huge chunks of time devoted to social media, selling ourselves and our enviable lives to thousands of “friends” we’ve never met? Is anybody pure? Is any culture? Even while we’re all caught up in various systems of power, and despite the rigid monolithic metaphor—white power structure—the systems that make up our social life are neither fixed nor fated, but are constantly in flux, emerging and dissolving unpredictably.

And though it may seem like a small thing, I was deeply touched and heartened by how “naturally” a word like kosher had been assimilated from “my” culture into the American speech of a gay man whose father was Japanese and mother Latina. What better evidence of both the assimilationist metaphor of the melting pot and the identity-driven metaphor of a tossed salad. The exchange with my student seemed proof to me of just how impossible it is to privatize culture, how culture is not a thing or a piece of property you can build a wall around. Never unalloyed, it exists and flourishes through promiscuous intermingling.

As Shapiro writes at a later point in the essay, our group identities are an inescapable part of who we are–but only a part.

In an America where most of us identify as members of many “groups,” (what sociologists and political scientists call “cross-cutting” identities), being a member of any particular one–even a particular marginalized population–doesn’t determine how we think or act. We all take different parts of ourselves from the various communities to which we all belong–a reality that prevents us from being wholly defined by any specific one of them.

That reality is ultimately why bigotry–racism, Anti-Semitism, etc.– is so stupid.

At its core, bigotry is the belief that group identity trumps individuality and behavior—the belief that people who share a skin color or religion or sexual orientation all share essential characteristics that distinguish “them” from “us.” It is a worldview that refuses to see people as people—as individuals who deserve to be approached and evaluated as individuals.

It just isn’t kosher.


  1. I had to look up “bigotry:”

    “obstinate or unreasonable attachment to a belief, opinion, or faction; in particular, prejudice against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular group.”

    I also looked up the noun, “judgment:”

    “the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.”

    What’s interesting is a word is attached by our brains to process how we feel about something. We attach meaning to words and then feel a certain way.

    Colors also trigger certain feelings in our lizard brains.

    I said all that to also say, we are not our brains. 😉

  2. This discussion reminds me of a story from my grandparents day. All of my grandparents were born in Europe and came to Chicago in the early 1900s. One side from Ireland, the other from Greece. My Irish Grandmother would refer to the Greek side as”Those Foreigners” . It is kind of funny to me that she failed to see the bad logic in that statement. And it really annoyed my mother. People can always find SOME way to look down on the other I guess.

  3. Oddly bigots develop a self-aura that renders themselves inferior to people who are fair and just.

  4. Ive spent the last twenty years helping out the black community the best I know how at any chance as it arose. From building libraries to grading papers, helping create hallway billboards, in schools to getting black people hired into great paying jobs $110 k or more. Most of them dont like the culture tug of war. They love being, not dividing. Most of that is because this country has divided so many people in so many ways. Just yesterday a coworker was discussing how most dont know what we did during WWII. He stated someone was misled led to believe only the Japanese Americans were alienated. As a native to indianapolis his grandfather had to leave Germany by paying a years taxes in advance to Nazi Germany. Once he got here, other family members who had already arrived were serving in the war effort. His own business took off and he became successful. His families name landed in the newspaper as being not trustworthy or loyal and that destroyed his business. He lost everything.
    Today we have the same thing looming in this country. Its the watch your back feeling you get as everyone is telling you that you’re probably a troublemaker because of where you came from or if your parents were involved in some group here in the hills.
    Just think of the politicians who are pushing divisiveness today. They can’t explain why they said,” I learned about cockroaches” while talking about kids at a swimming pool. Hmmm.
    I simply want us to look at all sides of the argument and keep ourselves in check.
    Hers a controversial article about Trump., No I don’t think he will get elected again.

    My question is who are politicians hurting with their policies. Gas prices up, pipeline union jobs cut, Putin being pushed into a corner with his nuclear missiles pointed at us. ( Prof Merscheimer. Why Ukraine Crisis is the Wests fault on youtube)
    The poor of all cultures appear to be hurt as the misery index is the highest in years.
    With cash on the side Im going to buy stocks now because God knows how a strong economy can be destroyed in one year. Again ghe poor are hurting.
    How will businesses respond as their stock prices plummet?

  5. I grew up believing I was a mixture of German and Irish; my father’s family German and my mother’s family Irish. A friend sent as a gift a membership in 23andMe; learning I am actually 55% British/Irish, 19% German/French with a small percentage of Scandinavian came as a surprise. I am still just me, just Jo, as I was before learning my DNA makeup; they are all white ethnicities. So why is there such a vast difference when one is considered African-American; which is a misnomer because not all Blacks are of African decent.

    Being white and mixing and mingling with “colored kids” during my teens, separated me from being accepted by both races. In my 30s I married a Black man and it seemed that those of us, men and women who chose this path in life, became a separate race; no longer belonging to our original ethnicity. In 1975 or 1976 my Black father-in-law named me an “Honorary Nigger”; this touched me deeply even though I remained primarily unaccepted by either race.

    I have gay and lesbian friends which further separated me from all races and genders. One of my lesbian friends told me that, because I am friends with all of the lesbians in our neighborhood, that I am believed to be “an old fag”. We both got a big laugh and I remain just me, just Jo, now an old, deaf, disabled woman battling the Pandemic like millions of others around the world. I am just another member of the masses; what ever the hell my “Identity” is considered by those around me.

  6. Is it that we need a greater common enemy to experience the possibility of achieving victory with better odds than facing the enemy alone?

  7. I too really became aware of bigotry when I was in third grade and JFK was assassinated. School was dismissed and some student in the hall made the statement “now we are not ruled by the Pope”. His comment really brought home bigotry to me and just how wrong it is.

    BTW, I too have multiple groups to which I belong. Caucasian, Disabled Vietnam Vet, Catholic, and well educated (I have a doctorate in Education) and most importantly I’m very liberal.

  8. May have told this story before (apologies)…first day of grad school course on “The Sociology of Race” in 1968. Professor tells us to take out a sheet of paper and number it from 1-50. He states: “there are generally 3 races, Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid. He dims the lights and shows us 50 slides of faces, asking us to put C, N or M next to the number.

    After the “game” is over. He asks for shows of hands for who put what…somewhat of a mix, but generally stereotyped. Then he tells us where these folks are from…shock after shock….

  9. Hmmm…. A 2015 Pew survey shows that while 94 percent of Americans selected one of the five census-designated racial categories, only 63 percent of Latinos selected one. Many Latinos instead identified their race as “Latino” or “Hispanic”—technically ethnic, not racial, terms—or even selected their country of origin as their race. The nomenclature we use to understand race, our vocabulary to make sense of it, just doesn’t encapsulate Latinos very well.

  10. Sheila, your middle-school thought speaks to the comment made by Derek Jeeter (Yankee short-stop), years ago, about how he represented
    the future of Americans, who would, he thought,”…all look like me.”
    It seems that we humans tend to revert to tribalism as a response to perceived threat; that the amygdala just goes there in that situation. Threat
    can be perceived, easily, when no such thing actually exists, as in “The Jews will not take over!” (No, we of Jewish ancestry just want to have a
    good pastrami, on rye, and be left alone.) But, more to the point, the enjoyment of a pastrami on rye is not limited to Jews, it’s kosher
    for “others” to enjoy such a thing, as well. And for Jews to have “Chinese” on Christmas evening.
    Identity: My family, on both sides, is Polish-Jewish. I’m an atheist, was raised by atheist grandparents, who were of the immigrant generation, and I’ve
    done more than just accept their perspective. Being Jewish is not a “thing” for me, though I did rankle when I heard someone refer to “Those f***ing Jew
    bastards” years ago. The Jewish cultural life is virtually foreign to me, yet,on some level I’m a Jew.
    So, from the student’s POV, if a white person tries to write from a black person’s perspective, tries to get into a black person’s mindset, which, I
    will offer, might be a valuable thing for white people to do, he/she is doing a bad thing?
    “Is anybody pure?” No, simply no.

  11. I will Have to say that culture is manufactured by men. Or mankind I should say.

    I recall basically being color blind when I was a kid. I didn’t know the difference between white or black or people who spoke languages other than English. In my family, I had/have individuals who spoke/speak Spanish, Russian, Italian, English, German, Dutch, French, Cherokee, Blackfoot, and Nigerian. Religious affiliations are just as diverse. Catholic, various forms of Protestantism, Islam, Coptic Christian, And even some of the diverse ancient Aramaic beliefs.

    After marrying My wonderful wife of Nigerian descent 42 years ago, our children Were very ethnically diverse in a global sense, and our grandchildren even more so adding Somalian and Iberian Spanish.

    Among all of the murders and death That have surrounded My family, Most of it because of bigotry end ethnic hatred, I ended up becoming one that returned evil for evil. I passed judgment and took revenge. I didn’t want to find out why people did what they did or said what they said, If I didn’t like it , if it affected my family negatively, Our family members including myself would rectify that situation in any way deemed necessary.

    I recall on our honeymoon, the restaurant that we were trying to eat in would not seat us at the same table. When I told the host We were on our honeymoon, He said it didn’t matter, he didn’t want to cause trouble with the other guests. And, this happened In the great state of Indiana, French Lick Springs. The only reason I ever went to Indiana after that was to go to the children’s museum in Indianapolis and, visit The Johnsons, distant relatives, and you all might know Marvin Johnson who was an ex-middleweight boxer. They used to run the peashaker operation in Indianapolis. And, back in the day, I used to enjoy hanging out with them and working security at some of their establishments If you know what I mean.

    More than anything, I used it as an opportunity to abuse individuals who I deemed disrespectful. And, all those who refuse to render recompense. I’ve come a long long way over the years, And so, those who like to refer to My beliefs as a Bible thumper definitely wouldn’t want to have known me back in the day Because it would not have turned out well.

    When I first learned about Christ’s parable concerning the good Samaritan, And how much he did for the Jew he found robbed and beaten on the side of the road even after he was stepped over by Rabbis and Levites.

    Christ made an illustration When one of his listeners posed the question, “Who really is my neighbor?” Christ basically said that A neighbor is one that even though a person could live at a distance or be of a different ethnic makeup, and Might not even be a relative, or an associate for that matter, The real neighbor is an individual that will show love and kindness to another that the scriptures command’ and, that’s found in Luke 10: 29 – 37.

    I’ve realized that politics or civics classes will never change people’s minds concerning others, They will continue to hate those who they deem unlike themselves or a threat to their heritage or cultural leanings. So, I had to change the way I did things. I had to change my personality. Now, I devote my time helping those who need it, I devote my self to being a good neighbor. Even if it’s long distance! This world is like that road of Adummim between Jerusalem and Jericho. A place of danger, a place where The Jew Who was helped by the Samaritan, was attacked by robbers. The rocks were red and the soil was red, very fitting of a place where so much blood was spilled.

    I’ve learned a lot about race relations over the decades, and one thing I’ve learned as I’ve grown older, many white folks do feel entitled. And, they’ve used religion to convince others that they were right in hating people of different ethnicities, or enslaving individuals such as the The Africans imported to this country and much of Europe. Saying that somehow those who are darker complected were cursed and that was a biblical tenant, but it never was, and after researching all of this, I’ve come to the realization how corrupt and really nasty those Who needed approval and needed something to quell their guilty conscience so they could/can continue doing wrong against their fellow men and neighbor.

    I’ve also come to the realization that men or mankind cannot rectify the situation. And, he’s doomed to self-destruction. People say that might be too harsh? But I don’t think so. I think it’s been proven throughout history, and with all do respect to those who think history is linear instead of cyclical.

    One thing I’ve learned is never to take anyone’s word as gospel unless I have researched that word myself. Everyone likes to criticize what they deem to be ignorance, But then again, Who is really the ignorant? That’s something that I suppose we can revisit later. The thing is, If you love your neighbor as It’s been described above and you love God, The world would be a much better place. Unfortunately you have those who misuse and abuse Their neighbors and the word of God. They misapply and misinterpret constantly to mislead.

    Jesus Christ also stated in Luke 6: 27-28 which reads, “But I say to you who are listening; Continue to love your enemies, to do good to those hating you, to bless those cursing you, to pray for those who are insulting you.” Christ was referring to his words and Matthew 5: 44 , he also was quoting Exodus 23:4 and Proverbs 25:21.

    The Apostle Pual brought out a good point in Romans 12:20 which reads, “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing this you will keep fiery coals on his head.” And of course this is quoted almost word for word from Proverbs 25:21-22.

    Too bad, we will never be able to solve this because so many people hate scripture, and so many people think it’s just a fool’s errand. But then again where do you hear the same sort of message in politics? Where do you see it applied en masse? Most of the population is too ignorant Anyway, too hateful, and way too easily manipulated to ever solve The problems of hating ones fellow man.

  12. I’ll offer a hypothesis with no real means much less pretense to research it.

    Cultures interact and once enough interaction takes place notice that the other is interesting in some ways and not as threatening as first thought and in fact, decent, at least as far as human beings can be.

    There are endless examples of that dynamic having played out in history.

    Sometimes though, some other dynamic, apparently larger than the two cultures, interferes in that process. What is it?

    My hypothesis would be politics which is the contest for power and its attendant influence.

  13. Interesting points Pete,

    I think you’re on the right track, except, once again I bring up Rudyard kiplings “The White Man’s Burden.” Read it, and tell me what you think a revered member of one of the world’s great civilizations was getting at?

    The white man has the weight of the world like Atlas on his shoulders, and therefore, without the white man, the world would basically collapse, hence the white man’s burden. 🤨🙄

  14. One of your more thought provoking posts, Sheila. Thank you.
    Culture and Identity are interesting topics, but I will try to control my usual verbosity.

    I have always had problems with questionnaires that ask “race”. I know they are trying to measure “black” and “latinx”, but I have never considered myself “white”, although I was assured that I can “pass”.

    No, I grew up in the era of restricted clubs, hospitals, and law firms. It was just breaking down as I was growing up, but the Jewish doctors still were only found at Mt. Sinai Hospital, and country clubs and swim clubs were segregated with “Negros” and “Jews” having their own clubs. No, I never felt “white”, “privileged” by comparison, yes, but not “white”.

    Current trends suggest that I am correct. Increased attacks against Blacks, Latinx, LGBT, … and Jews.

    I have always felt that I have an identity of concentric circles, as I suspect most people really do. There is my self-image self, my family, my ethnicity, my nationality, and in the end, my species. To me, I am “authentic” if I recognize all of those parts, and it is the composite of them all that makes me who I am.

    That being said, I thrive on the fact that I interact with other people from different backgrounds. I went to integrated schools, in my professions (science and IT) I have interacted and collaborated with people from all over the world.

    One thing that I dislike is the “melting pot”. In practice, it meant to shed your heritage and culture and become a pseudo-WASP. All would be homogenized, but the end product —
    I can’t remember where I heard this, but I love the concept of a gumbo. Many different ingredients, but each piece keeps its identity. In the end, the whole is greater, and tastier, than its parts. That is what I see as the best possible future for this county – and perhaps for our shrinking world.

    The two areas that share this vision in practice, which I tend to think of as bridges to world peace are food and music. You can find “pure” versions of different genres, but blending (and borrowing) are also widespread and I have noticed that there tends to be mutual respect among the participants (to a large extent – egos haven’t disappeared).

    One last thought on cultural appropriation. I find the term troublesome. I have no problem with a white person becoming knowledgeable about African-American history, culture, music, etc. “Appropriation” is not defined by who is doing it, but by how it is being done. When some (hypothetical construct here) New Age sort adopts what they believe to be “Native American” rituals/customs, and doesn’t know what they mean, but insists that they are being “authentic”, that’s “appropriation”.

  15. Pres bush administration, the gwb one, came out insisting we as USPS employees redesignate our race choice adding Hispanic or not. In my usual way of trying to enlighten my coworkers I argued that declaring an ethnicity is not a racial designation..
    Yawn from all

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