Why My Skin Color Means I’ll Never Feel Like I Belong

“Terrorist.”

That was a word I heard a lot in high school.

I’m a sephardi Jew (three-quarters of me is, genetically speaking) and I was living in a very white (but Jewish) area near Chicago.

And so the people made jokes, they made jokes in the way guys make jokes in high school, finding out what’s different about you and exploiting it.  Not exactly in a mean way, but in the way that people just did in high school, whether you were friends or enemies.

“Terrorist!”

“Where were you last night, dude?  Blowing stuff up?”

Stuff like that.

You kind of learn to just accept these things in high school.  You learn that, “Hey, if I laugh along with them, or don’t get angry, I won’t ostracize myself.  I won’t turn it into something they know they can get into my head with.”

And so I laughed it off.

But the truth was that it bothered me.  But maybe not for the reason you’d expect.

It bothered me because I felt white.  Or, at least, I didn’t feel different than everyone else.

My whole life I had grown up in white areas.  My parents grew up in an Ashkenazi (primarily white) area of Israel.  Culturally, I think my parents and I didn’t feel so different from the people around us.

I remember my mother even explaining to me when I was young that I was white.  Because it’s kind of true.  There’s no option on the Census for “Middle-Eastern” in the race area.  No scholarships or affirmative action.  Racially, I am technically white; caucasian.

But kids, and people in general, don’t care about that.  They care about what they see.

And I remember that time in first grade when we had a discussion about race and I mentioned to the class that I was white, as if it was nothing, as if it was a fact… and the whole class started telling me that I wasn’t, that there was no way that I was white.

I wasn’t hurt so much as confused.  My mother had said I was white.  I felt like everyone in my class.  I grew up surrounded by this culture.  Why was I different?  Why wasn’t I white?

That confusion was what fueled my frustration in high school at being called a terrorist.

The word implied that I was different, that I was somehow separated from everyone else because of the shade of my skin.  That I wasn’t even Jewish.  That because of how I looked, I was closer to being Muslim than the religion of the majority of the people around me.

And I knew they were “just joking”, that it was all “in good fun” (the way high schoolers and Americans in general justify teasing), but the implication of my being different always bothered me.

And then 9/11 happened.

I still remember the last time I was called a terrorist.  It was that morning, before anyone knew how bad it really was, before people were watching the news.  They had just heard a plane or something had crashed into a building.

I was on my way to the class where I would watch the second plane hit the other tower, where I would watch people jumping from buildings because they preferred dying that way than being burned alive… where I would hear the news anchor say, “I’m sorry, I need to interrupt you, but…” and then they showed the first tower fall, and in front of my eyes I saw thousands of people die.  And then watch it happen all over again as the other collapsed.

But before all that happened, I needed to be called a terrorist one more time.

I was walking down the hallway, on the way to that class.

“Hey, Elad, were those your friends in the plane? Haha!”

I didn’t know what had happened, because I had been in gym class, but I figured there was a terror attack somewhere.

Haha. I smiled and kept walking. Whatever.

But that day, after we watched the towers fall, after our entire school watched thousands of people die in front of our eyes, after Bush got on TV and told us that we wanted those damned terrorists dead or alive, and the whole world was waking up to terrorism,  to a new war that would be fought for decades… that day was the last day I was ever called a terrorist.

The word was now a slur, not a joke.

But when it happened, the extreme pain of what I had witnessed and the amount of hatred I felt for terrorists, mixed with the constant reminder that people had joked about me being one of “them”, even if just by looks.  And it only further confused and pained me.

I guess what continued to cause this hidden inner confusion in my mind was that my parents, television, teachers, and the whole world, seemed to always be saying, “We’re living in a post-racial world!  America is this beautiful melting pot, and you can’t be defined by the way you look!”

And I believed them.  I wanted to so badly to believe them, not because I cared about the ideal, as much as I just wanted to belong.  I just wanted to be one of the crowd.  When I was younger, I wished my parents had named me “Mike” instead of “Elad”.  I refused to learn Hebrew because I didn’t want to be reminded that I was the son of immigrants.

But America never let me fit in.  Or so I felt.  No matter how much I tried to just be like everyone else, I became more and more like there was a sign above my head that said, “Different.”

Even after 9/11, and maybe even moreso, I felt the echoes of the jokes of high school, calling me “terrorist.”  I felt how it was a reminder that I would never be seen as just the same, as the mainstream.

It took me a long time to realize that being different was something beautiful, that it was to be embraced and loved, not pushed away.  That my roots were special.  That my name was beautiful.

But to a certain extent, I think the confusion will always be there.  Because I really did grow up in white and Ashkenazi areas of the world.  I’ll always feel like I am the same, even while being different.

It’s become something I’ve just learned to accept: that the world isn’t so interested in accepting us, in looking deeper into who we are to define us, but would rather put us into neat categories.  That whatever I feel in my heart won’t really matter to most people.  That America claims to be post-racial, but is more confused about identity and race than ever.

These are the realities of the present-day world, and there’s no way to wrap it up in a neat bow and have a perfectly happy, logical ending to a blog post that uplifts and changes everyone.

All I can do is tell you what it’s like.  And hopefully some people will listen.

  • Amanda Rokhel Scheerer

    Thank you for showing people your truth Elad. ‘joking’ can be really confusing and painful for people. If it makes any difference, I always thought of you as ‘white’, not that it really mattered. <3

    • Stina

      Ms. Scheerer, I mean no disrespect to you when I say this, but the last part of your comment is problematic. It suggests that Whiteness does indeed matter because he deserved to be consoled when his racial identity, which he believed conformed to the ‘White standard,’ was questioned and ridiculed from members of that same group.

      Unfortunately, we can tout all we like that race doesn’t matter, but it does. People who say they are “color blind” and “race doesn’t matter to them,” have the privilege of never having their race called into question.

  • Shoshannah

    Not only is this painful to endure, but there is no such thing as skin color. The melon in the skin is dictated by geography – nothing else. This is a scientifically proven fact. We’re here to make a difference, and I have never believed that difference has been in skin.

    • Heshy Rosenwasser

      I believe you mean “melanin” …

      • Shoshannah

        Yes, what you said 🙂 I almost typed melatonin so it really could have been worse.

    • Popeye D. Saylorman

      Is the Melon like a Water Melon or Honey Dew Melon ingredient?

  • Hymie

    Beneath the joke lies a deeper truth: that racism (xenophobia) is still an issue, as is the blindness of those who practice it.

  • Rebecca K.

    Wow. I’m glad you flat out said this, because stuff like this happens to so many people, both Jews and non-Jews, regardless of their religious or political beliefs. My (half-Sephardi) husband looks dark in the summer sometimes, but when when he was a kid, it was most likely he’d be called Mexican. He even got pulled over by the boarder patrol once.

  • ChaimJ

    come back to Israel.. Plenty of darker skinned Jews here and you can be prime minister!

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  • Joseph Biener

    Elad, I feel your pain. I am a relatively dark-skinned Jew even though my family is Ashkenazi and not Sephardi. I was always different from my lily-white Christian classmates, and as such received a lot of teasing. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s when overt racism and antisemitism was a lot more socially acceptable than it is now, especially in the small towns where I lived. Kids called me “Jew-boy” and some even went to so far as to call me “Christ-killer.” For a 7 or 8 year old, those kinds of things are damaging.

    By the time I got to college, it was 1979 and we were in the middle of the Iran Hostage Crises. Because of my dark skin, people wanted to know if I was Iranian. That brought a whole new round of harassment.

    At some point in my 20’s, it dawned on me that I didn’t want to be like everyone else. Suddenly, being different from the people who teased me and bullied me wasn’t a bad thing. It was a good thing because I didn’t like them and I didn’t want anything to do with them. Instead of being ashamed of my differences, I embraced them. I reveled in them. I took pride in them. The more I could distance myself from the narrow-minded kids who picked on me, the happier I was.

    I also began seeking out others who were different. Not just different from the mainstream white majority, but people who were different from me. Peoples who skin and language and culture were different. I embraced them as well along with their differences. There are so many wonderful cultures in this world and I have learned and continue to learn from all I encounter.

    At this point I have nothing but pity for those people who can’t see past skin color. They live narrow little lives, and they miss the great kaleidoscope that is life.

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  • Oded Sheina Kuptchik

    I would like to thank you for writing this piece. As the mother of a beautiful tanned skin boy, who is often called “dark”,by his mainly Ashkenazi classmates, I think is about time for someone to get the word out ,that classification of human beings is best left in the past. I also feel that American Jews seem specifically adept to categorization ,by color (dark,shvartze,sephardic…) by country of origin ( rude,cheap,loud,dark=Israeli) by who are you related to and how much do you make. I even had a very ” sensitive ,gentle,sweet” soul tell me how does it feel to be in a mixed marriage,lol.( mind u we are talking about a Sephardi/Ashkenazi one)
    At the end of the day, my goal is to pass on to my children the pride and rich mesorah that comes hand in hand with their beautiful skin color, that a person is measured by his actions ,and that Hashem love us all just the same.

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  • Katrina Bascom

    I try to live by the saying: ‘Sticks and stones may brake the bones, but words will pierce the soul.’ ‘Just kidding’ and ‘I love you, but’ are two of my biggest pet-peeve phrases because it seems to give the bully a free pass to say whatever they want (and even try to disguise it as love – ech).

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  • Pop Haggadah

    Racism sucks. Sorry you had to go through that. People can be idiots.

  • Miryam Elkaim

    Wow.
    I really identify with your story. I’m really pale, as are two of my siblings, but my father, other 2 siblings, cousins, and the Sephardim that I grew up surrounded by, and with whom I identify, are not. I’m the strange white Sephardi who is angered by others giving my brother or my father odd looks, and the one who is enraged at the stories the Persian men I grew up with tell me about how they are targeted every time they go into an airport.

    I never thought in terms of “being white” because in my mind, I’m not. I’m half Ashkenaz, a quarter Moroccan, a quarter Spanish, and entirely Moroccan in cultural mindset. I’ve never seen myself as “white” or “American” because I can’t identify with them.

    And although we live in a country where skin is lightened to be “more beautiful” and even my cousin told me a few times that “it’s not fair that I have brown eyes. They’re ugly. How come you have green ones?”, in my experiences, dark means depth. Maybe it’s because I grew up surrounded by people darker than me, that my babysitter was nigh onto black, and that my first friend was a Persian boy named Eitan I find dark to be beautiful and always hated my white skin, wishing it as darker to express my own culture and identity.
    Elad, you are beautiful.

    America, and the world, will not change until they realize that skin color has only to do with genetics; not culture, not mindset, not preference, and not identity.

  • מורדים בשקר

    נהוראי היקר כל זה מגיע ממקום רחוק בהסטוריה של העם היהודי היהודים הכניסו את עצמם לגטאות ותמיד התבדלו אין פלא שעמים אחרים רדפו אותנו כי ברגע שאתה מתבדל פוחדים ממך. והכי גרוע לא רוצים אותך לצערי בישראל למרות שרובינו יהודים אנחנו ממשיכים במסורת הזו אנחנו הולכים על צבע עור ופה להיות יהודי זה כן עם עור לבן.

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