Organizing 101: A Mixed-Race Feminist in Movements for Social Justice

Organizing 101: A Mixed-Race Feminist in Movements for Social Justice

Chapter in:
Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism
Seal Press
April 2002
432 pages
ISBN-10: 1580050670
ISBN-13: 9781580050678

Edited by:

Daisy Hernandez
Bushara Rehman

Foreword by: Cherríe Moraga

Chapter Author:

Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

pages 29-39

I have vivid memories of celebrating the holidays with my maternal grandparents. My Jido and Sito (“grandfather” and “grandmother,” respectively in Arabic), who were raised as Muslim Arabs, celebrated Christmas rather than Ramadan. Every year, my Sito set up her Christmas tree in front of a huge bay window in their living room. It was important to her that the neighbors could see the tree from the street. Yet on Christmas day Arabic was spoken in the house, Arabic music was played, Arabic food was served and a hot and heavy poker game was always the main activity. Early on, I learned that what is publicly communicated can be very different from what is privately experienced.

Because of the racism, harassment and ostracism that my Arab grandparents faced, they developed ways to assimilate (or appear to assimilate) into their predominantly white New Hampshire community. When my mother married my Jewish father and raised me with his religion, they hoped that by presenting me to the world as a white Jewish girl, I would escape the hate they had experienced. But it did not happen that way. Instead, it took me years to untangle and understand the public/private dichotomy that had been such a part of my childhood.

My parents’ mixed-class, mixed-race and mixed-religion relationship held its own set of complex contradictions and tensions. My father comes from a working-class, Ashkenazi Jewish family. My mother comes from an upper-middle-class Lebanese family, in which—similar to other Arab families of her generation—women were not encouraged and only sometimes permitted to get an education. My mother has a high-school degree and no “marketable” job skills. When my father married her, he considered it an opportunity to marry into a higher class status. Her background as a Muslim Arab was something he essentially ignored except when it came to deciding what religious traditions my sister and I were going to be raised with. From my father’s perspective, regardless of my mother’s religious and cultural background, my sister and I were Jews—and only Jews.

My mother, who to this day carries an intense mix of pride and shame about being Arab, was eager to “marry out” of her Arabness. She thought that by marrying a white Jew, particularly in a predominantly white New Hampshire town, that she would somehow be able to escape or minimize the ongoing racism her family faced. She converted to Judaism for this reason and also because she felt that “eliminating” Arabness and Islam from the equation would make my life and my sister’s life less complex. We could all say—her included—that we were Jews. Sexism and racism (and their internalized versions) played a significant part in shaping my parents’ relationship. My father was never made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome because he had married a Muslim Arab woman. He used his white male privilege and his Zionistic point of view to solidify his legitimacy. He created the perception that he did my mother a favor by “marrying her out” of her Arabness and the strictness of her upbringing.

My mother, however, bore the brunt of other people’s prejudices. Her struggle for acceptance and refuge was especially evident in her relationship with my father’s family, who never fully accepted her. It did not matter that she converted to Judaism, was active in Hadassah or knew all of the rituals involved in preparing a Passover meal. She was frequently made to feel that she was never quite Jewish enough. My Jewish grandmother was particularly critical of my mother and communicated in subtle and not so subtle ways that she tolerated my mother’s presence because she loved her son. In turn, I felt as if there was something wrong with me and that the love that I received from my father’s family was conditional. Many years later this was proven to be true: when my parents divorced, every member of my father’s family cut off communication from my mother, my sister and me. Racism and Zionism played a significant (but not exclusive) role in their choice. My father’s family (with the exception of my Jewish grandfather, who died in the early seventies) had always been uncomfortable that my father had married an Arab woman. The divorce gave them a way out of examining their own racism and Zionism.

Today my mother realizes that her notions about marrying into whiteness and into a community that would somehow gain her greater acceptance was, to say the least, misguided. She romanticized her relationship with my father as a “symbol of peace” between Jews and Arabs, and she underestimated the impact of two very real issues: racism within the white Jewish community and the strength of anti-Semitism toward the Jewish community. At the time she did not understand that her own struggle against racism and anti-Arab sentiment was both linked to and different than anti-Semitism…

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