View from Rue Saint-Georges

The Price of Assimilation


Reverence vs. resemblance

Jens Schott Knudsen/Flickr

By Thomas Chatterton Williams

May 24, 2017



A smart Jewish friend recently raised the question of a connection between the ongoing struggle over black identity in the United States and the story of Jewish assimilation. “Jews,” he said, “have paid in lost identity in order to gain assimilation, and the price has been steep. For many, there’s barely anything left to cling onto,” beyond bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, and “the love of a few Jewish foods.” In short, Jews “lost some self” in order to gain entrée to the American mainstream. My friend wanted to know, could blacks now be facing a similar bargain?

His question articulated something that I have often considered myself: to what extent “whiteness”—as opposed to “ethnicity,” or “Jewishness,” or “blackness,” or “Hispanicness,” or whatever terms we use to designate “not-white”—is simply code for a certain state of well-being. If so, one might easily ask why success in a Eurocentric society need be synonymous with white norms. But dismantling the Euro-Anglo foundations of Western society is a difficult project—much more difficult than “minority groups” figuring out how to make their way in the world as it exists. Another question, of course, is whether assimilation is evil in itself. Consider the postcolonial context of Arabs and Muslims in France. In many ways, theirs is much more obviously a bargain of loss. However much blacks are despised, we are also fundamentally American, inseparable from the identity of the country at its founding, even if mainly as a foil to whiteness, and creators of a popular culture that whites hate to love and love to hate.

Blacks and Jews have at least this in common: both groups have lost aspects of themselves in the process of assimilation but have likewise powerfully changed white culture. American humor and sensibility is largely Jewish and hasn’t been WASP for a long time. American music and sports are almost entirely black. That tells me that there’s power and subversion in assimilation, because identities aren’t static. Or they shouldn’t be.

I understand why we must revere our ancestors, but I’m less clear on why have to resemble them.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.

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