Beyond Whiteness: Race, Ethnicity, and the American Experience

Purdue University Press spoke with editor Jonathan Karp about the new book Beyond Whiteness: Revisiting Jews in Ethnic America and how it explores race, ethnicity, and differing versions of the American experience.

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

Beyond Whiteness is a collection of essays by leading experts from different academic disciplines who explore how race and ethnicity have impacted Jews in modern America. Some recent theorists posit that for the descendants of European immigrant groups, such as Jews, Irish, and Italians, the truly impactful measure is not their respective ethnic heritage but rather their ability to become “white,” an option that was precluded for Black and Brown minorities. This collection explores the dynamic between these two competing understandings, one based on ethnic models, the other on “whiteness studies,” and asks specifically whether the concept of ethnicity still retains explanatory value for understanding the American Jewish experience. All of the authors included in the volume deal with this question, but not all agree on the answer.

Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

I wanted to reopen the notion of ethnicity and show why, though flawed, it might still remain useful and not entirely superseded by whiteness. In my view, whiteness is too broad an explanatory model, because it ignores or downplays particularity and cannot account for many important phenomena, such as religious affiliation, occupational sorting, and cultural expression in art, literature, music, etc. At the same time, ethnicity should not be confined to older European-American groups; it has relevance as well for understanding precisely those groups that are not categorized as white – for instance, Blacks and Asians. These are also ethnic groups whose experiences in America are not only racial ones.

Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

I would point especially to my own contribution comparing the experiences of Asians and Jews in the U.S. It turns out that these two groups, disparate in many ways, are similar in their “overrepresentation” in post-World War II business, education and the professions. Both are discriminated-against minority groups that have demonstrated remarkable and rapid levels of upward mobility. Now, the term “model minority” (at times applied to both) is generally held in low regard today, often for very good reasons, because it can reflect essentialism as well as serve as a tool of racism. But it is still a real phenomenon that deserves careful, critical analysis. The fact that it applies so readily to both Asians and Jews prompts us to look more deeply at other areas of life that might be part of the same historical fabric, such as discrimination, immigration, family life, education and economic practices. It turns out that a thoroughgoing comparison of Asians and Jews can be quite illuminating. But such an undertaking, a comparative overview of the two groups’ American experience, has never been attempted before. 

Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

Bruce A. Phillips’ chapter on Jews of Color really impressed me in two ways: first, the significant demographic growth of this population and second the degree to which such Jews have, sadly, often been insulted by and alienated from the mainstream American Jewish community. The latter point, albeit in a negative way, reinforces the continuing relevance of ethnicity today; but the former one shows that Jewish ethnicity is not a fixed category but rather a malleable one. Jews are an “ethno-religious” population in the United States, which means that the specific contours of Jewish ethnicity are constantly being modified and altered by shifting self-definitions and identifications. 

You can get 30% off Beyond Whiteness: Revisiting Jews in Ethnic America or any other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE30 at checkout.