Tangent: Rebecca Walker on the “Identity Police”


Hi Blog. Friend Michael Fox sent me this article from Heeb Magazine, Issue 13. An interview with Writer/Activist Rebecca Walker. Now, while the focus may be on how one person grew up straddling two cultures within the same country (Black and Jewish), the points she makes about having a healthy attitude towards people who would try to police her identity (and towards activism in general) merit reprinting on Debito.org. Bonus points for showing us the merits of growing up under joint custody after divorce, something Japan’s divorce laws will not allow, much to the detriment of the children. Great feedback from a person well-adjusted to diversity and adversity. Enjoy. Arudou Debito in Sapporo




In 1967, civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal, a white Jew from Brooklyn, married African-American activist and writer Alice Walker. His mother sat shiva for her son, not acknowledging his marriage until her granddaughter was born three years later. Young Rebecca was “the movement child,” living proof of the triumph of love over racial divisions. But soon the political climate changed and solidarity was replaced by segregation. Leventhal and Walker divorced, leaving Rebecca shuttling back and forth, spending two years with her Jewish father on the East Coast, then two with her African-American mom in California, then back again.

In her bestselling childhood memoir, BLACK, WHITE AND JEWISH, Rebecca Walker wrote about moving between worlds and belonging nowhere. Her second book, BABY LOVE, is about deciding to become a mother herself, and was recently published by Riverhead Books.


You are, like both of your parents, a writer and an activist. What do you think is different about being an activist today as compared with the turbulent ’60s and ’70s?

Being an activist today means understanding the limitations of the political system and making smart decisions about how you use your finite energy to make not just the world, but your home and even your synagogue, a better place. Our political leaders are not necessarily evolved as human beings, so we can’t expect them to lead us into a world they can’t envision…

How do you explain that rupture of the political alliance between American’s outsiders: African-Americans and Jews?

I think Jews feel betrayed by black anger about the treatment of Palestinians and Jewish participation in slavery. Blacks feel betrayed by the assimilation track so many Jews have taken in the last couple of generations. They feel that white-skin privilege has afforded American Jews access that most black people may never have, and they don’t see those Jews reaching back to pull them thorugh. I think as Jewish communities in America assimilated and became more secular, money and status replaced devotion to God and to healing the world.

In your first book, BLACK, WHITE AND JEWISH, you wrote that traveling between these two cultures blurred your notion of identity.

I would pretend to be Puerto Rican at school in the Bronx and then be the nice Jewish girl back in our apartment building in Riverdale. I was ghetto fabulous at the tough public school in Brooklyn and the hippie girl at the progressive alternative school in San Francisco. Because I performed all these different roles, I didn’t feel like I was completely any of them.

How do you think about your identity now?

People are constantly trying to tell me I’m not really Jewish. I didn’t go to Hebrew school, my mother’s not Jewish. I wasn’t Bat Mitzvahed and I’m Buddhist. I used to roll out a complete discussion about being culturally rather than spiritually Jewish–like a whole lot of American Jews my age–but these days, I just don’t care to expend a lot of energy proving I belong somewhere. If you get it, cool. If not, go police someone else’s identity. The only way to deal with this is to go on a psycho-spiritual journey of self-love, have babies and focus on strengthening your created family. You have to let go of people who can’t love you or who are ambivalent about loving you because of who you represent racially or culturally, even if they are your family members. The risk of letting them in is self-doubt and lifelong confusion about whether or not you deserve happiness.


1 comment on “Tangent: Rebecca Walker on the “Identity Police”

  • I have an opposite problem regarding my identity. I did go to Hebrew school and I had a Bar Mitzvah, but since I no longer practice I don’t identify myself as Jewish, much to the confusion of other people who insist I’m a Jew. I suppose I might be “culturally Jewish” if I had some idea of what that meant. Does that make my friends who grew up celebrating Christmas but not going to church “culturally Christian?” How does one separate the culture from the practice of a religion?

    That’s one of things I love about Japan. No one seems to care about any religion one way or the other. Sometimes people ask me about how I celebrated Christmas in America and I explain that I didn’t, and the biggest reaction I might get is naruhodo. Meanwhile, I’ve had Americans look at me like I’m a monster when I tell them I don’t celebrate Christmas.


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