One of my friends is a teacher at an expensive Los Angeles private school. He is also one of the few black faces at the school. This has never been a problem for him. He has never faced racism or anything like that at the school. This school is very liberal in orientation. In fact, its curriculum is based on teaching the students about diversity (even though there isn’t much of it in the student body). Still, my friend always has amusing stories about how even the most liberal of liberal parents sometimes can’t get over the color of his skin. If anything, he is treated nicer because of his color, just so parents can tell themselves that they have no problem with him being black.
During the Michael Jackson trial, some parents and teachers always made sure they were careful about what they said. Whenever my friend was in earshot, they were sure to say that "all the evidence isn’t there yet," just in case he would feel as if one of his "brothers" was being attacked — as if most African-Americans didn’t think Michael Jackson was a nut job also.
When the school decided to do a special assembly program on Martin Luther King, all eyes turned to my friend, waiting for his approval and opinion, as if he had some purer psychic connection to Dr. King than the several older white teachers who had actually marched during the 60’s. My friend tried to remind them that during the 60’s, he was mostly a kid watching "The Brady Bunch" on TV.
Although we laugh about this, I’m not saying this kid gloves approach is necessarily bad. Most of these parents and teachers are well-meaning in wanting to show respect for "the outsider." It certainly is better than old-time discrimination. But not all minority members want to be spokespeople for their "people."
I’ve heard of this sort of over-politeness occurring with other ethnic groups. One Chinese-American friend (born in Seattle) says that whenever she goes out to a Chinese restaurant with co-workers, everyone turns to her to make sure she approves of their orders. No one dares order something as "unauthentic" as Chow Mein, which might hurt her ethnic sensibilities.
Again, I’m not one of those people out to knock "political-correctness." It just never really happened to me… until last week.
Sophia was invited to dinner at a client’s house in Orange County, and I accompanied her. During the dinner conversation, attention turned to Sophia and the fact that she was from Russia. This happens all the time when we meet new people, and I know the dialogue by heart. After you’ve been married a while, you know exactly what the spouse is going to say in every social encounter.
When did you leave Russia? Blah blah blah. What was it like? Blah blah blah. What do you think of the current situation in Russia?
Sophia hates this last question. I always have to kick her under the table to remind her not to be rude. In so many ways, she is more American than I am. She’s been out of Russia for years, left as a teenager, and hates it when she is thought of as the one with a hand on Putin’s pulse. She doesn’t even like most Russians that much.
Then the conversations turned to Sophia and I being Jewish. Having mostly lived in New York and Los Angeles, most non-Jews I know can name every minor Jewish holiday by heart. I know for a fact that there are plenty of Jews in Orange County. I just think this couple had never met one.
"Jewish people are so smart."
"One of my co-workers is Jewish. And he’s the smartest one of the company."
Now I know that it is common knowledge that Jews are smart. There’s even been a recent controversial paper published by the Journal of Ashkenazi Intelligence stating that genetic selection in the old country created a Jewish people with an extremely high IQ. There’s no doubt that this tiny minority group produces a large number of doctors, lawyers, professors, and Nobel Prize winners. Jewish people are proud of this. But let’s be honest. There are a lot of really really stupid Jewish people. And Japanese people. And I’m sure there are even Indian kids that would never make it past the first round of a spelling bee.
So, here I was, sitting at this Orange County couple’s dinner table, being told how smart and wonderful my "people" were. I made some stupid comment about them having never met my family.
"Then I’d like to see if you have the same opinion," I said.
The Orange County wife laughed and said that Jews are always so funny, too — like "that Seinfeld guy."
From now on, if you ever see me talking with a Japanese woman and asking her if she owns a kimono, please bop me in the head.
UPDATE 10/05 — New York Magazine tries to sell some magazines with this Are Jews Smarter? topic.