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Friday, October 22, 2021

A Dip into the Daily Life of the Racially Ambiguous

headshot_yrPeople assume that I’m a whole spread of ethnicities. This is my story.

It’s not that I really like hummus simply because I was raised eating it. I really like hummus because in a way, I am hummus.

A Levantine dish, cherished for centuries by every country in the Middle East, each putting their own spin on it, found its way from the sands of Israel to the grocery aisle of Whole Foods. What was once eaten by Arab villagers in the 14th century using just chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic is now dressed up with basil pesto or peanut butter and jelly or pumpkin spice lattes or whatever heinous combination — sold to suburban Lululemon-wearing Longchamps-toting soccer moms who want to put it in their kid’s sandwich for tennis camp next week.

I write this wearing North Face and Sperries while listening to Odesza, so I’m much more of a Whole Foods-basil-jalapeno-pesto-hum-miss than I am a traditional, ethnic-grandma made choomoos (the correct pronunciation, you cultural voyeurs). But I overheard a conversation at a Bay Area Trader Joe’s that ground my chickpeas a little bit, and made me realize my connection to the dish.

A few older white women saw that hummus was on sale. They then started professing their love for hummus and went on an anthropological journey to determine where their  favorite dip came from:

“Joyce, you gotta love hummus. I just can’t get enough Persian food!”

“Carol, it’s not Persian, don’t be ignorant. I’m pretty sure it’s some form of Latin American.”

“You’re both wrong. It’s definitely Greek. Trust me, I had it with my dolma and gyros the other week.”

At first, I was mildly annoyed. That’s my cultural identity you’re dipping your pretzel slims in, lady, show a little respect. Then, I sort of vibed with it. Wow, they really like hummus! They’ll love visiting Israel.

And then I realized I’m in that conversation all the time. I am the hummus people wonder about.

Not a week ago (at the time of writing), I touched down in San Francisco after spending nearly two weeks visiting my housemate in Colombia. Until I opened my mouth or hit the dance floor, not one time did anyone assume I was a tourist. Waiters and other service people started rapid-firing Spanish at me before I could even muster a weak “soy gringo ingles por favor.” At the clubs, girls were shocked that I wasn’t one of them.

“Surely your parents are Latino and you just never learned Spanish, right?”

Rationalize it however you want, mami, but I’m actually from Israel.

“But why’d you kill Jesus though?”

I must be the first Jewish person you’ve met, too, huh?

I’ve had these interactions my entire life. I’ve had barbers ask me which one of my parents was black. I’ve had an Indian math teacher admonish me for being bad at math “for an Indian.” (Wrong, I’m bad at math for every ethnicity). I had a football coach make a joke about Italians and then look at me to sheepishly apologize. I had multiple Tinder matches ask me if I’m Native American. I’ve been called spicy, exotic and smelly.

When I was younger, I thought it was simply because no one was really familiar with the tan Israeli “look,” at least for males. The only globally prominent Israeli celebrities are Bar Rafaeli and Natalie Portman, and not a soul would mistake us for family. But it’s more than that. I’m genuinely racially ambiguous. I’m ethnically versatile. To your average person who’s never set foot in Israel, I can be anything. Anything! Except for Nordic. No alt-right rallies for me, unfortunately. Racists wouldn’t even know what epithet to use on me, so they’d just call me ALL the slurs.

Sometimes, the questions are annoying. The tone hasn’t always been respectful or sensitive or even simply culturally aware. That’s life. Sometimes, Los Altos soccer moms think hummus comes from Asia. Sometimes, companies like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s try to piss as many cultures off at once with soy sesame guacamole hummus. But people buy the product. And people feel comfortable enough with me to assume I’m part of their in-group.

They’re not going to learn about Israeli or Middle Eastern culture randomly. Maybe when they’re wiping hummus off their chins while chatting with a guy they think is half-Black, half-Indian, half-Mexican, quarter-Greek, one-third Cherokee, one-fifth Samoan and vaguely Mediterranean-looking, they’ll finally give a s— about the world outside their little bubble. And hopefully they’ll stop calling it “hum-miss”.

Yinon Raviv is a hummus eater, a hummus model and a hummus person who lies to girls at bars by telling them he’s related to Drake. Email him at yraviv@ucdavis.edu for hummus recommendations and follow him on Twitter @YR195 to hear him complain.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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