Glee: Who Are You Now, Ms. Rachel Berry?

rachel-berry-two-gay-dads__oPtSo Glee ended a few weeks ago. It had what I thought was a decent finale. An hour flashback to see the pilot episode from the kids’ point of view, rather than Will Scheuster, followed by an hour of saying good-bye and getting a glimpse into the future. Those two episodes made for a nice full circle kind of feeling, seeing where the original five came from and then where they ended up.

But watching 2009 got me thinking about something. Something I’d had a fleeting thought about awhile ago, but never really explored. Rachel didn’t have too much of her own story in this episode, since we’d seen her decision to join the glee club in the pilot. But she was a bit of a catalyst in Mercedes’ story. And it was her part in Mercedes’ story that got me thinking, and made me rewatch several of Rachel’s voiceovers and story lines throughout the series to further think through this little theory I have. And here it is.

I don’t think Rachel self identifies as white.

I think Rachel sees herself as a woman of color. And I don’t mean that in a insensitive, deluded “I’m an underdog just like you!” way. Or even in a “Quinn Fabray being a pregnant teen understands the same kind of discrimination as Mercedes who’s black!” kind of way, like in the episode Funk. No, I think she views herself very similarly to Jake Puckerman: half black, half white, half Jewish. She may pass, and the rest of her glee club friends may see her and treat her as white, but I don’t think that’s how she identifies or even wants to identify.

The thing that Rachel most vocally identifies as is Jewish. So I’ll start with that. Judaism and its place as a race or ethnicity can be complicated in that there are people who are Jewish religiously, but not ethnically. It’s difficult, as I understand it, to convert to Judaism, but not impossible. And so anti-semitism is a separate distinction of discrimination even though it’s so closely tied to racism. It ends up being this kind of in-between situation: not quite racism, but also clearly not basking in total white privilege. It’s like being Jewish makes you off-white. And on that note, I’m going to move onto the actual show as Jewish studies are clearly not my forte.

Rachel brings up her faith many times throughout the series, sometimes in a serious light, sometimes not. It’s clearly incredibly important to her and a strong part of her identity. She has a connection to the role of Maria in West Side Story because Natalie Wood, who most famously played the role in the movie, was Jewish. She has an incredibly possessive love of the role of Fanny Brice because of their shared Jewish-ness, to the point where one of her arguments against Santana taking on the role of the Fanny Brice understudy in Season Five was Santana’s lack of Jewish-ness.

That argument between Rachel and Santana stirred up some interesting thoughts for me about Rachel’s view of her racial identity. According to Rachel, Santana should not be considered appropriate for the role of Fanny Brice because of her lack of Jewish ethnicity. But on the other hand, Rachel sees no problem with herself playing two out of the three dream roles she mentions to Jesse in Season One who are characters of color (Maria in West Side Story and Eva Peron in Evita).  Now, sure. It’s certainly possible that in these instances Rachel is just being racially insensitive and hypocritical. Or she could see these characters as women of color and just count herself among them.

In Season Two, during the Born this Way episode, Rachel decides to get a nose job. The Jewish doctor calls the nose job a “right of passage for Jewish girls”, Puck – another Jewish glee club member – bemoans the same change of every 16 year old at his temple, and Rachel herself calls the mock-up pictures of her new nose “less Hebraic and more Fabray-ic” in reference to looking less Jewish and more like white, blonde Christian Quinn Fabray, who modeled for her at the doctor’s office. Clearly this nose job story line is not just about universal body-positivity and loving yourself, but is specifically targeting loving your ethnic features.

The racial/ethnic aspect of the story line is bolstered by Tina’s mini story line. She starts the episode off wearing blue contacts, wanting to mirror what she sees in magazines where there aren’t many Asian sex symbols. Mike calls her a self-hating Asian. But during Rachel’s unveiling of the mock-up pictures, she advises against the nose-job and Rachel’s perceived self-hate. She compares Rachel’s nose job to her, an Asian woman wanting to change her eye shape and color in order to be more beautiful, and declares that if there are no Asian sex symbols it’s her responsibility to become one herself, not bend to white beauty standards. In the end, Rachel chooses to follow the footsteps of her idol, the Jewish Barbara Streisand.

Despite Tina likening their two experiences, I don’t think Judaism really comes up when people think about people of color. By that I mean, Rachel’s being Jewish is something well-known by the other member’s of the Glee club, but I don’t think Mercedes (who is black), Tina (who is Asian), or Santana (who is Latina) would think to consider Rachel a woman of color as they are – Mercedes, for example, refers to her as “white girl” on more than one occasion throughout the series. Rachel is seen by them as having all the privileges associated with white-ness, even with Judaism’s own history of violent discrimination.

But her Jewish-ness is not the only reason I believe Rachel to self-identify as a woman of a color. It is also her blackness.

See, in the pilot episode she talks about her dads and how she was conceived using a surrogate. She says they mixed their sperm together and used a turkey baster (quite a fun image!) and “to this day we don’t know which is my real dad, which I think is pretty amazing.” Now, sure, in the episode that moment is obviously played for laughs. The picture strip they show is Rachel and a goofy looking Jewish dude – whose skin color matches Rachel’s almost exactly – and a dark skinned black man. Now, biology can work in some fun ways, so even with these two men it’s definitely possible for her biological father to be the black man, but it’s clearly posited to the audience as humorously far-fetched.

But when we actually meet her dads a few seasons later, that line doesn’t seem so off-base. The man playing Rachel’s black father is actually a very light skinned black man (to the point that there were some really nasty comments in the “I thought Rachel’s father was supposed to be black!” vein surrounding his casting). With this casting, the possibility of Leroy being Rachel’s biological father, I think, becomes just as high as Hiram’s. So Rachel’s not just making sweetly naive, colorblind sentiments about her fathers; she’s telling the truth. She doesn’t know who her biological father is, but she knows for sure there’s a 50% chance her biological father is black.

In episode 12 of the first season, Rachel gives a voice over about all the clubs she’s joined and we see pictures of her in her various clubs in the yearbook: Speech, Model United Nations, Renaissance Club, Muslim Students Club, and the Black Student Union. Again, this scene is played for laughs, but if you actually think about all the clubs she’s joined, they can make a lot of sense. Speech and Model UN are academic clubs, and we know Rachel is a good student. She tells us in Season 3 that she’s maintained a (iirc) 3.8 GPA. So being involved academically isn’t a stretch for her. Not to mention, Speech and Model UN have public speaking elements to them, (shocker about the Speech club, I know!) which are great skills for someone trying to become a performer. Renaissance club also has major aspects of performance to it. So those three make perfect sense for Rachel to be a part of.

As for the other two, if Rachel has a black father who might be her biological father, why wouldn’t she join the Black Student Union? Rachel is, for all she know, half black. She has very clearly adopted Hiram’s Judaism without it being clear that he is her biological father. Why wouldn’t she also adopt Leroy’s identity, his blackness? And we know nothing of Leroy’s religious convictions. I don’t think we’ve ever heard him claim to be Jewish, so it’s just as reasonable to believe he was raised Muslim, as there is a large black Muslim population, as it is to believe him Christian or anything else.

In the episode 2009, when Rachel and Mercedes first meet, she tries to reach out to Mercedes with what she sees as their common ground, their mutual blackness. “That’s something else we have in common,” she chirps, even as Mercedes is clearly having none of it, “a black dad.” Mercedes, however, doesn’t see her as black, even knowing her father is. To her, Rachel is still, and will be for much of the series, that white girl she’s competing against who always gets to go first. Even if Rachel doesn’t see it that way.

I don’t really have a good conclusion for this. Just that I think this theory certainly colors things in an interesting way, especially her relationship with Mercedes. There are lots of people’s thoughts about Blaine passing as white and as straight, and lots of people’s thoughts about how paralleled Blaine and Rachel are, so here’s another if you’re so inclined. I’d really love to hear what others think.

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