Classification and implications: Who is black, or indigenous, or Jewish?

(by Eileen Dombrowski) I ended my last post with questions about Rachel Dolezal’s claims to be black: “Are her personal knowledge claims the deciding factor, in your mind, for determining her racial identity? Why or why not?” What has captured media attention, it seems, is the way in which her story pits her own personal knowledge claims about her own racial identity against social knowledge claims of racial classification – and this in a society where racial categorization is charged with assumptions, associations from history and politics, values, and implications for treatment.

What captures my own TOK attention, however, is more generalized. It’s the differing bases and justifications for general classifications, of course. But even more intriguing is the way particular examples fit – or, being human, sometimes dramatically refuse to fit – into the categories assigned to them. As soon as we take two steps back from Rachel Dolezal’s story, others flood into the space. Who is black? Who’s an Indian? Who’s Jewish?

Who is black? Rachel Dolezal’s identity wasn’t in question, and she was apparently contributing productively to her black community until her white birth parents “outed” her. Her response in an interview with NBC news yesterday was to question her parentage and emphasize her personal knowledge (“my truth”) and the ambiguities of racial categories:

“Nothing about being white describes who I am. So, you know, what’s the word for it? The closest thing that I can come to is if you’re black or white, I’m black. I’m more black than white. On a level of values, lived experience currently. In this moment, that’s the answer. That’s the accurate answer from my truth. But I hope the dialogue continues to push against, ‘what is race? what is ethnicity?”

Who’s an “Indian”? I’ve blogged on this before. “Who’s an Indian?: classification and implications” (December 2014) dealt with cases in Canada and Tanzania, and pointed out that the way we categorize “indigenous people” has ramifications not just for specific rights and land claims but also for our intriguingly ambiguous TOK category of “indigenous knowledge”. In an earlier blog post, “Indigenous Knowledge: definition, implications, and controversy” (September 2014) I touched on interconnected questions of group identity and shared knowledge. (The TOK category of “shared knowledge” – and questions over who controls what is shared and how – is a side-discussion with methodological issues but also political context!)

Who is Jewish? The classification of people as Jewish raises knowledge questions that overlap with being black or being aboriginal in that concepts of biological inheritance intersect with concepts of ethnicity, and personal self-identification can be at odds with external identification.  The categorization, in some places and times, has had implications of life or death. For this particular classification, though, I want only to pick out a personal story much stranger, to my mind, than Rachel Dolezal’s — and to pass the questions to you.

Csanad Szegedi, a leader in a neo-Nazi Hungarian political party that described Jews as “lice-infested, dirty murderers”, confronted – and transformed – as he learned more about his own family lineage. The story broke in 2012, as reported in NPR: “One of the leaders of Hungary’s Jobbik Party, which the Anti-Defamation League says is one of the few political parties in Europe to overtly campaign with anti-Semitic materials, has discovered that he is himself a Jew.”  By 2013, he had talked with his grandmother and was “shocked” to learn that the “Holocaust really happened” and that she had survived Auschwitz. ( “Neo-Nazi Leader Csanad Szegedi Converts to Judaism” ) He learned more of his background and converted to orthodox Judaism. A recent report in the BBC, with a really interesting podcast in From Our Own Correspondent, summarizes Szegedi’s personal story in brief. (“What happened when an anti-Semite found he was Jewish?”, 4 May 2015. ) One conclusion he voices concerns the very basis of prejudice: “Anti-Semitism doesn’t need Jews, because it’s based on false premises. It is the projection of one’s own fears, and lack of self esteem.”

In my last posting, I identified a number of knowledge questions to raise with the story of Rachel Dolezal. What knowledge questions would you raise with the story of Csanad Szegedi?  Why might they matter?

References

“Rachel Dolezal: ’Nothing About Being White Describes Who I Am’”, interview with Savannah Guthrie, NBC News. June 16, 2015.http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/rachel-dolezal-nothing-about-being-white-describes-who-i-am-465644099755

Eileen Dombrowski, “Who’s an Indian?: classification and implications”. Activating TOK, Dec 2014. https://activatingtok.net/2014/12/01/whos-an-indian-classification-and-implications/

Eileen Dombrowski, “Indigenous Knowledge: definition, implications, and controversy”, Activating TOK.  September 2014. https://activatingtok.net/2014/09/13/indigenous-knowledge-definition-implications-and-controversy/#more-218

“Leader Of Anti-Semitic Party In Hungary Discovers He’s Jewish”, NPR. August 14, 2012. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2012/08/14/158773637/leader-of-anti-semitic-party-in-hungary-discovers-hes-jewish

Ewan Palmer, “Neo-Nazi Leader Csanad Szegedi Converts to Judaism”, International Business Times. October 24, 2013.  http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/neo-nazi-leader-csanad-szegedi-jobbik-converts-516616

Nick Thorpe, “What happened when an anti-Semite found he was Jewish?”, BBC.  4 May 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32549099

2 responses to “Classification and implications: Who is black, or indigenous, or Jewish?

  1. Thanks again Eileen for starting this thread about categories and race. And you´re right, or course, when you remind readers that this is a conversation we´ve had before, for example about “Indians”.
    Yesterday when I first read your post, I thought about many conversations over the years that I´ve had about what makes someone Jewish, mostly in the context of Jews who deny their Jewishness despite being Jews in terms of “biology” (odd concept, yes!).
    After looking at the web today, I urge anyone interested in the discussion about race and identity to read the op. ed in the New York Times about Dolezal. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/16/opinion/rachel-dolezals-harmful-masquerade.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0)
    In this piece, the author (an African-American/black woman) argues that she would only accept Dolezal’s claim to be black if that were possible for her too, i.e. were it possible for a black person to claim to be “culturally” white. Excellent food for thought on a difficult topic worth taking the time to think about, given all the implications.

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  2. Thanks for your comments, Mimi, and for the link to an excellent opinion piece. I found it very interesting in explaining the criteria for classifying people as “black” or “white” in the United States and in accounting, in part, for the determined exclusivity of “whiteness”: “Segregation simply would not work if society was fuzzy on who got the nice drinking fountain, the front seat on the bus and the right to vote.” For whose benefit is a clear, hard line between categories, and for whose is ambiguity or fluidity? I hope that this particular story of one particular woman, though, doesn’t raise questions only about whether it’s fair to have individuals cross the line in one direction if others can’t cross it in the reverse direction. I hope it raises questions about the very nature of the line. — Eileen

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