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I Am What I Am: Making Myself and Other Misconceptions

February 13, 2024
by Michael Woolf
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I Am What I Am: Making Myself and Other Misconceptions

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CEA CAPA Education Abroad's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. This month, Dr. Woolf the examines the fluid construction of identity, the making of pariahs, and how education abroad allows students to better understand that they too are subject to the perception of others.

I am what I am

I am my own special creation…

It's my world that I want to take a little pride in,

My world, and it's not a place I have to hide in.

Life's not worth a damn,

'Til you can say, "Hey world, I am what I am."

-          Jerry Herman

Jerry Herman’s song, as performed in the popular musical La Cage aux Folles (1978), asserts agency and control over identity. It has become something of an anthem in the context of LGBTQIA+ civil rights. The lyrics intend to counter homophobic intolerance and make a claim for pride in identity.

a group of people in a parade

Celebrating Pride. (Photo by Aleks Magnusson on Pexels)

Beneath the glitz and glitter of the show, a clear political message responded to a history of prejudice.

In the broader context of the politics of identity, however, “I Am What I Am” is an over-optimistic assertion in so far as many minority communities are defined not only by their aspiration, but also by the perception of others. They are constructed negatively, burdened by the impact of external perspectives, subject to parody, misrepresentation, hostile myths,[1] and other variable inventions. In any case, they may not control their own narratives. Identity is not inevitably a matter of community choice or will.

The idea that we construct our own identities, a proposition that is one of the perceived benefits of education abroad, applies, if at all, only to the rarely privileged among us. Individual agency is limited. In education abroad, students may come to understand that they too are subject to the perception of others; their individuality may be subsumed in a version of assumed collective identity, as Americans, as students, as privileged, as wealthy, by gender, by ethnicity or race, by accent and dress, and so on. They will also, we hope, acquire a sensitivity towards reenacting the same sin of perception. Instead of assuming that any person is representative of collective traits, they may first recognize the humanity of the individual.

Pariahs

I am moving towards the end of a research project around these issues that has occupied me for some four years. (Working title is “Pariahs: The Making of Strangers”). End seems to me a more accurate term than conclusion because there really can be no conclusion, rather sated exhaustion. There are endless examples of the powerful making strangers of weaker communities in preparation for expulsion, persecution, genocide. The Ottoman Empire, driven by religious bigotry and nationalism, slaughtered Armenians who had lived within their territories for hundreds of years. The dire concept of manifest destiny created a necessary precondition for the dehumanization of Native Americans. Buddhist and Hindu nationalisms enlist religious identities to rationalize the persecution of Muslims. In turn, some Islamic nations have made pariahs of Jews and Christians. There is no faith, race, or ethnicity that is exempt from inhumanity, nor are they exempt from reenacting cruelties on others. There is no real community of the dispossessed.

As an international educator, the persistence of such processes is an intellectual, ideological, and emotional challenge to those things in which we believe. International ideals collide with powerful narratives of alienation and hatred. The soul is wearied and darkened. Little comfort is to be found beyond the boundaries of hopeful imagination; we have to drink deeply in the well of fragile optimism. We also believe that knowledge is a weapon against despair; brings glimmers of light into menacing shadows.

Thus, imperfectly and inexpertly, I’ve tried to reveal processes by which some group identities are constructed by the perspectives of others, how, in many cases, identities are subject to prejudicial distortion, stolen. That is the connection between ostensibly diverse peoples.

In that context, I’ve looked at the hillbilly in Appalachia, paradoxically a figure of fun and an expression of an urban American nightmare. Europe’s largest minority, Roma (aka Gipsies), have been simultaneously romanticized and demonized for over 900 years. On a road through Christian and nationalist mythologies, they moved through discrimination, slavery, and persecution towards the Nazi Holocaust.

a street with a sign over it

Where the Road ended. (Photo by Darya Sannikova on Pexels)

The myth of nomadic freedom, embedded in Roma identity, obscures a history within which much mobility has been enforced rather than chosen. More commonly Roma have been refugees rather than nomads.

The Roma were also hunted like animals. Qristina Zavačková Cummings cites evidence from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota:

Also in the 16th century began the "gypsy hunts." Not unlike a fox hunt, the Gypsies were rounded up and hunted for sport. This savage practice was prevalent in Switzerland, in Holland up to the 18th century and reaching as far as Denmark... Honors and rewards were given to those who would participate in Gypsy hunts and capture them. These hunts continued as late as the 19th century. A great Gypsy hunt covering four districts of Jutland took place on Nov. 11, 1835. The day brought in a bag of over 260 men, women and children. A Rheinland landowning aristocrat is said to have entered in his list of game killed during a day's hunting: Item: A Gypsy woman with her sucking babe.[2]

Within what is now contemporary Romania, the Roma were enslaved for almost 500 years. The full emancipation of Romani slaves did not occur until 1864, one year after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the U.S. Estimates suggest that, prior to emancipation, the number of enslaved Roma was in the region of 600,000. Outside of specialized histories, the impact of slavery upon the Roma is barely recognized, nor does it perceptibly modify the notion of a nomadic people.

Whether as slaves or animals, Roma were denied humanity. These atrocities are rarely part of a mainstream European narrative. The notion of a people hidden from history is not unique. Where is the study of the Herero and Namaqua peoples?[3] There are also communities, the Selk’nam for example, who have been eradicated and forgotten, a double affront to our humanity. They are representative of indigenous peoples defined by settlers as barriers to development, obstructions to “progress.” Swallowed by modernity, they exist, if at all, as folk tales of lost worlds.

A group of men with bow and arrows

Remnants of a Lost People. (Photo from free-images.com)

Not Just Black and White

Not all interactions are characterized by simplistic collisions, however.  The interaction between African Americans and Jewish Americans reflects, for example, a complex interaction between history, myth, reality, and the interaction of imaginations.

In 1948, James Baldwin qualified stereotyping of Black – Jewish relationships in Harlem with a recognition of a particular intimacy:

Jews in Harlem are small tradesmen, rent collectors, real estate agents, and pawnbrokers; they operate in accordance with the American business tradition of exploiting Negroes… At the same time, there is a subterranean assumption that the Jew should “know better,” that he has suffered enough himself to know what suffering means. An understanding is expected of the Jew such as none… has ever expected of the American Gentile (Harlem, 1948).[4]

In Baldwin’s view, tensions between Jews and Black Americans derive from a sense of mutual disappointment; love turned sour; a common cause eroded by the divisive dynamics of American capitalism. At root, the alienation of Jews and Black Americans and, simultaneously, the activism of Jews in support of Civil Rights, has a common paradoxical root: a heritage of suffering that has caused them to act together, to invest aspirations in imaginative constructions, and in some cases to separate, estranged lovers, each from each.

These relationships have been shaped by contradictory, paradoxical narratives, as Cornel West recognizes:

There is a sense in which Black and Jewish folk are almost stuck together, either at each other’s throats or embracing each other, but that is still a kind of family fight (Lerner and West, 1996: 221).[5]

The scale of writing that explores, even anguishes over, this relationship enforces the idea that it occupies a special place of concern. There is no similar body of work that worries at, for example, Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim – African American interactions. As Cheryl Greenberg argues:

The history of relations between African Americans and Jewish Americans lies at the crossroads of many larger narratives about race, religion, ethnicity, class, politics, and identity in twentieth-century America...The topic of black-Jewish relations in the U.S. is not merely a subject for quiet intellectual study, however. It has a presence in American public culture that “black-Greek relations” or “Jewish-Presbyterian relations” generally do not (Greenberg, 2006:1).[6]

The challenges in doing this work have been emotional and intellectual. I`ve approached these discussions with the consciousness of my own identity as a secular, agnostic Jew, born in London in 1947, in a community within which the reverberations of the Holocaust were unspoken but potent. We inhabited a landscape of anxiety in which fear of the hatred of others was a palpable part of the emotional climate. “Europe” was a shorthand for this fear.  This work was, in some measure, driven by empathy for those subject to the distortions of others, forged by incomprehension, alienation, and mistrust of the stranger in our midst.

In the extreme, there are catastrophic consequences deriving from translating perceived traits into collective identities. In the worst-case scenarios, invented identities can be used as justification for prejudice, marginalization, discrimination, persecution, and genocide. The notion that Black skin denotes a lesser form of human development was used to justify the slave trade. Post emancipation in the U.S., the impact of this form of racial eugenics was manifest in the legalization of discrimination through Jim Crow laws.

Blackness as a signifier of deficit continues to exert a baleful influence in many parts of the globe. However, accidents of skin color, White or Black, do not create communities except as defensive response to external hostility. Black identity, as a theoretical concept, may have useful political value to activists, challenging prejudicial discourses. In most contexts, though, other identities may undermine the idea of community. The idea of Black Britain, for example, obscures differences between those of African and Caribbean origin. Class, religion, education, and wealth are among the factors that create distinctions that may transcend community. Collective associations based around skin color, White or Black, are, often temporary alliances generated for specific political purposes.

The dichotomy of Black-White and the problematic impact upon the notion of a unitary Black identity is exemplified in many parts of the world by the widespread sale of products that whiten the skin, as Yaba Blay argues: “Skin bleaching then represents one attempt to approximate the White ideal and consequently gain access to both the humanity and social status historically reserved for Whites” (Blay, 2011: 5).[7] White power, rooted in colonial history, has created perverse versions of identity in which social, economic, and political status derives from the perception that being less Black is the gateway to privilege. Fractured and damaged consciousness is a consequence of creating identities rooted in discrimination.

In early modern Europe, Roma and Jews were marked as different predominantly through the agency of dominant Christian mythologies. Both groups were seen as complicit in the suffering of Christ. That designation defined them as pariahs, eternal outsiders, a threat to communities, unclean intruders. Ethnic cleansing is not a metaphor. The figure of the Wandering Jew derives from Christian hostility. In the worst scenarios, Roma are invested with characteristics that have denied them rights as humans. In the context of Nazi ideologies, they became, like the Jews, a kind of sub-species, a problem in need of a solution. The persecution that they have suffered over centuries persists and they remain pariahs and outcasts in much of contemporary Europe.

The relationship between Jews and African Americans illustrates, in another context, how the ambiguities of intimacy and alienation can create complex sets of interactions based around constructed narratives; experiences that reflect both empathy and mistrust. Notions of White and Black identity offer further examples of the problem of generalizing a theory into an assumed reality.

Conclusion: Making Strangers

I am not only what I am. I am also what others have made of me. Identities are fluid constructs. They may generate fear, ridicule, disgust, fascination, romantic distortion, sometimes, paradoxically, simultaneously. Strangers do not wholly control their own narrative and are, consequently, subject to various forms of dehumanization. They are, in short, marked by difference = outside the prevailing norms: “special” in either a positive or, more usually, negative sense. A collective identity is imposed in which individual characteristics are subsumed and histories are written to reflect assumptions about those identities. Thus, the question of “what I am” is made complex by myths of identity, the intersection of history, and the imagination which collectively defines “strangers.”

Groups invent each other; identities may be fictions, acts of invention. None of us have full agency over how we are perceived, nor do we necessarily control our histories; formed sometimes by fear, by ridicule, by myth, by the stories we tell each other. We are more than the measurable sum of our parts. “I am my own special creation” is a political position worthy of respect certainly but, however we may empathize with the aspiration, it does not reflect a far more complex and difficult reality.

We are ambiguous people, living in ambiguous worlds. Race, ethnicity, ideology, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, class, and a myriad of other factors impact upon the way we see ourselves, and the way in which others see us. Thus, an exploration of the politics of identity necessarily involves inter- and trans-disciplinary perspectives from the arts, history, geography, economics, sociology, politics, science, technology, and so on.

Understanding the collision of individual and collective identities is, consequently, a complex matter. It intends, nevertheless, to demonstrate the profound dangers and injustices that may be consequent on reducing the ineffable complexity of the human condition to simplistic formulas and inherited prejudices.

At the heart of this challenge is the obligation to view individuals and communities with empathy, melded with as much dispassion as is possible. This is not a laboratory, and the focus of these discussions are not specimens. They are marked as strangers by those who have created group identities for their own purposes. Sometimes out of sentimentality and often out of hostility, these have been forged in imaginations to justify ridicule, marginalization, erotic and exotic distortion, exclusion, prejudice, discrimination, persecution, genocide.

Hostile others may make strangers, aliens, pariahs of any of us. We, in turn, may enact the same destructive invention. In understanding those processes, and that danger, we take a first step towards consciousness within which there is no space for the notion of pariah peoples. In the context of contemporary politics and the rejuvenation of militant parochialism and radical nationalism, understanding these realities is an urgent imperative.

It is not our job to preserve complacency or to insulate our students from disturbing truths. Fear of strangers is in history a prevalent condition, re-invigorated in our recent history. Students understanding these dynamics may well be disturbed, unhappy, uncomfortable. For some this may be a version of reality that they choose to reject. They may have religious convictions that transcend such alienation. Indeed, some may choose to see fear of strangers as a justified response to threats to security.

Wherever these discussions go, they do not lead to smug complacency.

These are, then, some of the propositions that we hope will inform our forthcoming symposium. Our theme this year is Navigating Difference: Otherness, Boundaries, and the Idea of the Stranger,” and will be held on Tuesday, March 19 at Emerson College in advance of the Forum Conference. You can read more about it and register here.

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CEA CAPA Education Abroad's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. All comments and opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other staff members or CEA CAPA as an organization. 

 


[1] I am not using myth as a synonym for false in this context. Myth is used here to signify a story that has pervasive power. It may, thus, be both false and true.
[2] Qristina Zavačková Cummings. “Hunter to Hunted,” ROMEA. February 10, 2020, https://romea.cz/en/opinion/qristina-zavackova-cummings-hunter-to-hunted.
[3] Between 1904 and 1907, German colonial forces pursued a policy of systematic genocide in what is now Namibia. The construction of concentration camps and “scientific” experimentation on inmates prefigured the Nazi strategies. An estimate of over 100,000 people were exterminated.
[4] James Baldwin. “From the American Scene: The Harlem Ghetto: Winter 1948.” Commentary, February 1948. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/from-the-american-scene-the-harlem-ghetto-winter-1948/.
[5] Michael Lerner and Cornel West. Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion and Culture in America. Harmondsworth: Penguin/Plume Books, 1996.
[6] Cheryl Greenberg, Troubling the Waters Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
[7] Yaba Blay. “Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By Way of Introduction,” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 4, no. 4, June 2011, pp 4-46.

Michael Woolf is the Content Creator - Blogger.
 
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