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

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(Originally posted on Activating TOK) 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, question how language is used to categorize people, 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, experienced an emotional change (TOK emotion), 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?” ) One conclusion he voices concerns the very basis of prejudice, with its emotional roots in fear: “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?


“Rachel Dolezal: ’Nothing About Being White Describes Who I Am’”, interview with Savannah Guthrie, NBC News. June 16, 2015.

Eileen Dombrowski, “Who’s an Indian?: classification and implications”. Activating TOK, Dec 2014.

Eileen Dombrowski, “Indigenous Knowledge: definition, implications, and controversy”, Activating TOK.  September 2014.

“Leader Of Anti-Semitic Party In Hungary Discovers He’s Jewish”, NPR. August 14, 2012.

Ewan Palmer, “Neo-Nazi Leader Csanad Szegedi Converts to Judaism”, International Business Times. October 24, 2013.

Nick Thorpe, “What happened when an anti-Semite found he was Jewish?”, BBC.  4 May 2015.

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