The Unstable Other: Locating the Jew in Progressive-Era American Racial Discourse

By Goldstein, Eric L. | American Jewish History, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Unstable Other: Locating the Jew in Progressive-Era American Racial Discourse


Goldstein, Eric L., American Jewish History


"Every culture is haunted by its other," explains Jacques Derrida, suggesting, as theorists have before him, that the formation of national and cultural identities has always entailed the drawing of a line between those who belong and those who do not. According to Derrida and other theorists of identity, the process of alterity--of marking one's own group off from those who are seen as different--is a central component of group self-definition. By marginalizing and excluding the "other," the shape and boundaries of a group's own identity come into focus. As a binary opposition to the "self," the "other" becomes the symbol for all of the fears, anxieties and negative images from which the dominant group wishes to disassociate itself and thereby reinforce its own positive identity. (1)

This understanding of "otherness" is compelling from a philosophical standpoint because it unmasks the ideological nature of the rigid hierarchies that have shaped Western thought and determined the power relations between dominant and oppressed groups. It allows us to see that negative projections of marginalized groups--constructions of "otherness"--actually tell us far more about the dominant society and its efforts to maintain hegemony than they do about the social "reality" of the subject group. (2) In using the notion of otherness as a model for historical research and writing, however, one must keep in mind that a strict binarism--in this case, the notion that each society has its one defining "other"--is too simplistic to effectively convey the complex ways in which marginalization has functioned. In diverse societies, there are usually multiple "others" onto which the dominant group projects its fears and anxieties and against which they construct their own self-understanding. In the United States, for example, where "race" has often been one of the central arbiters of "otherness," there have been a multiplicity of groups--Native Americans, Asians, Latinos, and European immigrant groups in addition to African Americans--who have been constructed, in different ways, as racially different from the majority society. Unfortunately, however, despite the actual diversity of these racial "others," much of the writing of American historians on marginalized racial and ethnic groups tends to employ a binary understanding of race that emphasizes the black-white dichotomy exclusively. This approach not only fails to capture the diversity of groups against which native-born, white Americans constructed their identities, but it also misses the important interconnections that existed between the marginalization of these various "others." (3) Thus, in order to rescue the study of otherness and identity formation from oversimplification, historians must examine the constantly shifting ways in which the societies they document produced their "others" (in the plural).

In recent years, there has been growing attention focused on the way in which Irish, Italians, Jews and other immigrant groups who arrived in the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were often considered distinct "races" and were not always classified as white. While this new focus of American historiography should serve to underscore the shortcomings of a model that understands racial otherness in America as purely a matter of color, regrettably, even the few scholars who have broken new ground in this direction have not been able to move beyond the categories of black and white as the main criteria in defining what "otherness" means. Rather than identifying the distinctive reasons these groups were judged to be racially different and exploring the particular anxieties they themselves raised for native-born Americans, these writers simply argue that immigrants were deemed "other" because they resembled African Americans in important ways. David Roediger's inventory of anti-Irish sentiments in the nineteenth century, for example, focuses on images of the Irish as "niggers turned inside out" (and conversely the notion of African Americans as "smoked Irishmen"), but downplays those anti-Irish images that do not fit neatly into a black-white understanding of race. …

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