What makes me who I am? Is it fair of me, or others, to take my race or ethnicity as part of whom I am?
Philosophers are notorious for expressing themselves in a dry and, let’s face it, boring way. The guiding ideals for most philosophical writing are precision, clarity, logical rigor, and the sort of conceptual analysis that leaves no hair un-split. And even those philosophers who are fine literary stylists rarely stray very far from the analytical straight-and-narrow.
I’ve got nothing against clarity, precision, and the like—but this isn’t the only way to do philosophy. Outside the academic journals, profound philosophical ideas are often expressed through literature, cinema, and song. There’s nothing that galvanizes attention like a good story, and there are some great philosophical stories that delight and engage, rather than putting the reader to sleep.
Increasingly, those of us who teach philosophy are drawing on these resources to engage our students. One of the great things about this is that, unlike formal philosophy, which tries to be ultra-explicit, stories don’t wear their meanings on their sleeve—they require interpretation, and often express conflicting ideas for the reader to wrestle with. Laying the foundation for some great classroom discussions.
Consider what philosophers call the metaphysics of race—an area of philosophy that explores the question of whether or not race is real, and if it’s real what it is that makes race real. There are three main positions that you can take on these questions. You might think of race as a biological property of individuals, and believe that a person’s race is written their genes (a position known as “biological realism”). Or you might think of race as socially real, seeing races as social constructions, like days of the week or currencies (“social constructionism”). Finally, you might think that races are unreal—that they’re more like leprechauns than they are like Thursdays or dollars (“anti-realism”). I’ve chosen three works of fiction that explore each of these three positions (as well as other aspects of race and racism) through the question of whether it’s possible for a person to change their race.
A great example of a story with social constructionist take on race is George Schuyler’s 1931 novel Black No More. In the book, a Black scientist named Junius Crookman invents a procedure that makes Black people visually indistinguishable from Whites. Thousands of African Americans flock to Crookman’s Black No More clinics and pay him their hard-earned cash to undergo the procedure. This demographic upheaval in Jim Crow America spawns social and political havoc, as White racists can no longer distinguish people those people who are “really” White from those who merely appear to be White. In a final deliciously ironic episode, Crookman discovers that newly-minted Whites are actually a whiter shade of pale than those who were born that way, which kicks off of a trend of sunbathing to darken one’s skin—darkening it so as to look more White
Nearly forty years before Black No More, the German writer Oskar Panizza wrote a short story called “The Operated Jew,” which has been described as “one of the most repulsive and insightful narratives ever written about German anti-Semitism.” It draws on a similar theme to present an unforgettable picture biological racial realism.
The story’s plot concerns a man named Itzig Faitel Stern, who exemplifies all of the anti-Semitic stereotypes of the day. Faitel (as he’s called in the text) is a grotesque figure who tries hopelessly to ape the speech and mannerisms of the dominant race: “I observed with astonishment how this monster took terrible pains to adapt to our circumstances, our way of walking, thinking, our gesticulations, the expressions of our intellectual tradition, our manner of speech…. Consequently, he was beheld with ridicule and astonishment.”
In a desperate attempt to assimilate, Faitel undergoes a series of radical medical interventions to reconfigure his Jewish body, and a series of psychological interventions designed to align his behavior with the Aryan norm. His bones are broken and reset, and arches are created in his flat Jewish feet. Faitel wears a painful spiked belt around his waist to change his crumpled Jewish posture to that of an upright German. His complexion is chemically lightened, his dark, curly hair is straightened and made blond; he trades his weird Yiddish patois for a rasping High German dialect, and even submits to a transfusion of Christian blood. After changing his name to Siegfried Freudenstern, Faitel gets engaged to a blond, blue-eyed German woman. But he gets drunk at the wedding feast, and his racial facade catastrophically unravels, exposing his ineradicable, animalistic Jewishness.
Now everyone’s attention in the room was immediately drawn to him. Even the waiters carrying large piles of dishes came to a stop and stared at the middle of the rows of tables where a bloodthirsty, swelling, crimson visage spewed saliva from flabby, drooping lips, and gushing eyes stared at them…. At this moment Faitel jumped from the chair, began clicking his tongue, gurgling, and tottering back and forth while making disgusting, lascivious, and bestial movements with his rear end…. He jumped around the room. “I dun bought for me Chreesten blud… I vant you shood know dat I’m jost a Chreesten human being like you all. Not von drop of Jewish blud!
In the end Faitel collapses on the floor, a quivering wreck, as his straight blond hair darkens to its original and re-curls.
Jewish philosopher Salomo Friedländer, who wrote under the pseudonym Mynona, gives us an anti-realist rejoinder to Panizza. His short story “The Operated Goy,” published in 1922, revolves around the adventures of the über-Germanic Count Kreutzwendedich Rehsok (“kosher” spelled backwards), who successfully transforms himself into a Jew. At the start of the story, Rehsok’s anti-Semitic bona fides are impeccable. Decked out with a swastika armband, he “strutted through the streets with the customary white student cap on his blond parted hair, his monocle on his eye, followed by his livery servant…. As soon as anything Hebrew showed itself, the servant made a shrill sound with a silver whistle. Of course, it would be superfluous to remark that the count’s Great Dane was carefully trained to bite any Jew who came too close.”
Rebecka Gold-Isaac, a Jewish woman, vows to take down the Nazi count. Donning a blond wig, and assuming an aristocratic German name, she arranges to encounter him on one of his walks, and he falls madly in love with her. Rebecka then decides that her best revenge would be to marry him. Her first ploy is to arrange for him to consult Sigmund Freud, who dismantles his self-deceptions and gets him to face up to the fact he is unconsciously attracted to Jews and to accept the fact that the woman that he desires is Jewish. Having got this far, she administers the coup de gras, telling him him that she won’t marry him unless he becomes a Jew, “completely Jewish, a Jew to the point of excess… You don’t love me with all your heart unless you become Jewish deep in the marrow of your Aryan bones, a Jew and nothing but a Jew.”
Now cured of his racism, Rehsok submits to a sequence of painful medical procedures at the hands of a physician named Dr. Friedländer to change his race. He is circumcised, his skin is darkened, his feet are flattened, he is given cosmetic surgery to produce a Jewish-looking nose, his blond hair is removed and his bones are broken and re-set so that his upright aristocratic posture morphs into a Jewish slouch. Finally, he’s packed off to Romania to study the Torah and learn to speak perfect Yiddish and Hebrew, with all the right inflections and gesticulations.
His transmutation completed, Kreutzwendedich Rehsok changes his name to Moishe Mogendovidwendedich (“mogendovid” – the star of David – replacing “kreutz” –the Christian cross). Moishe and Rebecka marry and settle down in Palestine and have five children. “Since then,” Friedländer concludes, “anti-Semitism has noticeably slackened.”
Certain orthopedists are feared and resisted by people who are still proud of the purity of their race. Nevertheless, Professor Friedländer has enjoyed an enormous increase in clientele. He has an institute that rents out masks, but it does not rent out mere costumes. Rather it produces skin and hair, bone and muscle as disguises…. One no longer bases everything dogmatically on racial differences. Racial blood has stopped being considered a special kind of vital juice. Meanwhile, Professor Friedländer gathers it in bottles and continues to transfer it undauntedly from one vessel to another.
Philosophically rich stories like these don’t take the place of the careful analyses provided by philosophers of race, but they bring these more technical works to life by leavening their austerity of with humor, horror, passion, and imagination. They are stories to think with.