Advocates of social change for traditionally disadvantaged groups--including African Americans, Hispanics, women, and GLBT people--have long been troubled by a particular issue: why do some individuals in these communities seem to embrace the values of the host group which, as the advocates plausibly maintain, has been oppressing them? To use the language of World War II, why do some people in these groups become collaborationists?
To be sure, such charges of collusion with the power structure can be abused, as when some Jews charge those who do not share their view of the Israel-Palestinian question of being “self-hating Jews." Similarly, gay and lesbian people who are not enthusiastic about same-sex marriage are met with the accusation of harboring “internalized homophobia.” Some young African Americans chide their peers for “acting white.”
Contested though it may be, the issue of the “self-hating” minority member is central. How did it develop, and what positive use can one make of this concept?
An important advance in this realm was made by Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), a German-Jewish scholar who settled in the United States in 1933. Too little known today, Lewin deserves to be honored as the founder of social psychology. He was one of the first to put the study of group dynamics and organizational development on a firm basis.
Lewin observed a tendency for some members of underprivileged groups to display a degree of contempt or animosity towards their own group. Although his account particularly concerned Jews, self-hatred could be detected among many disadvantaged groups, such as African Americans as well as Polish, Italian, and Greek immigrants in the United States. That self-hatred could be found at both group and individual levels. At the group level it was seen in hostility between different Jewish groups (e.g. between German and East European Jews in Europe, and between Spanish and German Jews in the US). At the individual level, it was seen in hostility towards “the Jews as a group, against a particular fraction of the Jews, against his own family, or against himself. It may be directed against Jewish institutions, Jewish mannerisms, Jewish language, or Jewish ideals.”
Seeking to escape the consequences of anti-Semitism in Europe, Lewin was dismayed to find that it occurred, less lethally to be sure, in his adopted country. Lewin focused on the phenomenon among Jews not solely because the subject was of personal interest to him, but because of attention that had been given to the matter by such Jewish intellectuals in Central Europe as Otto Weininger and Theodor Lessing. In particular, Lessing’s 1930 book Der jūdische Selbsthass (Jewish Self-Hatred) had put the term and the concept before the general public. As analyzed by Lessing and others, the concept stemmed from the dilemma of German and Austrian Jews who sought to assimilate to “Germantum,” but found themselves all too often shunned by those that they would join. By the same token, Zionists excoriated the Jewish assimilationists for their naiveté.
Based on his own experience, Lewin noted that some people seek to distance themselves from membership in devalued groups by adopting the negative evaluations held by the majority. In addition, they view their social origins as an obstacle to the pursuit of social status. These ideas were further explored by such social scientists as Gordon Allport and Erving Goffman. Such investigations have not always been uncontroversial, witness the doll studies of Clark and Clark (1947), and subsequent work which claims to show evidence of “black self-hatred.”
New light has been thrown on the origins of this general approach by a book that has just appeared: Paul Reitter, On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred (Princeton University Press). A scholar of German literature, Reitter has established that the expression “Jewish self-hatred” was not coined by Lessing in 1930, as is commonly thought. Rather, Lessing purloined the term from a now forgotten Viennese writer, Anton Kuh, who had used it a decade before. Somewhat paradoxically, both Kuh and Reitter do not simply condemn the tendency. Rightly used, they seemed to believe, the concept of self-criticality could be constructive. As such, Reitter argues, they advocated its extension to all of humanity.
Thus the origins of the concept of ethnic self-hatred. As we have seen, through later studies the concept has become better understood. Surely, though, there is more to be learned about the utility and limitations of this social-science motif.