Feynman was asked to join an anti-Semitic club.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter The Dignified Professor, one of Feynman’s memories of his early days as a professor at Cornell University included the following:

Then another guy came into my office. He wanted to talk to me about philosophy, and I can’t really quite remember what he said, but he wanted me to join some kind of a club of professors. The club was some sort of anti-Semitic club that thought the Nazis weren’t so bad. He tried to explain to me how there were too many Jews doing this and that — some crazy thing. So I waited until he got all finished, and said to him, “You know, you made a big mistake: I was brought up in a Jewish family.” He went out, and that was the beginning of my loss of respect for some of the professors in the humanities, and other areas, at Cornell University.

Feynman was an avowed atheist, and here he even described himself as being “brought up in a Jewish family” instead of being “Jewish”. Being Jewish was not an important part of his identity, except in cases where he experienced discrimination.

Experiences of discrimination, not one’s culture, is the most powerful reinforcement of one’s ethnic identity, one’s identity as the Other. Regardless, people of the ethnic majority continue to believe that ethnic minorities identify with their ethnicity due to some perceived cultural staticism.


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7 Responses to “Feynman was asked to join an anti-Semitic club.”

  1. Rene Benthien Says:

    This is such a cool post. You used one of my heroes to explain a point that is very close to my heart.

    I was brought up in a Tamil family but I rarely think of myself as Tamil. Except when thinking about the crazy things going on Sri Lanka.

    Nationalism and racism are fostered by suppression. Tamil nationalism would not have been so ardent if it weren’t for the particular history of discrimination of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

  2. Restructure! Says:

    I’m glad someone is appreciating my Feynman posts. ;)

    edit: I don’t really think of myself as being Chinese, except when I meet white people for the first time and they make some point about me being Chinese.

  3. Katie Says:

    Fascinating. I need to mull on that. I think I think of myself in constant negotiation with Korean culture, but experience myself as Korean/Other only when othered by people.

  4. PureGracefulTree Says:

    “Experiences of discrimination, not one’s culture, is the most powerful reinforcement of one’s ethnic identity.”

    This is such a clear expression of something I’ve had trouble putting my finger on for so many years. I am Taiwanese-American, but I identify more strongly as just Asian-American. Why? Because the experience of racism has affected my life far more than anything particular to Taiwanese culture. Whereas my parents and other first-generation immigrants belong to groups focused on their particular nationality, second-generation kids tend to be in “Asian” or “Asian-American” communities—despite the fact that “Asian” lumps together a whole lot of countries that don’t have much in common other than some superficial aspects of the physical appearance of their inhabitants. Nonetheless, the experience of discrimination that I share with other people who have black hair and brown eyes in the U.S. is far more of a bonding factor than the experience of speaking the Taiwanese language or growing up eating particular Taiwanese dishes.

  5. Restructure! Says:

    PureGracefulTree,

    Nonetheless, the experience of discrimination that I share with other people who have black hair and brown eyes in the U.S. is far more of a bonding factor than the experience of speaking the Taiwanese language or growing up eating particular Taiwanese dishes.

    Yes. This.

  6. Second-generation visible minority Canadians are more likely to report discrimination compared to their parents. « Restructure! Says:

    [...] Feynman was asked to join an anti-Semitic club. [...]

  7. maasanova Says:

    “Jews doing this and doing that?”

    The truth is anti-Semitic?


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