September 03, 2003

Race: Human

James Lileks:

Iím lucky; I donít know where I come from. We have some theories, but theyíre just that. One side of my lineage dead-ends in an adoption; the other trails off in Europe, east of Paris. Donít know.

Donít. Care. Iím a mongrel. Iím a race mixer. Everyone into the blender; fine by me. What I do know is that anyone who believes as I do today would have been shoved on a train by the real goose-steppers circa 1943.

Same goes for me. Sort of.

My father's side of the family is from England. That's where my name is from. I have no idea about my mother's side. She's a mix of Euro this and Euro that. From where, I've no idea. I mean, no idea at all. East of Paris? Maybe. West of Moscow? Probably, but perhaps not. Definitely north of the Congo. That's all I know.

I could be part Jewish, part Arab, part native American Indian for all I know. And like James Lileks, I don't want to know. I don't want to know because I don't want to start caring about that sort of thing. I don't want to find out I'm a part of a victim group so I can start feeling bad about something I've never felt bad about before. I don't want to feel like I'm supposed to hold some old world grudge against other people who never did anything to me or my family. Not that I would, but I don't want anyone else thinking I should. Is part of my family Greek and formerly oppressed by the ancestors of my Turkish-American neighbors? I really don't care.

My wife's family is Scotch-Irish. So, okay, my father's ancestors oppressed hers. It's trivia. In Belfast our marriage would be impossible. That is what is great about America. We're over it. Never worried about it in the first place.

I know it's easy for me to say 'cause I'm a white guy. And I know that makes me lucky. I do. Still, there was a time when this sort of thing did matter in this country to people like me, and my marriage would have been impossible even here. That day is past. It will be past for others too. Some day.

Roger L. Simon says that day is now. Or it ought to be.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at September 3, 2003 12:47 AM
Comments

My wife is of Japanese ancestry. When we were dating, we went for sushi and fajitas, falafels and pad thai. But one night I tell her I will take her out for some "ethnic food" - cool. I pick her up and pull in to - Boston Market?!. She gives me a quizzical look. "It's ethnic food", I said. "My ethnic".

One day in America we'll all be "ethnic". And that will be cool with me.

Posted by: lewy14 at September 3, 2003 03:47 AM

I care about my family and its past, and there are questions for which I have longed to know the answers . . . But then, both sides of my family are fairly recent here. Both made a point of covering their tracks - for what reason? Shame? Guilt? Despair? I don't know. What I do know is this: One day, I was walking the streets in Munich, and I had this strange sense of being home, this feeling that I was being embraced. I've never felt that anywhere. My grandmother - to whom I have always felt strongly connected - was from Germany. Her family immigrated to the United States on the eve of WWII, and no one knows why. No one knows our history. My sister and I have always been drawn to Judaism (both of us considered converting, actually), and we both remember seeing Jewish religious artifiacts in Grandma's home. But there has never been any document, or any evidence, of our family's past. On the other side: Ireland. Before my dad was kicked out of the Catholic church, that side was deeply Catholic. Longing to know my family is not "longing for victimhood". Nor is it necessarily nationalistic. Not for me, anyway. For me, it's about finding the threads and connections, uncovering stories - both of which inevitably lead to a deeper connection to all of humanity, not just to one country or religion. Your assumption that it leads to - or springs from - nationalism is not true for me or many people I know.

We all have these threads, after all. In my case, being German, there are also things I want to know about my family during WWII. Not because I feel a need to carry their burden, but because I want to know, for myself, in a personal way. This, to me, is the essence of identity: wanting to know your story, wanting to see how you fit into a larger picture. For some, that might mean denying any meaning in heritage at all, for others it might mean a lifelong search to find her roots. For others still, it might mean something different. For me, my immigrant past is not so far back . . . there are still echoes. Many of my older relatives still spoke German (before they died over the past several decades), even as they lived in Iowa.

Like you, I am grateful for America's melting pot. I am glad these things matter less and less in the social order. But I also have a strong sense of history - familial, especially. There is nothing wrong with that.

Posted by: karrie at September 3, 2003 06:55 AM

Karrie,

Both sides of my family came over here a long time ago. And so the past became a technicality, and I'm fine with that. Your family came here much more recently so it naturally matters more, and I agree there's nothing wrong with it. And it naturally matters more to minorities. As I said, I know I'm lucky.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 3, 2003 09:28 AM

Interestingly, I feel a pull whenever I hear bagpipes and dulcimers. That sense memory tugs at my Scotch-Irish ancestry, as well as the mountain music of East Tennessee.

It's almost like tasting a memory, and it's strangely soothing sometimes.

Posted by: Barry at September 3, 2003 10:16 AM

Ethnicity this - ethnicity that. Lileks' "What’s the left-wing equivalent of “Goose-stepping?”" is a more interesting question. For me. Dad was orphaned in infancy and adopted by a German family in Hell's Kitchen. Documents show a Swedish birthname. Mom was, genteelly told by her foster family she was a foundling. Seems she was the product of passion. A Jewish banker and a colleen surnamed O'brien might in those days love but neither family would allow marriage. When the banker's family offered the money and means for abortion their very name was never again spoken by the other family and is lost to me. It's traceable now I'm sure but I don't care. The story of America is not all Mayflower and that's fine with me. Bigotry and shame were my forebears problems not mine. I'll let those dogs sleep. Never once thought of myself as anything but American. My red hair and sunburns in April tell me something of my genetic line. My drooling love of smoked salmon may be genetic. Or not. Who cares?

Posted by: Stephen Meyer at September 3, 2003 10:17 AM

My roots are in Africa. My ancestors left there 50,000 years ago and eventually settled in Denmark, Germany, and Norway.

Posted by: Fred Boness at September 3, 2003 10:50 AM

"I don't want to start caring about that sort of thing. I don't want to find out I'm a part of a victim group so I can start feeling bad about something I've never felt bad about before. I don't want to feel like I'm supposed to hold some old world grudge against other people who never did anything to me or my family."

Identifying with and being proud of an ethnic heritage doesn't have to produce those results, Michael.

You need a critical mass of people with a certain way of life and attitude toward reality to perpetuate a particular food, music, philosophy, way of life, language. Once it's gone, it's gone. it's as devastating to the richness of human history as the extinction of a species for an ecosystem.

If I live in an area where there aren't enough Jews who know the nusach and Hebrew text of the daily prayer service to make a minyan every day (plus people who can gabbai and leyn Torah on Mondays and Thursdays, and lead the services) it doesn't get done. That implies a critical mass of both knowledge and desire, which has to be passed on.

It is of vast importance to me that this continues - it doesn't have a whole lot to do with God per se, but with the ritual itself. I won't try to explain why, because I don't have to justify it to outsiders. I am sure many other ethnic/religious groups feel the same way about various things, and I "get" what that is about for them. To me, people who only identify the desire to continue a complex way of life with "victimhood" or "separation" don't "get it."

That's okay - we don't all have to be excited and moved by the same things. But I get tired of the lack of comprehension, or even desire for comprehension.

"This, to me, is the essence of identity: wanting to know your story, wanting to see how you fit into a larger picture. For some, that might mean denying any meaning in heritage at all, for others it might mean a lifelong search to find her roots. For others still, it might mean something different. For me, my immigrant past is not so far back . . . there are still echoes."

Karrie gets it. She doesn't know what she wants to do with that urge, if anything, but she gets what it's about.

"Your family came here much more recently so it naturally matters more, and I agree there's nothing wrong with it. And it naturally matters more to minorities. As I said, I know I'm lucky."

You're not lucky, just different. In fact, I don't think you're lucky at all, but as it would be difficult (but not impoossible) for you to do anything about it, it doesn't behoove me to feel blessed in a way that you aren't. But when I'm not trying to be PC, I do, actually.

You know, people can't enjoy all these cute heirloom fruits and vegetables unless others save the seeds and plant them and learn the growing methods, and people can't enjoy all these exotic ethnic musics and clothes and foods, and religious paths, unless there are distinct healthy cultures being preserved at the root of them. But people want to have multiethnic variety available to them while at the same time dissing the love and belonging and commitment, and - yes, separation and distinction - that make genuine cultural expression possible.

Posted by: Yehudit at September 3, 2003 03:09 PM

Yehudit: Identifying with and being proud of an ethnic heritage doesn't have to produce those results, Michael.

I know. Sometimes it does, more often I think it doesn't. I know my family came here to cut the bonds of the old world. And now they are cut. It's a part of the American Dream. I don't have to be "English" here, or whatever the other unknown half of my identity from my mother's side might require.

Lord knows I don't think you should stop being Jewish or that Karrie should ignore her German grandparents.

I do love the cultural mix of this country, especially in places like New York and Los Angeles where I can get food from Uzbekistan and listen to live African music. I don't want all those things to go away. Far from it! They are a part of me, and a part of this country.

I love America's diversity. And that diversity is for all of us.

Maybe you're right and I am contradicting myself, appreciating the effects while writing off the cause. I don't know. I'll think about it some more.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 3, 2003 03:23 PM

When I blogged about my opposition to "Identity Politics," of course I didn't mean people should give up their ethnicities. That's ridiculous on the grounds of good-eating alone. I was talking about using their ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds as the primary motivator of their POLITICAL ACTIONS. THAT is dangerously separatist and reactionary.

Posted by: Roger L. Simon at September 3, 2003 04:13 PM

I, my parents, and my grandparents were born and raised in this country. Exactly where my great grandparents and earlier ancestors came from I haven't a clue nor any interest.

If it could be determined that my ethnic background was 75% German, whould this make a difference in who and what I am?

While I do njot disrespect those who have a strong desire to know these things, I cannot see its value.

Posted by: tallan at September 3, 2003 07:10 PM

I think Reagan once had a great quote about this. When asked about his favourite part of the '84 Olympics, he responded that, during the opening ceremonies, when the Swedish team marched in, it looked like Sweden. When the Chinese team marched in, it looked like China. But when the American team marched in, it looked like the world.

Posted by: George at September 3, 2003 07:42 PM

By the way, the Scots-Irish were actually Protestant, mostly from nothern England/southern Scotland, and not particularly oppressed by the English. In fact, the Scots-Irish were often employed as soldiers and mercenaries for the British empire--Catholic killers, Injun fighters, etc. As such, they bear a heavy, heavy burden of racial guilt, for generations and generations to come.

Posted by: Guilty Gary at September 3, 2003 08:54 PM

Guilty Gary,

Perhaps I have bungled the use of the term Scotch-Irish. What I meant is that one side of my wife's family is from Scotland, and the other side of her family is from Ireland.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 3, 2003 10:22 PM

"When I blogged about my opposition to "Identity Politics," of course I didn't mean people should give up their ethnicities. That's ridiculous on the grounds of good-eating alone. I was talking about using their ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds as the primary motivator of their POLITICAL ACTIONS. THAT is dangerously separatist and reactionary."

I disagree that being voluntarily separate is necessarily a bad thing. Some aspects of a culture can only be kept alive by the people who adhere to them primarily interacting with each other, which is why Jewish day schools - for Reform and Conservative as well as Orthodox kids - are burgeoning.

I understand why those who have no particular affiliation may look at this and feel threatened or excluded, but they are necessary if the culture is to continue as anything but a shallow stereotype. This doesn't preclude being a good citizen - the record of Jewish philanthrophy and public service to the larger community confirms that. (If other groups don't have the same kind of record, take it up with them. if they do, they also refute the fears.) It also doesn't preclude making friends and working with people who aren't like you.

I also don't think that organizing politically as an ethnic group is inherently dangerous - in fact it's an American tradition. The Irish, Italians, Germans, Peurto Ricans, Negroes, Jews, Polish - everybody did it. Most still do when they feel it necessary. But they were all participating in American democracy.

The question is: what are a group's goals? Do they organize to value and participate in the American political process? Or do they want to subvert that process? Mecha doesn't seem to be a mature political group - they want to posture as Marxist revolutionaries and diss everybody who's not them. That's the problem, not that they want to organize around ethnicity.

I hear anecdotes that local Muslim communities don't participate in United Way or donate to the symphony or run candidates for city council or volunteer for Neighborhood Watch. If true, that's the problem. Well, the Amish have that problem too, but they live out in the country and they aren't aggressive, so it's not a big deal.

Posted by: Yehudit at September 3, 2003 10:36 PM

I have to agree with Michael on this. My stepmother spent years working on our family geneology and I find that it just doesn't interest me. I know my family and my recent ancestors and that is enough. On the flip side my daughter is fascinated and knows the family history in detail. Maybe it's one of those "skip a generation" things.

My family pride comes from my grandchildren, not my grandparents. My grandparents were good people. Devout, hardworking, not very educated and extremely bigoted. They were not purposely mean but had that early 20th century ignorance. In many ways my father and mother had the same ignorance. If my stepmother was bigoted she hid it well.

My generation in our family broke that thread. The shock of my sister marrying an African-American was profound for my parents but that didn't stop her. I think that single action did more to open my eyes than any other. I married a young lady that is heavily Native-American (even though her family didn't "advertise" that fact). My son married a lovely young lady that is truly an American Mutt. She is African, Native, Asian-American. That makes their two children... America.

Semper Fi

Posted by: RickM at September 4, 2003 04:12 AM

Part of the good part of being in the U.S. is getting to be left alone. Whether people want to keep their ethnic heritage is irrelevant to me; what I care about is behavior.

If you carry your ethnic hatreds, your sense of ethnic superiority, or even your sense of profound ethnic victimhood to this country, fine. It's your right.

But if you expect everyone to agree, if you demand constant rule-changes for you (not reasonable accommodations), or if you demand special privileges, or if you manipulate the law to impose your viewpoint on everyone else in a non-democratic way, or practice barbarism, then there's a problem. And if you're violent, you can definitely fuck off and go back home.

The U.S. was designed as a place to get away from the decadence and corruption of the Old World -- and part of that means leaving behind certain aspects of ethnicity. Hate all you want, but don't act on it here. We live in peace with each other.

But if all you're talking about is ritual, or going to hear the mass in Greek, or burning a man in the desert, or setting off firecrackers on Chinese New Year, hey, cool. That's the whole point of U.S. You get to be left alone.

Posted by: IB Bill at September 4, 2003 07:13 AM

Yehudit,

On your own blog (your comments are disabled) you said: If you aren't drawn to a particular culture, fine. You don't have to have one. But I get the impression that some of you are really jealous of those who do, and that's why you put us down so much.

I am sorry. I did not intend to put you or anyone else down. I wish it hadn't come across that way. And you've given me lots to think about. Thanks for that.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 4, 2003 09:14 AM

This reminds me of a story of a friend of mine. Her father was a Czech jew who fled to Palestine after Munich (in 1938). He came back to Czechoslovakia in 1940 in a vain effort to save his family (they were all murdered in Auschwitz) and spent the rest of the war as a partisan killing Germans. After the war he emigrated to the US. When my friend was in high school Roots was on TV. Her hippy school teacher assigned each student to write a family history. When she asked her father about this, he blew up and said this is exactly what the Nazis did when they came into Czechoslovakia. He then went to the school and bawled the teacher out and called her a Nazi. The teacher who had no idea where this crazy Czech was coming from broke down and started crying.
My friend took this as a lesson that it did not matter where you came from but where you are going that is important.

Posted by: larry levin at September 4, 2003 10:10 AM

Funny story. Of course, that 8th grade assignment on my family history was a great adventure for me; it was wonderful finding out how alien the place where my great-great-grandparents came from really was, and all the details about how my mom's hometown had signs in German until WWI when that became gauche, et cetera.

Posted by: Kimmitt at September 6, 2003 12:09 AM

A theory I have about Australians (of which I am one) is that being a nation of (mostly) recent immigrants, we don't carry any cultural or ethnic baggage. This is both a negative (people complain that we have no culture - I disagree) and a positive - we're in the process of carving out our own culture. For example Australian cuisine can best be descibed as eclectic. My wife, who is from the New Guinea islands, has this incredible geneology in her head, and a rich cultural heritage, but she won't eat anything that doesn't belong within her tradition.

Posted by: WIllmott Fribbish at September 10, 2003 03:34 AM



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