Sunday, November 28, 2010

"I'm Nothing"

Growing up in New York, I always knew I was Italian.  (This was before the days of hyphenation – I became “Italian-American” later.)  I’d never been to Italy, knew nothing of Italian history, and didn’t speak the language, but if I ever doubted my heritage all I had to do was walk down one flight of stairs to my grandparents’ house.  At any given moment they could be found arguing in Italian, drinking homemade red wine in the middle of the day, or baking the most delicious Italian biscuits.  (I never did get the real name of those biscuits.  It sounded to me like they were calling them, in their heavy Barese accents, “pitch-la-thea,” but I knew that couldn’t be right. I never came across biscuits like those anywhere but in my grandmother’s kitchen.)  So I always had a strong ethnic identification, as did everyone else I knew.  People were “something” – Italian, Irish, Jewish, Greek, whatever.  To this day, when my 89-year-old mother describes people, she always includes their ethnicity in her description.  “My friend Anna drove me,” she’ll say.  “She’s a wonderful person.  Polish.  Never had any children.” 

I didn’t realize it then, but my identification with my Italian heritage, my ethnic identity, provided me with a sense of belonging. Researchers confirm this, arguing that shared ethnicity (comprised of “national origin, language, religion, diet, styles of dress, modes of communication, and other cultural markers”*) is an important aspect of youth identity. Once I left New York, though, I was surprised to find that not everyone felt connected with an ethnic identity; if I told a new friend that I was Italian, more often than not he or she would reply, “Oh.  I’m nothing.”  Over the years I’ve heard this from students, too.  “Sometimes I feel jealous of my Puerto Rican friends,” a student might write.  “I wish I were something, too.” 

It seems this “ethnic longing” is a common experience among whites in the U.S. who have been here for several generations.  Last weekend I attended a conference session titled, “Is This the End of Culture?” This title intrigued me.  I know that culture evolves, but how can it end, I wondered.  During the session I learned about white college students who claim German ethnicity through (of all things) participating in brewery tours.  Others claimed strong Irish ancestry only to find during a trip to Ireland that they are, in fact, American.

So what’s the point, and what does this have to do with race?  Here’s the thing – if ethnicity means shared “national origin, language, religion, diet, styles of dress, modes of communication, and other cultural markers,” then we all have an ethnicity.  How could we not?  We’re all influenced by our surroundings, whether we know it or not.  This is important, because the next step for whites who think they have no ethnicity is this – “I’m just normal.  I’m regular.”  And if I’m normal and regular, then people who aren’t like me are somehow abnormal and irregular.  So lack of ethnic identification among white Americans feeds into subliminal feelings of white dominance, in a way, because it helps maintain the perception of white as the default (or regular) race for those white Americans.  

So what do I do with all this?  I’m not sure yet, but I think it’s important for all of us to figure out who we are as a first step in figuring out how we relate to other people.  We’re all “something,” and figuring out what that something is can help us to appreciate all the other somethings around us.

From Nakkula, Michael J. and Eric Toshalis. Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development
for Educators, p. 155.

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