On Monday, I posted two parts to my ethnic story as a white person in the US, and they prompted a variety of comments. Rather than respond in the comments, I thought I’d write another post.
First, I want to thank the people who took up the challenge to write their own stories. DH, grad student, Eric Lund added their stories to the comments, Academic wrote about hers on her blog, as did Ginger Peach, and Makita. Sciencebloggers took up talking about race/ethnicity/diversity and science too including ScienceWoman, razib, Janet, Greg, DrugMonkey, and Maria, and anyone else I missed. If you’re still interested in posting as well, do leave us a link in the comments.
So, y’all, thanks.
Next, there was some confusion over what I was trying to do with telling my ethnic story. Please realize that I greatly appreciate your comments, even if I seem to get particularly critical of your comments.
“Telling the tale of White ethnicity is great but it doesn’t really get at the race issue. Instead I think having White people discuss how being a White person in America has effected their life would be far more helpful.”
Brigindo, I agree. But perhaps, as you’ve seen from the comments here too, you’ll also agree that a lot of white people don’t even *know* how their race has affected their lives in the US. They think of their experiences as normal or universal experiences, and it’s just all those “other” people who keep bringing race into what could be understood as just “human” experiences. They don’t realize that having people who look like them in respected positions in society or trusting that the police will come save them if someone breaks into their home, or having food they want to buy available in every supermarket, or etc.etc.etc. IS a part of being white in the US. They don’t even realize that not ever thinking about their race is part of what it means to be white.
I think I also need to say to white folks that, if you think you’ve never benefitted from white privilege, you need to go through Peggy McIntosh‘s list and see if you still think so at the end of the list.
The most important differences, at least in much of U.S. history, lie in the ways that dominant powerful institutions treat race versus ethnicity. So while one could argue that both ethnicity and race are socially constructed, their influence in terms of power and inequality is in the way that racial identities have been constructed historically. One could argue that they’re both illusory and imagined. But racial categories have had a much more concrete impact on peoples’ lives, because they’ve been used to discriminate and to distribute resources unequally and set up different standards for protection under law. Both public policy and private institutional and communal actions have created inequalities based on race. To be sure, groups defined as “ethnically” different have been discriminated against in the U.S. too, but not in ways that had nearly as dramatic an impact. Indeed, those “ethnic” groups that suffered from severe discrimination were usually labeled, at the time, as “racial” groups as well. Consider the history of discrimination against the Irish, Italians, and Jews, for example.
People commonly make these distinctions between race and ethnicity as being biological, or cultural, or based on national origins and things like that. But it’s really important to remember two things. First, both ethnic and racial identities have changed a lot throughout history. And second, there’s very little evidence that people actually see great distinctions between race and ethnicity culturally, politically, and in daily life. In fact, there is a history of racial self-identification in this country that is very similar to that of ethnic self-identification.
Let me also add as a sidebar to anyone wondering that there is no biological basis to differentiating different “races” – that the genetic variation “within races” is at least as much as that “across races.” The only meaningful biological connection to race is the idea of phenotypes. Race is a SOCIAL classification that changes over time.
But what you seem to be doing here is encouraging the sort of thing that makes Zuska go bonkers when observed in her comments. It seems as though you are trying to get people to say “yeah but I’m not really part of white privilege because I’m descended from X, Y or Z group of phenotypic “whites” that experienced discrimination”.
. DM, I am not in the slightest trying to say I’m not a part of and benefit from white privilege. In fact, I said:
So even though I looked white, and benefited from being white (note not a lot of articulated racial discrimination in my story, note a lot of associated class-related benefits in terms of education in my story), I have a different heritage of whiteness. My story is not that of the Civil War, or of racial segregation in schools per se, but one of immigration and the sense of education as a route to upward mobility, even though many may presume my connection to the Civil War and racial segregation, and even though I benefit from an economy that was set up around slavery, a set of racial schemas that set me up as able to be smart and pretty but were more problematic for my friends, and a set of laws that protect the values that I grew up with understanding were most reasonable and rational.
The thing I am trying to do is 1) point out that whiteness is not universal and is in fact complicated, and 2) that regular white people who don’t have social theory backgrounds can explore their own whiteness by starting with their ethnic stories in order to see their own lives as not universal. I also didn’t say that my white heritage experienced discrimination. In fact, the contrary – I talked about my class privilege in a white society and how I was connected to British colonialism that oppressed others around the world.
Why can’t you all just say you are American or Canadian because you live in America or Canada instead of this ‘my grandmother was half Irish and half Scottish’ so I’m really 1/8 Scottish and 1/8 Irish, and whatever. Is it a reflection on the lack of resonant tradition within North American culture? Does this impinge on your sense of ethnicity? If North Americans were better at accepting that they now live side by side with people of all races and were united in the notion of being North American rather than ‘whatever’, perhaps many of these racism issues would disappear or be alleviated in some way.
I just don’t understand how you expect to improve a situation by encouraging people to magnify their ‘ethnic origins’ in this manner. Everyone is unique in their family heritage, everyone is identical in being a human being. Identifying historical family discriminations to wave around doesn’t help anyone.
PD, I don’t want to say I’m “just American.” I think that’s an experiential fallacy for me. My experience is a result of my heritage situated in a country at this particular time with a particular history of race and ethnicity. Forgive me, but I think that asking people to give up their ethnic stories in order to “become American” is a devastating proposition that is beyond insensitive. Just because some people don’t want to connect with their pasts anymore doesn’t mean that no one should.
In addition, I think it is an avoidance strategy of white people in this country to talk about how many immigration patterns there are, and how many unique or individual stories there are, and how different experiences there are. There are countless common stories and experiences – that is what fields like sociology and anthropology are built off of. While people may have their own individual stories, it is ridiculous to see little in common with other social groups and historical processes. Individualizing people’s experiences tries to negate those group processes that inform our identities and experiences. I don’t want to do that.
stepwise girl said:
I always found extremely puzzling the fact that Americans would claim to be Irish, English, German, Scottish,… when their ancestors arrived in the US in some cases well over a century ago, and when their present is far from what people in those countries are experiencing now (for an example look at tours organized for Americans in Ireland).
And that is why I need to talk about my own story for myself and for others. My “ancestors” – my parents – arrived since 1950, not centuries ago. In addition, to think that time results in universal mixing clearly overlooks how race and ethnicity – including amongst white people – still matters for US society.
porkchop brings up a great point, that people can learn more about whiteness through whiteness studies, too. I’d consider reading George Lipsitz, for example, and his book The Possessive Investment in Whiteness.
Finally, a notion that came up in the parallel Scienceblog posts – when we talk about race in science, it is sometimes easier to talk about “diversity” and then slip into rather PC talk about the value of individual and broader diversity, which suddenly includes things like rural/urban differences (is this code for race? Sometimes I think so) or age or citizenship. While this is a valuable discussion too, I think the fact it happens instead of a discussion about the traumatic racial history of this country which wasn’t all that long ago either, indicates serious avoidance. Our cities and educational systems and institutions are still set up around racial inequities, and dismantling and reconstituting them is going to take significantly more effort than if we diffuse and distract our focus with “diversity.” We need to decouple our consideration of “diversity” from our consideration of persisting racial inequalities.
Two small things: timo, yes, sorry, British, guess my citizenship doesn’t map to my ethnicity either. And Martin posted an interesting post on the scary legacy of eugenics in current science that you should read too.
There. Now, if that doesn’t alienate our readers and bring out the trolls (thanks for not responding to agnostic earlier, too) I don’t know what will. :-S
Let me say once more – we need to have these uncomfortable or heated discussions about race. I hope I haven’t offended anyone irreparably by responding to your individual comments. I’d like to hear more thoughts, too. Thanks for participating.