This question arose for me after reading this article by Ray Suarez: “Red, Brown, and Blue: How our definition of whiteness has changed with each new wave of immigration.” It is well documented that as immigrants came to the United States of America, our concept of whiteness changed as these groups assimilated into the dominant Anglo culture. The Germans were not white, Irish were not white, the Italians were not white, the Jews were not white in America until they were assimilated into the culture and assumed their place of sharing power with the anglo culture. The article states there was a great loss and sacrifice these groups had to surrender in order to be called white in America.
Hold that thought. The definition of the word ethnicity that I am using is the following: Identity with or membership in a particular racial, national, or cultural group and observance of that group’s customs, beliefs, and language.
In recent months, there is increased rhetoric about preserving American values, American traditions, American culture. This rhetoric has been used in relationship to immigration, specifically undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America; to Religious freedom, specifically the Islamic faith and the building of Mosques on American soil. So the context implies that what is really being talked about is White American values, White American Traditions, White American culture. In order to be an American, one needs to be perceived as being white, as part of the dominant Anglo culture. This dominant Anglo culture is embedded with the notion of white supremacy and white privilege.
Back to what was lost in order to be white in America. My family has been here for close to 400 years, we are not simply Dutch or French or Irish or Welsh or German or Jewish. My family is all of these and a few more besides. I can no longer claim as my ethnicity any of these ethnic groups since culturally they are distinctly foreign to me, 15 + generations away from immigrant status will do that. If I tried to reclaim all the ethnicities that make up me, I would be accused of cultural mis-appropriation. In fact, I already have been when I sought to honor my Jewish roots, albeit four generations back.
So even though my ancestral heritage includes these various groups of people, I am not a member of these groups. I cannot authentically claim these ethnicities as mine since I have no observance of these groups beliefs, customs, or language. So because the dominant Anglo culture has conflated being American with whiteness–an ideology that I reject as a person who strives to undo racism in my life and in my culture–and because my family roots have been here for 400 years and assimilated into the dominant culture a dozen plus more generations ago losing its ethnic identity; I become invisible because I have no ethnicity that I can authentically claim. Except for the possibility of claiming American as my ethnicity.
But this begs the original question. Is there an American Ethnicity that is uniquely American that has not been conflated by the Anglo dominated culture? In other words what would an American ethnicity look like if “whiteness” was not part of the criteria for being an American?
I looked at the traditions and foods handed down in my family to see if there was any inkling of something that was uniquely American that could be applied to all Americans as an ethnic marker. Something that would not presume dominance over other ethnicities that are also present in America.
There are two family recipes that I have that go back several hundred years. One is a cookie called “Delaware Crybabies.” This cookie is a molasses cookie/cake that dates back to the 1700’s presumably to my dutch ancestors. The other recipe is Tomato Butter, a condiment that dates back to the early 1800’s. So these recipes originated here in America by my ancestors, whether it was my ancestors directly that created them or a community of folks from that time period. They are not European based so again, I cannot say they represent my ethnic heritage from Europe. They are American based and the ingredients of these recipes are connected with the Anglo dominant culture. Molasses, Nutmeg, and Allspice were all made available because of the Atlantic Triangle Trade where these ingredients were brought up from the Caribbean to New England in exchange for rum and other manufactured goods which was then bartered to acquire slaves in Africa. So while these recipes have the markings of something ethnic for my family, they are tainted with the Anglo Dominance of whiteness. The best ethnic marker I can offer them is that of being Colonial American which would then separate them out from presuming dominance over any other form of cuisine present in America.
In terms of customs that my family celebrates that might be considered American would be Thanksgiving and 4th of July. Thanksgiving takes precedence as a holiday over any other in my family. It is a secular family holiday which has deep roots, a time to express gratefulness of another year being together. My family has also used this holiday to remember our loved ones who have died in thanksgiving for the gifts they bestowed us with their lives. But the origins of this holiday is tainted with Anglo dominance.
I remember a few years ago after the events of September 11th this ad was aired. It showed the faces of Americans.
I don’t have any answers as to what my ethnicity is, it has been lost to the oppressive dominant culture of whiteness. But in order for me to claim American as my ethnicity, it would mean a concerted effort to continually separate out America from the whitewash (bad pun) of white supremacy and white privilege. The America I see does not equal white and its time that that is explicitly stated. We do not have to reinforce the history of American racism by continuing the conflation of these terms for our present or future reality. We can create a different future where America means equality for all.