According to Wikipedia (where the easily edited information should always be taken with a proverbial grain of salt), Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1792, in honor of the 300th anniversary of Columbus' landing. Columbus was working at the time for the queen of Spain, and his efforts are widely credited with opening the door to Spanish conquest of "the Americas." However, since Columbus himself was Italian, some Italian Americans began, in the mid-1800s or so, celebrating their heritage on Columbus Day.
As a result of this later, dual purpose for the holiday, conflict has arisen when other groups, especially Native Americans, began protesting this holiday. And for anyone who might still wonder why anyone would protest Columbus Day, Andrea Robideau, leader of a university-level Native American Women's Association, put it this way: “For a lot of native people, making Columbus Day a national holiday tells us that they honor someone who started a genocide against our people.” Robideau put it that way while she was selling "Killumbus" t-shirts.
Some Italian Americans take such protests against Columbus Day as an insult to their own heritage--or perhaps, to what remains of it, after they and their ancestors have bleached away most of what marked them as Italian, one part of the price they paid for their ticket into American whiteness.
After their ancestors endured that cultural loss so that they and their descendants could enjoy being "white," along came widespread recognition of non-whiteness via the Civil Rights Movement, and then the ascent in the 1990s of multiculturalism and/or "diversity," which mostly meant racial diversity. All of this new racial awareness and celebration made "white" people feel left out at times, as well as a bit icky about their own whiteness. After all, the only people affirming and celebrating that racial group were those who'd done weird things with their heads, like putting pointy white sheets on them, or shaving them, or filling them with ridiculous, disproven ideas about the supposed superiority of a supposedly threatened white race.
So, as fewer and fewer "white" people wanted to claim that racial grouping in some active, celebratory way, more and more of them turned instead to revival of the faded heritage of their European ancestors--and not just Italian Americans.
In an article about this kind of "ethnic revival," scholar Matthew Frye Jacobson writes:
The leader of an anti-racism workshop in the 1990s once noted a disquieting inclination on the part of white participants to dissociate themselves from the advantages of whiteness by emphasizing some purportedly not-quite-white ethnic background. "I'm not white; I'm Italian," one would say. Another, "I'm Jewish." After this ripple had made its way across the group, the seminar leader was left wondering, "What happened to all the white people who were here just a minute ago?"
The sense of a sentence like "I'm not white, I'm Italian" rests upon several historical preconditions, now loosely relayed in the term "ethnic revival": the Civil Rights Movement heightened whites' consciousness of their skin privilege, rendering it both visible and newly uncomfortable. The example of black nationalism and later multiculturalism provided a new language for -- and perceived cache in -- the specificities of an identity that was not simply "American." After decades of striving to conform to the Anglo-Saxon standard, descendants of earlier European immigrants quit the melting pot. Italianness, Jewishness or Greekness were now badges of pride, not shame.One unfortunate result, Jacobson goes on to note, is the tendency to hold up European immigrants as the real "model minority," a highly dubious honor normally given to Asian Americans:
Despite recent fixations on Asian-American success . . . European immigrants remain the nation's real "model minority": Their saga supplies the "standard" template of incorporation and advancement against which all other groups are judged. It supplied the post-slavery, fresh-off-the-boat innocents who have become the most potent symbol in protests against affirmative action, busing or reparations.
In conservative populism, white ethnics represent precisely those little people so in need of protection from the excesses of liberal social policy; and their exemplary mobility--from steerage to ghetto to suburb--is deployed in damning critique of both the contemporary welfare state and contemporary ghetto-dwellers.
As the following two TV clips demonstrate, the conflicted feelings felt by people who can be described (rather oxymoronically) as "white ethnics" have made their way into popular culture. In the first, from "The Sopranos," New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano tries, in his usual NSFW way, to articulate his mixed allegiances--being Italian versus being white--to some of his loyal minions, who are upset about upcoming protests against a Columbus Day parade. The next clip, from "Mad TV," satirizes both Italian American stereotypes and the whitening process of assimilation.
I think that in both cases, the alternating sympathies of such "white ethnics" are on display, in a confused dance of sorts between polar attractions--the comforts and privileges of whiteness, and the warm, nostalgic embrace of a group identity that seems more worthy of embrace.
So what do you think? Should Columbus Day celebrations continue? If the holiday doesn't deserve total abolition, how could it be marked instead? And if those questions don't get your fingers moving, what are you doing today? Did you at least get the day off?