Tomorrow is Columbus Day in the United States. Like many other countries in "the Americas," we still mark this day, officially and otherwise. Celebrations of the efforts of Columbus usually erase the horrors of what he and his men did to indigenous peoples, thereby erasing as well the indigenous peoples themselves.
Many people in the U.S. remember this childish mnemonic device: "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Far fewer have heard this worthy addition, by Historian James Loewen: "In fourteen hundred and ninety-three, Columbus stole all he could see."
Some white Americans, particularly those of Italian descent, remember Columbus differently, for their own ambivalent purposes. Considering how they do so can shed light on both the past and the present of racial whiteness, including who is now considered "white," what they and other "white ethnics" gave up in the process of becoming that way, and what they now try to recover or hold onto about themselves and their supposed heritage.
Christopher Columbus' first sighting of land that came to be known as "America" occurred on October 12, 1492. Columbus Day was first celebrated in the U.S. 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." In the mid-1800s, since Columbus himself was Italian, some Italian Americans began celebrating their heritage on Columbus Day.
As a result of this later, secondary remembrance, conflict has arisen when other groups, especially Native Americans, began protesting this holiday. 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 t-shirts that read, "Killumbus."
Some Italian Americans take such protests against Columbus Day as an insult to their own heritage -- or perhaps to what remains of it, now that they and their ancestors have paid the price of the ticket into whiteness by bleaching away most of what marked them as "Italian." (And whether these ancestors even identified as "Italian" before arriving in the U.S., instead of as "Sicilian" or some other regional identity, is an interesting question.)
After their ancestors endured that cultural loss so that they and their descendants could enjoy being full-fledged "Americans," which at that time meant "white Americans," 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 Americans feel left out at times, as well as increasingly ambivalent about their own whiteness. After all, the only people affirming and celebrating that racial group were those who'd done obnoxious 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.
And so it was that as fewer and fewer "white" people wanted to claim their 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 television clips demonstrate, the conflicted feelings of 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 struggles, 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 second clip, from "Mad TV," satirizes both Italian American stereotypes and the whitening process of assimilation.
In both cases, the alternating sympathies of such "white ethnics" are on display, in a sort of ambivalent shuttling back and forth between polar attractions: the privileges and comforts of whiteness, and the warm, nostalgic memory of a faded group identity. Like such memories of other white ethnics,this collective identity can be as confused and delusional as the ongoing and uncritical celebration of Columbus Day -- a "celebration" of the beginnings of an Anglo-Saxon empire in an Italian mercenary's efforts to extend the rapacious and murderous plunderings of Spanish royalty.
[An earlier version of this post appeared here last year; h/t for the Reconsider Columbus Day video: Irene's Daughters]