Monday, October 13, 2008

dance between whiteness and ethnicity

So today is "Columbus Day" in the United States. Many other countries in "the Americas" also mark this day, and since those of us in the U.S. like three-day weekends, we're technically observing it on the wrong day. The date of Christopher Columbus' first sighting of land that came to be known as "America" occurred on October 12, yesterday.

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?


  1. I don't think Columbus day should be celebrated and as far as I can tell it isn't really "celebrated"...I mean imo, once your holiday becomes about how much you could save at Macy's, we're officially not celebrating its meaning anymore.

    Although I didn't learn much, I did learn more about the Trail of Tears than I did Columbus.

  2. I don't like the fact that Columbus Day is celebrated in this country; I essentially ignore it. I'm not a fan of celebrating genocide, and that's what Columbus represents to me. I read in the paper this morning that there's going to be a parade in the Italian-American section of Chicago today, and I was baffled. That's not a person from Italian culture who I'd be proud of.

    I was thinking last night, as I made my (Italian-American) mom's eggplant parmesan recipe that the culture I get from her is so distinctly Italian-American, and not really Italian at all. I suppose I'd feel differently if she were a recent immigrant. Rather, her family came over on the boat around 1900 and quickly assimilated to U.S. culture (name and spelling changes, loss of the language, etc.). It's always surprising to me how whites of Mediterranean descent are conveniently "not white" at certain times (I have often heard the argument that Italian =/= white). My mom's side of the family has a distinct ethnic heritage, but they are most certainly white.

  3. The MadTv clip was funny!

  4. I am not particularly in favor of Columbus Day as a holiday. As well as being the vanguard of the slaughter of Native Americans, Columbus was a fervent supporter of slavery. If Italian-Americans want to celebrate their heritage, have at -- but I'm sure they could find a better namesake for such a festival day.

    It's interesting that you've problematized white people embracing their European ethnicities here. Yes, using the history of oppression of Italians, Irish, et cetera as an attempt to slough off white privilege is a cop-out. But talking about the oppression of European immigrant groups in America can be productive. The history of oppression of Italians, Jews and Irish people in the U.S., and the extent to which those groups have "become white" has been an excellent way for me to start discussions about the weird status of 'white' and how it's a measure of privilege, not a real, descriptive term for a cohesive group of people.

    But I've often thought of "re-ethnicizing" white people as part of recognizing the complexities of race. I feel like white people may be less likely to appropriate and colonize other cultures if we are encouraged to research our own roots, and less likely to accept and embrace a simplified monolithic mainstream culture as normative and acceptable if we recognize the confusing richness of human culture.

    To me there's a clear line there, between exploring and celebrating European heritages and using any of those heritages as a way to duck the truth of your white privilege. Do you think they're harder to separate than that?

  5. I think this comes back to the discussion about cultural appropriation you started earlier (which I've been thinking about a lot again lately).

    If the price of "whiteness" was giving up immigrants original culture, and what's left is either fossilized (lutefisk, maypoles), malignant (honoring "pioneers" and conquistadors) or just plain made up, what else is left that we can build on without stealing?

    About Columbus day - I'm just thankful that my kid is in a majoriy-minority child care center and will probably attend a majority-minority public school later, where I will not have be the person to bring up genocide for the very first time, the way some of the posters have had to.

  6. Does anyone other than government workers and Italian-Americans observe Columbus Day? I honestly didn't know that it was today until I read this blog. No wonder I didn't get any mail! I really think it is a useless holiday, and should be abandoned. Surely the Italian-Americans can chose another day of importance to celebrate as their ethnic day if they wish.--Joy

  7. Not only was today Columbus day it was Thanksgiving Day in Canada. The irony of the date did not escape my notice. I really do believe that we should not eliminate this day at all. Instead of it being a celebration of any kind I think that it should be turned into a day of remembrance for the Americas. We should take the time to reflect on the atrocities that were committed and continue to take place against aboriginal peoples.

    Today I took the time to sit with mu children and explain to them the significance of this day. I think by ignoring it we are sweeping it under the rug as though it never occurred.

  8. Columbus Day seriously needs to crawl off to a remote location and die. It's probably my least favorite 'holiday', closely followed by independence day, which I also have mixed feelings about because the very name makes me remember which privileged group of people that political 'independence' was reserved for.

    Honestly, I think most excitement amongst Italians about Columbus can be chalked up to the fact that whiteness -in the West, at least- is seen as a 'default' category. White Americans aren't thought of as having a "race" or cultural background, in a sense; so many of them feel the need to latch onto any sort of heritage anywhere, even if it's at someone else's expense.

  9. thescience girl said: It's always surprising to me how whites of Mediterranean descent are conveniently "not white" at certain times (I have often heard the argument that Italian =/= white).

    Those of Mediterranean descent were sometimes seen as not white in comparison to Anglo-Saxon Protestant people or Nordic Protestant people. Italians are majority Catholic and have a distinct identity that differed from other Euro-protestant countries.
    When it became necessary for WASPs in America to prevent working class Irish/Italians from joining forces with working class Blacks, the Divide & Conquer strategy was used. The Irish & Italians finally became "white" at the expense of losing their distinct cultural identity and language. You know you have lost your identity when being Irish is reduced to drinking, leprachauns and St. Pats Day. You know you have lost your identity when being Italian is reduced to Columbus day, speaking in a stereotypical Italian mafia accent, and going to Olive Garden.

    Some white folks stress their ethnicity to disassociate themselves from the institutional oppressive policies towards people of color but only up to a point where it doesn't mean giving up their own white privilege.

    Oh yeah.... Columbus day needs to be removed, I don't even get a day off from work.

  10. Columbus day? Keep it, why not? Every Holiday is one that could be thought to represent the oppression of others.
    Even saying Italian=White has problems.
    Does Sicilian=Italian?
    It's just a way of getting away from the tribal mentality to a more nationalistic one.

  11. The only good thing about Columbus Day is that it's another day off from school. He was a rapist, a racist, and a killer. I spit on his memory.

  12. Like Renee, I do not 'celebrate' Columbus day -- I do take the time to talk with my children and my students about the genocide his non-discovery precipitated...

    Thanks for a great post -- love the coverage about the "Killumbus" t-shirt! And the points about the claiming ethnic frenzy are soo on point. You are one brilliant POWP :)

  13. The city of Berkeley officially celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day... like the idea of reclaiming the holiday.

  14. Ever since Ivan Von Sertima wrote They Came Before Columbus, I have felt that it's ridiculous and a lie to "celebrate" Columbus Day. Africans were criss-crossing the Atlantic Ocean for centuries before Columbus even got the idea, a fact I suspect he had heard from the Portugese sailors. So I doubt Columbus thought he was going to fall off the edge of the earth (even though Europe still considered the earth flat). Actually, Columbus never even reached the mainland of the Western Hemisphere and died maintaining that he had landed in India. History tells us he was an arrogant slaver and a rapist of little girls and "led" "his" men to brutalize the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands in horrific and on-going ways. What's to celebrate?


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