Get Ethnic

When you say your ethnicity is American, there is no American ethnicity. You had to throw away your ethnicity to become American. That’s what it means. That’s what it means. You give up who you are to become American. And you can pretend that it’s OK because you’re white, when we give up who we are to become American we know that we’re dying from it. You’re dying from it too but you don’t know it necessarily. Get ethnic, you know.

Victor Lewis in The Color of Fear.

What Victor Lewis says about the conflation of nationality, ethnicity, and whiteness (beginning at 3:36 in the clip above) is one of his many insights in The Color of Fear, a documentary featuring men of different races and ethnic backgrounds speaking candidly about race and racism. Here he’s responding to another participant, a white man, who has asserted that he is simply an American, without any ethnic distinction, and who wonders why the men of color can’t, or won’t, say the same about themselves.

What Victor says about how a person becomes American is important for the way he shows how ethnic particularity is incompatible with being white. Ethnicity and cultural particularities have to be shed – thrown away – in order to attain the promises of whiteness and, just as importantly, to distance one’s self from racial blackness on the other end of our racial hierarchy. This is what it means to be American, something Victor’s antagonist hasn’t been able to see because he’s lived his entire life within the assumptions of American whiteness.

Just as important – perhaps more – is Victor’s claim that those, like himself, risk life itself in the pursuit of American-ness. Holding onto one’s particularities is a life-saving act within a society whose demand for assimilation may very well include your personal demise.

All of this points to a question which Victor alludes to with anger and fatigue when he says, “Get ethnic, you know.” The question, I think, goes something like this: What are white people to do after realizing our conflation of nationality, ethnicity, and race are neither an accurate reflection of reality nor a neutral state of being? Or: Can white people, having woken up to the fact of their whiteness, reclaim their particularities that were long ago thrown away?

This is what I take Victor to be responding to. “Get ethnic” is a demand to take steps away from the malicious generalities of racial whiteness to something more humane, like the uniqueness of ethnicity. This strategy is somewhat common among those who think carefully about race and whiteness. The idea is that if I, a white person, can get in touch with the long-forgotten aspects of my cultural and ethnic past, I have a better shot of moving beyond my default to whiteness- a default that isn’t neutral, which has warped my understanding of myself and others. Victor’s demand, though it sounds somewhat sarcastic, is actually quite gracious. He’s offering the white man an escape route from his whiteness

But can this actually work? For as often as I’ve heard white people encouraged to get in touch with our ethnicity – often by other thoughtful white people – I’ve never actually seen a white person stop being white by reverting back to their ethnicity or, more likely, multiple ethnic backgrounds. As good as it might be to maintain a connection to one’s history, that connection itself cannot provide a strong enough lived experience to counteract the racialized society through which we’re constantly feeling our way.

If I can be my own case study to make this point, what would it look like to reclaim my ethnic backgrounds? Which would I choose? German? Swedish? What about the parts of my family that spent generations in the American South? And which specific aspects of these different regions and cultures should I choose from? Would I have to learn each of the languages of my ancestors? Would I need to travel to each of these places and spend significant time living there?

It seems to me that any attempt by a white person to replace whiteness with a discarded past ends up a sort of strange act of reverse cultural appropriation.

This isn’t only a problem for those of us who currently perceive ourselves as white. As Victor points out, whiteness is attainable for some – not him – who are willing to shed generations of particularities. There are, for example, many American immigrants who today are perceived as foreign or other but whose children or grandchildren will have assimilated to whiteness. The price, of course, will be the intentional forgetting of what had been essential to their immigrant ancestors.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with holding onto or rediscovering parts of one’s ethnic or cultural uniqueness. We just shouldn’t confuse those acts as being enough to escape the constrictions of whiteness. That’s simply not how race has ever worked in America.

Is their an alternative, or are we left to understand that all those who can assimilate to white American-ness inevitably will? For me, this is the most important question. Another way to ask it: Is there anything strong enough to subvert the deforming power of race? Ethnicity, I’m claiming, is not strong enough, not as generations are shaped by this racialized society.

I think there is another possibility. It has to do with land and the way people are formed by place. I hope to explore this in a future book, though for now I’d best focus on finishing this first one

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