I wrote this paper for my Intro to Native American Studies class. Our assignment was to write 3-4 pages in which you discuss the primary ways you think about your own ethnic identity. This was a difficult, confusing, and sometimes a painful paper to write, but I think it’s one of the most valuable assignments I’ve had in my three years of university.
The first nouns I use to identify myself are relational: sister, friend, teacher, coworker, student, daughter, granddaughter, and niece. The next are geographical: Portlander, Oregonian, Pacific Northwestern-er, American. Those labels are the most important; everything else is irrelevant without my relationships with people and places, because those people and places helped make the rest of it possible. The remainder of the list: early-20s middle-class straight woman, feminist, First-Amendment fan, reader, writer, food-obsessed cook/baker, hiker, camper, artist and painter. If I even think of race or ethnicity as among my identities, the label white pops up only at the end of my list, and it feels out of place and uncomfortable. I don’t know how being white has effected all of my other nouns.
I am aware of the privileges that have been easily available to me coming from a middle-class (perhaps upper-middle-class?) family. My parents are able to pay my Portland State tuition without financial aid. I got to study abroad at Oxford University in England this summer—without scholarship. As kids, my brother and I got to go to summer camps, play musical instruments, and take theatre classes. If I had not gone to summer camp, I would not have ended up a camp counselor, which would mean I would not have been hired a year later to facilitate the ropes course and climbing wall at my summer camp—and without all that experience working with children professionally at such a young age, I would not now be a head teacher at an after-school program at only 21 years old.
There are limits to my parents’ funds, of course. Once I arrived in England, anything beyond tuition and plane fare was at my own expense; I will have to fund any other trips abroad I wish to take; and for the past few terms I’ve been buying my own schoolbooks. But these are limits, and in no way hardships. Limits are far outweighed by the heaviness of the privileges I have been granted through luck, not merit. I am passionate about my studies—literature, history, feminism, and geography. But there are countless other students just as passionate, who would not have been able to go to Oxford even with every scholarship available to them. A part of me thinks that these students deserve an Oxford education far more than I do. Then I remember that, among the 40 or so American college kids in my study-abroad program, I could tell from the way I dressed and my stinginess with money that I made up the bottom of the economic ladder.
A first-generation college student deserves an Oxford education—and so do I, coming from a family in which almost every person—man and woman—has been college-educated for at least four generations, on both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family. Everyone who is academically passionate should be afforded opportunities like the ones I got this summer, regardless of income level, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or any other factor.
My family rarely discusses ethnicity. It comes up occasionally, in emotionally-intense anecdotes that we mostly try to forget. I was in fourth grade in my earliest memory of being aware that I was white. My class was reading a novel called Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, in which a Christian family helps a Jewish family escape Nazi violence. Lowry’s book was my first introduction to the Holocaust. By the time I was nine I had known for several years about my family’s German heritage. In the middle of reading that novel I asked my mother, “Were our ancestors Nazis?” She was understandably taken aback by the question; when she inhaled she looked like she’d taken in too much air and was nearly choking on her own breath. “They might have been,” she said. “Some of them probably were.” She didn’t tell me “I don’t know” or “I hope not.” She may as well have said “yes.”
Two years later I would read a novel that took place in Nazi death camps, the title of which I’ve lost but the story and characters I will never forget. I was a sophomore in high school when I read Elie Wiesel’s Night. I was a student at Arts and Communication Magnet Academy, a public arts magnet school in Beaverton, Oregon—a small (600-student) school that had a significant Jewish student population. By then I had met my best friend Sam—still my closest friend and almost like a brother to me—who is Jewish both culturally and religiously. Another good friend, JoAnna (with whom I am still close today), comes from a family that is no longer religiously Jewish, but has a grandmother who was a survivor of Auschwitz. For twelve years (over half my young life) I have been haunted by the knowledge that my ancestors harmed and probably murdered the ancestors of people I love. In a life-or-death emergency I believe that I would give my life to protect Sam’s, but my great-great-uncles and great-great-aunts would probably have killed him.
Other images of my family’s whiteness pop up in shorter anecdotes that are in their own way just as emotionally-charged. My maternal grandmother was in nursing school here in Oregon in the early 1940s; one day she was chatting with two of her fellow nursing students, and the next day they did not show up for class…or the next day…or for the next few terms. Like other Japanese-Americans, my grandma’s friends had been shipped east from Portland to the internment camps. My grandma, whose ancestors were Welsh and Scottish, was safe from racial discrimination. Her husband was a second-generation German immigrant. Although his parents’ homeland was just as much a enemy of America as Japan was during World War II, my grandfather’s pale skin and blue eyes—his whiteness—kept him safe. There were no internment camps for German-Americans.
At least one of my maternal great-grandmothers was a blatant bigot (I can’t remember which great-grandmother, as all my great-grandparents and both my grandfathers were dead long before I was born). This woman, who loved her own children and grandchildren dearly, called unshelled Brazil nuts “nigger toes,” and referred to Jewish-owned businesses as “Jew stores.” She hated Catholics, too. The only time she came anywhere close to loving any non-whites or non-Protestants was when the Blazers won the national championship in1977; she was an avid basketball fan.
On my dad’s side of the family, race was experienced a little differently. My paternal grandmother’s father was the only judge in Gunnison, Colorado. At least once he found a cross burning on his family’s front lawn after he had ruled in favor of a black defendant…although the way my paternal grandmother tells the story implies that this was not the only incident in which her father’s progressive views on race were challenged by his neighbors.
Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers were second-generation immigrants (from Germany and Lithuania respectively), but both my maternal and paternal grandmothers’ families have been American citizens for countless generations. Both families were Protestant, and both were middle-class and college-educated for many generations. Neither family suffered much during the Depression that tore apart so many other American families. The ancestors of both my grandmothers came to America long, long ago from the British Isles—in some branches of the family perhaps as far back as the Mayflower. Considering how long those branches of my family have been living in the United States, it is possible—probable, even—that I am related to people who directly harmed Native Americans, forced them away from their homes, killed them…
But what do I do with all this history, and the mysteries of who my great-great-grandparents, and their parents and grandparents, really were? I try my best to avoid rhetorical questions in my writing and my speech. I ask this question because it is not rhetorical; I really don’t know the answer. I am ashamed and angry at my maternal great-grandmother’s bigotry, and I am proud of my paternal great-grandfather the judge for favoring justice and equality over racism. I don’t know in what ways their memories are carried out in me, my brother, and my cousins—their twenty-first century legacies.
I personally believe that people are born with certain talents that may be nourished, admired…or ignored and left unappreciated and undervalued. Some people are born great storytellers and communicators, others are visual artists as soon as they can hold a pen, and others have a head for numbers and linear step-by-step tasks. While people are born with talents, I believe that no one is born a bigot. I believe that cruelty can only be taught. I have no proof, except this: if people can be born evil, that there is little hope for humankind to rid itself of hatred and violence. But if cruelty is something that is taught by a fearful parent to a fearful child, by an angry bully to a trembling victim, then there is hope. If all of us are born without hate in our bones, if it is something that can only be taught, then we can also teach the opposite of hate.
We must teach students the darkest aspects of human history, and be aware of the racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia that still surrounds us. Although the United States has come a long way in fighting bigotry, there is still so far to go. Too many white people today—especially straight white men—mistakenly see America as an enlightened society of equals. Many people, particularly of my generation, take for granted the achievements of the civil rights movements and the women’s movements. What they do not realize is that these movements are not yet over. Although I hope to live another sixty years at least, I do not expect the fight against bigotry to be won in my lifetime, or even if the lifetime of my future grandchildren.
That is one of the many reasons that I teach children, and why I hope to earn a master’s degree in social work or education in a few years. Working with young people is one of the most direct ways of teaching others kindness, forgiveness, generosity, and honesty—and of continuing to develop those values in myself.