Thursday, September 10, 2009

Race and "All-American Culture"

I went to a talk about race in America today. This talk was held in light of Sotomayor's recent confirmation as well as Henry Louis Gates' recent arrest, begging the following question: Can America ever be post-racial? I'll admit, this talk filled me with a multitude of questions, especially when considering the impact...

I knew that, even today, we still face problems with race in our society. In a way, I see it as an identity crisis. We don't know how to identify ourselves (by race, ethnicity, culture, and how do we define race anyway? By continent of origin or shade of skin?) or each other (which term is less offensive? Black or African American?). Even if we do identify strongly with a certain culture, what are the ramifications of that? For example, should we choose to name our child a certain name or dress in a different fashion, will we be penalized by a greater society who views anything other than white, Anglo and Protestant as lower class?

If I had to fill out race or ethnicity on a government form or standardized test, I would choose "white". That is what society has told me to pick. Yet, if you ask me for my ethnicity, I will say Italian-American. For me, that is true. I have a parent who was born on the Italian peninsula and a grandparent who, to my knowledge, has never left. I also grew up around Italian American culture and, for a child with the blood in her veins, it made sense for me to claim that as my culture as well. Yet, even I went through a cultural identity crisis.

Number one, I'm not full Italian. I'm not even half Italian. Ethnically, I'm a quarter. Yet, because of all I have mentioned, I identify with it very strongly, even more when I'm away from home. Even so, I've had people raise their eyebrows at me and question why I'd identify if the only full-blood relative I can claim is a grandparent. While that hasn't been especially problematic, it seems strange to different people. I wonder how that works if you're a quarter of another race. How do you identify?

Number two, I don't look like the ideal Italian. When people consider Italian, they usually think thick, dark hair (that's everywhere), dark eyes, and very dark skin. While my hair is certainly dark, it isn't thick and while my eyes, brows and lashes are very dark, my skin is fair. As a result, while other Italians will believe me when I state my heritage, most non-Italians will not because "you're too white!" It does smack of ignorance, especially when you consider that northern Italians tend to be lighter (and I am of Tuscan descent), that there are blond Sicilian, Neapolitan, and Calabrese Italians, and that many Italian Americans are not full blooded anyway. At the same time, it shows that, in many people's eyes, race and ethnicity relate to skin color. What happens when that deviates? Could you identify as African American if your parents are from South Africa, but your skin is white, as a result of earlier, European origins?

Number 3, Southern Europeans are not immune to the influence of white, Anglo, Protestant culture. Even today, even though we're now considered "white" (not a century ago), there has always been the expectation of assimilation. Slurs against Italian Americans such as "guinea" or "Guido" no longer have the effect that they once did but stereotypes still follow those who "act Italian". For example, the Mafia stereotype. If you are Italian and proud of it, especially through your father's side, people always (hopefully, jokingly) assume you have Mafia ancestry and that they shouldn't slight you or your uncle will come after them with a hubcap or something (and some of us will admit to joking about it, however imprudent that was when we were younger and not as bright). Or, you choose to name your kid a name like Dante, Dominic, Maria, Antonio, and people make comments about how the kid will grow up to be a gangster (because criminals obviously don't have names like Johnny or Lisa...oh, wait....). Or, if your guy friends are Italian, people make comments like, "Be careful, Italian boys are so sketchy!" ( I'm pretty sure sketchiness, as well as nobility of character, are equal opportunity qualities, thus there is no logic behind that statement). How many people are assumed to be criminals because of their ethnicity? How many are told that their cultural practices are inferior because they're not north-west European in origin? How many are told that they aren't worthy of dating someone because of a stereotype that marks them forever?

This is how I see the issue of race, as an Italian American. Yet, because I'm white, I'm still one of the privileged groups. I'm so curious now. For all our talk about how it doesn't or shouldn't matter, if it really did not, all these issues would be moot. Now, how do we solve this?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Katie. I appreciate your thoughts around this subject. I am actually on the other side of your personal example of identifying as an Italian. I was adopted in southern Illinois and I was originally promised to a Caucasian couple before I was born. Once I entered the world with a less than pink complexion and ethnic facial features the couple declined my adoption. The adoption agency then reclassified me as African American. I was adopted by an African American couple shortly after. Recently I have discovered through DNA testing that I am not African American at all, but instead most of my DNA is found in Emilia Romagna Italy, Norway and Sicily. Now because of the culture in which I was raised I still get challenged by people when I identify as an Italian American although science has proven I am not black. There have been times where I have had to actually give examples of Italians such as Michela Musolino as proof that not all Italians look like Stallone. Therefore, you and I share a very similar experiences just on different sides of the color line.