Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Transparent Ethnicity

White is not an ethnicity.

My whiteness is a void of cultural identity. Even when I meet other Caucasian individuals, they are often first or second generation Polish or Serbian immigrants. I love this diversity and I am fascinated by the stories these people carry, but when contrasted against my own fallow immigration narrative, these characters are so much more alive and visceral, so much more interesting than my farm boy upbringing.

A few weeks ago I participated in a pickup soccer match in the Chicago suburbs. I came alone, so was lumped into a team who bore red jerseys. I could tell by the variety of accents that most of my teammates were not native to the land of Lincoln, let alone the land of the free and the brave. Even still, I could not pinpoint the specific countries from which my team hailed. The game was great fun, albeit exhausting, and during a break, one of the gentlemen polled the team for their respective countries of origin.

Yup. He's from Iowa, alright.
"Israel." One replied.


"Venezuela," the only lady on the team replied.

"Barcelona, Spain."


The penultimate player, a college student not more than 22 clarified,

"My parents are from Poland, but I was born here in Chicago."

All eyes rested on me. I answered hesitantly,


The group eyed me quizzically, so I explained,

"My family emigrated from Germany and Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, and settled in Iowa. That's where I come from." They all nodded and chuckled.

Little else was said before we retook the field. But it made me realize that, while I have always had a deep respect and fascination with my heritage, these teammates of mine were actually living that heritage, creating the narrative that one day will be shared with their future generations.

The stories I hear from my family are almost fable-like in their generalities. A family with three sons, arrive by boat, settle in St. Louis. The three boys move to Iowa and settle in disparate regions, bearing three distinct lines of Walljaspers that can still be traced today. Or on my mothers side of the family, a sixteen year old boy, fleeing conscription into nineteenth century German military dominance, makes his way to the Midwest and begins a small farm that is still in our family today. My family knows little about these characters, but as personal parables, they tell a story that helps shape my identity.

Thanks, Crayola, for clearing that up.

As a six foot, five inch tall Caucasian who doesn't hold a tan, yet doesn't bear the pearly freckled skin of his minority Irish forebears, I lack the immediate external connection to my ethnicity that many of the more recent immigrants have. Nor does my accent reveal any heritage, save the general Midwest drawl that sneaks into my conversation from time to time. While those who are prominently in a minority may view my mundane exterior as a shelter from persecution and bigotry, I long for a more immediate connection to my heritage, and am proud of where my family came from. I don't mean to dismiss any tribulations that minorities face in today's society. I merely envy their rich cultural heritage.

My wife and I regularly shop at Valli Foods, a market that is always teaming with ethnic diversity. I often love to stand in the middle of the produce section, taking in the cacophonous din of screeching carts, plastic bags, and several languages, all blurring together in a symphony of international intermingling. I can observe more diverse culture in one shopping trip to Valli's that I saw in my first 20 years of life. Not only are we privy to the recipes and exotic ingredients that are purchased by Chicagoans of Middle Eastern, European, and Asian lineage,  we also see the interpersonal relationships of husbands with wives, children with mothers, and young couples. We see cultures collide as we all wait for our number to be called at the deli and at every narrow aisle interaction. This market is one of the most fascinating places to observe people. Yet, at times, I feel that I am not contributing anything interesting to the conversation. As a member of the demographic majority, My cultural narrative is washed out by the milquetoast dilution of my family over hundreds of years. A middle class white male in the Midwest is about as interesting as a scoop of vanilla at Baskin-Robbins.

In the end, I have to come to terms with the fact that, despite my own cultural connections, there is more to me than merely my initial ethnic calling card. Just as we are taught to look past the racial stereotypes of every other culture, I hope that when I am lucky enough to be enveloped in the beautiful diversity that is Chicago, I am afforded the same curiosity and respect that I endeavor to put forth.


1 comment:

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