My Flag is Cooler than Yours, Part 2

Jessie and I argue. We usually run semantic circles around each other until we come to the realization that our views aren’t that different. So, we decided to put these debates into written and largely unedited form and publish them, because… #ideasandstuff. One of us begins with a question, and we go from there until a conclusion (or new question) is reached. We’ll see how this goes the first time around, and then we’ll probably come up with a witty/ironic/thematic name for it. This will be divided into 2 posts.

Click here for Part 1.

Steve D: Agreed, the term ‘exotic’ does sound… dehumanizing. I think the idea that non-Anglo-Saxon people are somehow different, or even out of place, is sort of the crux of this entire idea of ethnic identity within an American national culture. Even the term “person of color” – the most politically correct term we have to discuss people of different outward appearances – feels like Otherness; persons of color vs… what? Persons not-of-color? So, white people – even though it is intended to convey a more inclusive and complex idea about ethnicity and diversity. (Side note: I found this interesting article from NPR about the history of the term:

I am definitely not asserting that we should identify ourselves and each other (and our respective ethnicities) by outward appearances alone. That brings up a steaming heap of issues dealing with language and race. (See above.) So let’s get back to self-identification.

People generally ask me about my heritage because I’m a fair-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed man with an Italian last name. This is sometimes followed by a more discerning question like, was my family from northern Italy, and upon my refute: surprise. I think your sister being less POC than you is an interesting question, since most people would likely assume she’s white. What option does she choose for the census? That takes us back to self-identity, as opposed to external appearances.

Sure, my family has some recipes that have come down through the generations, but those don’t qualify to me as “authentically” German, or Italian, or Irish. To me, it’s kind of like the idea of the “in group”. Would I feel more at home with a family from Naples because we happen to share a love for pasta and garlic? It might be comforting, but is there any tangible relationship there because of ostensibly shared heritage? Not really. I like to drink Irish whiskey and Scotch – does that validate my Irish heritage, or prove that somewhere along my ancestral line, there was a person from the Highlands? No. Having a common taste for food doesn’t make us different. It just makes us human.

But I think that’s sort of the point I’m trying to drive at. Culture and language, for all intents and purposes, is learned. I don’t think there is anything that makes me inherently Italian or Italian-American, or American for that matter. If ethnicity is defined by “people who identify with each other based on common ancestral, social, cultural or national experience” (according to Wikipedia), than most of what we consider ethnicity is based on mutually shared commonalities with a group of people. I definitely agree that it’s probably more of a sliding scale than an either-or situation. And yes, this discussion is likely unique to the US, and select other countries with histories of diverse immigrant populations.

I think we have had vastly different experiences with our ethnic heritage. But I think it is something that is phased out with each successive generation. My great-grandfather’s generation spoke mostly Italian, but my grandfather and his sister and cousins spoke English, because they were raised in the US. How many of your cousins will continue to speak Spanish with their children? Do you intend to teach your hypothetical children Spanish?

Jessie G: We traveled a bit into murky waters away from the initial topic, so back to self-identity we go. Is it strange that I had to ask my sister how she identifies? She said she always replies Maryland, our home state, when people ask, but puts Hispanic and Other (Greek) for the census. She identifies generally as an American though, which leads me to believe that skin tone must have a bigger impact than I thought.

She told me she’s only ever asked when people see her last name, whereas I am asked when people see my face. I don’t mind, and it definitely gives me a topic to fill a conversational void if there ever is one at work, but that’s something worth pointing out. Clarification: she lives in a predominately Hispanic area, works in-person with customers,  and relates more closely to your experiences than mine. External appearances help create self-identity, so we can’t move away from it entirely.

You talk of tangible relationships and ‘ostensibly shared heritages’,  but to my mind that has little to do with self identity. It’s the first part of the word – Self. It’s not about outward appearances and physical bonds so much as how you, the self in question, feel. It’s not about comfort in a situation, it’s about being a part of something, in lots of ways, some obvious, most not. I feel Mexican and Greek and American, especially when I’m around family or people who share those cultures, but also when I’m completely alone. I could probably wave away common taste in food and alcohol as being human, and dismiss culture as being learned, but that doesn’t change how I intrinsically identify. You said “I don’t think there is anything that makes me inherently Italian or Italian-American, or American for that matter.” Staying away from genetics, I say there doesn’t need to be anything making you Italian or Italian-American, or American, because you already are all those things. Who cares what the commonalities are, they’re there, no validation or authentication needed. You want to go by American? Awesome – I rock the red, white, and blue too. Feeling connected to  people is always of the good. United is how we thrive.

The issue, to my way of the thinking, lies not in cherishing common ground, however little of it there is, but in worshiping  it to the point of demonizing those that that don’t share it. Or even in ignoring differences in an effort to make your way the only way. Intolerance is evil in all forms, from outright hatred and condemnation to segregation and whitewashing.

And again, at the end, we come back to language. On the Greek side, none of my cousins have taught their kids Greek and most of them don’t speak it themselves. On the Mexican, it’s a mixed bag, mostly because we’re all too young to have kids yet, so it’s to be determined. For myself? I want to learn more Spanish. I would love to be fluent and if I did reproduce, yes, I would hope to raise my kids bilingual. But why Spanish and not Greek? When it comes down to it, I identify more with that side – the culture, the cuisine, the religion. I don’t think less of that connection just because I know that when taken apart and dissected all it displays is common ancestral, social, cultural or national experience. It’s my self and that’s how I identify.

Do you feel like something has to ‘make’ you German, or Italian, or Irish for you to claim that before -American? What would that even be?

Interesting tidbit semi-related: Gina Rodriguez’ Golden Globe Speech

SD: Not really. My point is that self-identity is mostly a construct that we build around ourselves and our in-group. It’s interesting to me that you point out the self piece of self-identity – “It’s not about outward appearances and physical bonds so much as how you, the self in question, feel” – as if self-identity exists in a vacuum. I don’t think it can. As you so succinctly put: “it’s about being a part of something, in lots of ways”. I don’t think ethnicity and culture exist without an in-group, and the behaviors, speech patterns, and socio-cultural-historical experiences of that in-group come to define individual self-identity. I think we place those labels on ourselves based on mutually shared experiences with other people, and those people become our in-group. I guess to me, culture, ethnicity, and self-identity follow the in-group, and not vice versa.

I’d also like to address your point about genetics helping to identify the self. It’s true there are more genetic similarities between people from Mexico than, say, between you and I. But how far back in genetic time do you have to go in order to find the origin of your “people”? Do you only date your genetics back to your ancestors who came to the US from Mexico? Or to the influx of Spanish-European blood into Central and South America beginning in the 16th century? Or why not all the way back to the peoples who migrated across the Bering Strait some tens of thousands of years ago? Ultimately, any line we choose to draw as to how to define an “in-group”, even a genetic one, is arbitrary. I think the idea that we share some sort of intrinsic identity with people of relatively similar genetic material is faulty at best.

Yes, self-identity is built out of culture, and shared history, and even physical similarities, but all of those aspects are viewed in relation to the in-group, whoever that may be.

JG: I’m going to start with your second point and jump about: You asked how far back in genetic time I personally went to find the origin of which group I identify with, and that’s my answer: Gotta be of the living, friend. I claim the heritage of my grandparents who I grew up around, maybe because that established a tangible link from a young age. And I mean, yeah, the line to define an in-group is always going to be just as arbitrary as self identity itself is – up to each individual’s discretion. That being said, I do think that similar genetic makeup is important in this regard because of correlation, not causation; you follow in the footsteps of the parents who raised you, cared for you, whatever because they are your first real view of how to behave as you grow, and usually (not always) you share genes with those caregivers. And those behaviors and morals help shove you into a certain group and identity.

And once again we argue semantics. I rather do think self identity can exist in a vacuum; I just don’t think it is created there. Because I totally agree that, at the beginning, in-group characteristics and experiences create self identity, but I think once it’s there, that label we brand our own hide with, it is stuck there. Even if the individual leaves the in-group, they still carry on those same learned behaviors, speech patterns, traditions, etc. If you moved to a different country tomorrow, would you no longer call yourself an American?

“Self-identity is built out of culture, and shared history, and even physical similarities, but all of those aspects are viewed in relation to the in-group, whoever that may be.” I agree, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that if one particular in-group disappears, all people who once identified that way immediately change for a different in-group. I don’t think it is that elastic. I mean, they (or more likely their descendants) eventually assimilate, that’s true, but you know, not right away.

Bringing everything full circle here, way back to the start of this conversation: I don’t think these connections are fabricated because we like to day dream and tell epic stories of our own existence. I think they’re developed into our self image because it’s impossible to not try to feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself especially when it surrounds you in your day to day. As for whether or not they should play a role in how we conduct our lives? Well, I guess I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve met someone who wasn’t in some way affected by their ethnic identity, even if it’s just a small unspoken way.

SD: I like your point about the Living (dramatic effect). I think that’s a fairly solid line to draw in terms of how you relate your culture. But does that relationship change as older generations die off? Is the identity of the in-group still a sliding scale based on who is actually still in the in-group? I suppose it would have to be. That makes culture and identity much more fluid than what we were initially discussing. For instance, how much of your Mexican identity is left after your grandparents pass? Is it then up to each successive generation to carry on that legacy of identity? That’s more of a rhetorical question, but I think this is leading us to a relatively similar place.

To your second point, I don’t think an in-group ever just “disappears”, except in the tragic event of war or genocide. I agree with you that it is always fluid, so as people “leave” the in-group (ideally by natural death), more people are brought in, changing the identity incrementally until eventually, after however many generations, it appears to be a brand new identity. Anyway, I think we’ve gone too broad-stroke again. My bad.

Don’t get me wrong, I love feeling the sense of shared shared history and understanding I get from spending time with extended family, particularly my dad’s Italian side. We do have an identity. But it has changed as my generation (myself, my sister, and our two cousins), has grown into adulthood. My dad and aunts and their cousins all see themselves as Italian-Americans from New Jersey or NYC. But my cousins grew up in the suburbs of North Jersey; my sister and I in Maryland. We didn’t come up in the “old neighborhood” in Harlem where my grandfather was raised, sharing a house with some of his cousins, while the rest lived within a few blocks. The New York-immigrant-Italian identity has dissipated.

To be honest, I think my internal battle over my ethnic identity originates from the fact that my grandfather is and always has been my only connection to the immigrant generation of his parents. And he never spoke Italian. I’ve even seen pictures of him around age 22, surrounded by friends and cousins who were all dark-haired, dark-eyed Italians from his neighborhood, while he has light skin and blue eyes, because his mother was from Ireland.

You’re right. We do want to feel like part of a larger group, family, community – our tribe. I think the key difference is that I was not surrounded by that identity in my day-to-day life. Is Marylander an ethnicity? We share that at least.

JG: Much to my chagrin, I agree wholeheartedly with your first paragraph, perhaps because you so kindly agreed with me first. What are you doing?? No, but in all seriousness I like the image of a sliding scale in determining things that actively change like identity. And you sited it as a rhetorical question but I think it’s interesting to consider identity as a part of a legacy left. I usually think of legacy more in turns of tangible things like a collection of work.

But I suppose that by ‘disappears’ I meant a lot more gradually than in the case of tragedy; closer to a gentle assimilation into a new in-group as opposed to a violent cutting off from the past… Broad-stoke is rather the way all our discussions go, don’t you think?

It’s  natural; your family has been here in the United States longer, assimilated more. I think one of us brought this up before: we’re on different legs of the journey from one in-group to another. And if you really want to get into it, I think a lot of people I grew up with and now the people we work with actually identify with the county they were raised in, getting a little more specific than just our shared state.

Forget it. I now plan on going by Earthling.

Until our next debate/rant…

7 thoughts on “My Flag is Cooler than Yours, Part 2

  1. I grew up in the Midwest in the 1950s…everyone tried hard NOT to have an ethnic identity. So I move to New York for college and everyone wants to know: what are you? We’re talking great- and great-great and in some lines even farther back generations here. My surname is Spanish, but I’m a mixture, a big mixture. I live in a Dominican neighborhood and people do stop me to ask me questions in Spanish. But I don’t speak Spanish; I don’t speak German, I don’t speak Dutch. So what am I?
    I’ve never successfully answered that question. I do think about it though.

    1. An American with an interesting family history? 🙂 I think it’s interesting how your identity can shift depending on where you are in life. When I left suburban Maryland to go to college in West Virginia, most of my friends were from rural WV or PA. So I became the affluent city kid from Baltimore, because nobody had heard of my hometown. And it changed the way I perceived Maryland and my childhood there. My identity became tied to Baltimore, and it remains so.

      1. That’s a good point. I moved around as a child, so I don’t have any identity with that. But I would certainly say that I’m a New Yorker, having lived here all of my adult life (also moving around, but somehow not with the same effect).

      2. Yes, I imagine it’s a much different story if you’ve moved frequently. New Yorker is certainly a large identity. Do you think you identify with any of the boroughs or areas where you’ve lived, or is it just New York City?

        I was the only one of my friends to leave Maryland for college (and then again for grad school), and now we’re all based in or around Baltimore. It is very much “the city” for us. I think people in general like feeling like part of a larger urban culture, but that might be my East Coast bias, what with our Boston-Richmond megalopolis.

      3. Hmm…I guess I identify with Manhattan most, as, except for a short stint in Brooklyn (way way way before it was hip), I’ve always lived on the West Side (although I keep moving uptown further…next stop, the Bronx).
        I do think if people have roots somewhere they want to go back as adults. Both of my children, after living in other large cities for college, want to be in NYC (my older one even moved back into the neighborhood where she spent her childhood). The younger one had always insisted she wanted to leave, but…no delis open down the street at midnight to get a BLT? No 24 hour public transportation? And this place calls itself a city? Well, she hopes to get a job here after college.
        I have no identification with Maryland, even though I lived for a time growing up in both Bowie and Towson, and graduated from Towson High School.

      4. Ah Towson. Another Maryland suburb that is technically its own city, but really, is mostly seen as part of the “Greater Baltimore Area”.

        And yes, “going back home” as an adult seems to be a theme after college/jobs/traveling in other cities or regions. I think it provides a level of familiarity. It’s where the family is, or your friends, or it just feels more comfortable, as if the city itself has its own character that is not easily replicated elsewhere (I actually think this is true, in a way).

        Although, a late-night deli sounds amazing 🙂 If Baltimore has one, I have yet to find it.

      5. Our neighborhood is the land of 24-hour delis. You can also get your hair attended to for almost 24 hours a day, the barbershops and hair salons being social centers as well as businesses…

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