Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ethnicity of White in America

“Do you think of yourself as ethnic?” I like to ask people, and I’ll ask you, my blog readers, as well.
I remember a conversation with my aunt Josephine, my father’s sister.  She and my husband Ronald were going round and round about ethnicity and race. Both talkers, both Cancerians born three generations apart but sharing birthdays within a couple days of one another, they loved a good debate. Aunt Josephine told the story of how, in the 1960s, she was turned down for a better position at the New York State Department of Education after the (white) man interviewing her asked why her father hadn’t changed their last name to something less ethnic sounding.
“You know,” Ronald said. “A lot of people don’t consider Italians to be white. That’s why you had a hard time.”
“That’s not true,” Aunt Josephine said. “We’re white. It’s the Sicilian’s who aren’t.”
(The following is an excerpt from my essay “Keep Hope Alive”)
I grew up in an era that embodied the civil rights movement and the fight for women’s rights. I lived through the fire hosing of black protesters in the South, watching it from afar in our parlor in Albany, New York, and the push to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Yet I felt equality was more an ideal than a reality. I experienced sexism, male managers more interested in picking me up than in the skills I brought to the job when I first entered the workforce after college.  I witnessed racism especially after meeting my husband who is African-American. I saw the inequality between classes, too, as a child of one of the poor families living in a suburb outside Albany.
I don’t feel white. I never have. I’ve always thought of myself as other, an outsider. My father was a first generation Italian-American who didn’t speak English until he attended St. Anthony’s Catholic School in downtown Albany. My mother was a protestant war bride from Sydney, Australia where my father was stationed during World War II. Neither one graduated from high school. As a child I felt on the fringe of mainstream white America, far afield from the clapboard houses with white picket fences shown on TV with mothers in starched aprons, high heels, and pearl necklaces, and fathers coming home after work in suits and ties, briefcases in hand.
In my house a boomerang hung over the kitchen threshold and a black plaster aborigine sat on the knickknack shelf in the parlor. The Infant of Prague statue, dressed in red and cream finery, stood at the center of my dresser top, a stuffed koala bear, made from real koala fur, next to it.
Ma wore housedresses and vinyl slippers and Dad came home with shirts soiled with newspaper print from handling bundles of papers in the mailroom where he worked. His face always had a five o’clock shadow, the whiskers making him look swarthy. He carried the afternoon newspaper, which he would read in its entirety that evening, folded under his arm.  He washed up and shaved a second time each day before coming to the dinner table.
Dad spent his weekends tinkering with the engine of the car he bought used and that he hoped to keep running for as many years as possible. Ma read novels, watched old movies and yelled at the kids in the neighborhood. “I’ll cut your bloody head off if you do that again,” she said when one boy threw dirt at the mutt we kept chained in the backyard. The police arrived soon after because the boy’s mother thought Ma meant it.
I looked different than the little children at the feet of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Christ in the picture on the wall of my Sunday school classroom. I had skin as white as snow, but my dark hair and amber eyes made me look foreign in comparison.
My parents were older than the parents of my schoolmates. Most people could not pronounce my last name.
We ate pasta and Italian bread to satisfy Dad or boiled dinners like ham and cabbage to please Ma’s palate.  I liked both with equal zeal. When I heard the neighbor tell my mother she grew up calling Italian bread “WOP bread,” I felt the same shame I felt when I heard other kids call Brazil nuts “nigger toes.” Even if I did not know what the words meant, I could hear how unclean the words were in the way they were spoken, spit out with disgust. When Ma lost her temper, she often said Italians were barbarians, trying to hurt and diminish Dad.  I don’t know if she understood how it made me feel, as if I were not as worthy as white children.
As an adult I learned my skin color afforded me certain invisible privileges in spite of ethnicity or class after I met my husband Ronald and witnessed how easily I blended into white society while he could not, or how we could not blend in when we were together. Our relationship, our marriage and our children indelibly sealed my sense of otherness in a white America.

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