I remember my parents taking me to the Buster Brown Shoe Store when I was little, maybe four or five. It was in downtown Albany, probably on or near Central Avenue, and I’m not sure why they brought me there as usually my shoes were bought at the nearest big box discount store, not Wal-Mart back then, but similar.
The shoes we bought were Mary Jane’s, and they were for Easter. The salesman walked behind the counter to ring up the shoes, and he told me I could come on back and choose a plastic egg with pastel beads inside of it from the glass case beneath the counter.
I squealed, ran behind the counter, pulled out an egg with a clear top and blue bottom, and clutched it to my chest. My excitement and urgent determination made the salesman laugh, and I felt my cheeks warm, embarrassed that I had shared my emotions with a stranger.
Today, I’m that same person, shy of temperament but teeming with emotion. I can’t help but communicate it. When I speak or write about race, culture, injustice, and the human condition, I feel the urgency, and I want to share it in spite of my fear of strangers. Afterwards I feel different emotions: remorse for burdening others with our sometimes painful experiences; sadness that I cannot reach more people; hope that I’ve opened the eyes of even one person; frustration that change is slow; anxiety that I’ve revealed too much; desire for solitude; longing for connection; doubt feeding my insecurities; and fear roiling my insides.
If I listened to my fears, I would not have accomplished one thing in life. They scream at me. They predict failure, danger, and death. I cover my ears, try to calm my breathing, focus only on the next moment in time, and keep going.
I used to tell myself that I could do anything temporarily, for seconds, then minutes, then longer, and that helped keep me going, too. I keep my goals in site: go to college even though neither parent graduated high school; don’t go back home where I feel abandoned and unloved; meet and marry a man whose race is different from mine and know this fact will cause many people to question my sanity, directly impact our life through racism (affecting our economic and quality of life opportunities), and socially spurn us; have children when others express the irresponsibility of bringing mixed race children into a racist society; choose to leave the comfort of academia and move into the corporate world to grow my career, contribute substantially to the family finances, and become well-known in my field as an expert, leader, and trainer; speak up and fight when injustice, racist actions, or prejudice affects our family or others; choose to be dissatisfied with middle-age weight gain, lose 50 pounds, and keep it off for over ten years; start a master’s degree at 45 and finish a second one at 53; move to another state where we know no one; and start a blog that relies on personal experience to talk about race, gender, and culture.
Every person has stories of triumph, failure, and moving through fear to obtain goals. I love hearing people’s stories. Usually within a short time of meeting people I’ve asked enough questions to learn what stories are important to them and define who they are.
In a marriage and family counseling class that I took during my first master’s degree, the professor asked us to introduce ourselves in a few sentences. I said, “I live a multicultural and interracial life. I’m Italian and Irish-American. I bill myself as a passionate martyr.”
It was a nod to my interethnic upbringing and how it shaped my view of the world and my place in it.
My introduction caused many classmates to laugh. Pretty good for a woman who had a panic attack outside the classroom of the first counseling class I registered for a few years before then. Back then I wondered why a middle-aged woman, secure in her career and job, would think about going back to school with students who were about the same age as my daughters. Could I contribute anything of value to the classroom discussions? I discovered I wanted to know more about myself, about our multicultural world, and about people in general, and this was one way to gain the skills to do that.
I am that passionate martyr.
(Excerpt from essay Creating a Cultural Context in American Memoir)
Many Americans are not aware they are surrounded by a cultural context that uniquely molds them and colors their perceptions of their experiences and of others. This is particularly true of white Americans. They may say, “I’m not ethnic, I’m white,” for example, but what does being “white” mean? Every individual has an ethnicity, the heritage and social/cultural customs, beliefs and values of a particular group, and has also been influenced dramatically by “social class, religion, migration, geography, gender oppression, racism, and sexual orientation, as well as family dynamics (McGoldrick, Giordano, Garcia-Preto, p.1).” Add personality and temperament to the mix, and no two people are exactly alike.
Every American came from somewhere else. Some traveled over a strait that connected the continents thousands of years ago. Others traveled to escape oppression in their home countries. Some were brought here by force. People settled in areas they felt comfortable in, maybe choosing to live with people like themselves, or near places of worship, or certain topographies that felt familiar, or a particular climate, or where the jobs were. Some people were forced to live on the plantations they labored at, or on reservations, or in urban ghettos, or in rural isolation. These circumstances created a cultural context in which people lived and developed and learned about themselves and others.
Monica McGoldrick emphasizes in her book, Ethnicity and Family Therapy, how important the legacy of migration is when she says, “All Americans have experienced the complex stresses of migration. And the hidden effects of this history, especially when it goes unacknowledged, may linger for many generations. Families’ migration experiences have a major influence on their cultural values (p.19).”
The legacy of ethnicity is passed from one generation to the next, sometimes clearly, as in speaking a native language or practicing traditions. Other ethnic clues are passed down subtly: maybe the turn of a phrase or an unattributed tenet or a story shared from one generation to the next. Sometimes traditions and language are lost over the generations, perhaps through forced or voluntary assimilation into a dominant culture or through physical distance from one’s origins.
Stereotypes are negative generalities that become internalized by the people they are about and by the people who construct them. Their intention is often to hurt, oppress and segregate ethnic or cultural groups. They may be grounded in a bit of truth, but their intent is dishonest and disingenuous.
But there are generalities about ethnicity, race, culture and gender that can enlighten and normalize. These generalities are never meant to define a person, because so many forces in life shape a unique individual, and each of us is unique. Yet knowing that a certain ethnicity or culture tends to think in similar ways, shares a common belief system and historical legacy, or acts in collective synergy, can lend understanding or the ability to step into the shoes of another and experience the world through his or her point of view. The more an individual can learn about the unique lens through which he or she views the world, the more such knowledge can engender tolerance for other perspectives and people and a better understanding about oneself.
McGoldrick describes stereotyping this way:
Although generalizing about groups has often been used to reinforce prejudices, one cannot discuss ethnic cultures without generalizing. The only alternative is to ignore this level of analysis of group patterns, which mystifies and disqualifies the experience of groups at the margins, perpetuating covert negative stereotyping, as does the failure to address culture explicitly per se, considering socioeconomic, political, and religious influences more important. Others avoid discussion of group characteristics altogether, in favor of individual family patterns maintaining, “I prefer to think of each family as unique” or “I prefer to think of family members as human beings rather than pigeonholing them in categories.” Of course, we all prefer to be treated as unique human beings. But such assumptions prevent us from acknowledging the influence of cultural and group history on every person’s experience (p. 13).
As a memoir writer, I think it is even more important to understand one’s cultural legacy. A memoirist is writing a particular story from a particular point of view and a particular perspective. The story is singularly unique yet it resonates beyond the writer.
I do not believe every story must be written from a cultural perspective, but acknowledging that it is one lens through which a life is experienced enriches the depth of story. For example, I was raised in a bicultural family. My father was a first generation Italian-American, and my mother was a war bride of Irish descent from Australia. Being raised in a family with recently immigrated parents definitely had an impact on how I experienced mainstream American culture. In fact I often felt on the fringes, an outsider, with many of my peers. When I first began to study the ethnic tension in my home life, I did not account for the legacy that my Irish heritage contributed. I only thought about the cultural aspects of being Australian and Italian, but a deeper search revealed that my mother being Irish-Australian mattered just as much to my story.
When I read the following in McGoldrick’s book, Ethnicity and Family Therapy, as I studied toward a master’s degree in counseling, I felt a sense of understanding for my mother I had not experienced before:
The Irish people are a people of many paradoxes. While having a tremendous flair for bravado, they may inwardly assume that anything that goes wrong is the result of their sins. They are dreamers but also pragmatic, hard workers… They are good humored, charming, hospitable, and gregarious, but often avoid intimacy. They love a good time, which includes teasing, verbal word play, and sparring, yet are drawn to tragedy. Although always joking, they seem to struggle continuously against loneliness, depression, and silence, believing intensely that life will break your heart one day (p. 595).
This simple paragraph, perhaps feeling stereotypical to some, felt as if it were specifically talking about my mother.
When my husband and I met freshman year of college, a new cultural and racial construct contributed to the perspective through which I view the world. My husband is African-American. His family is descended from Africans brought here against their will to be used as slaves. It’s important to note that his historical legacy sets him apart from African-Americans who immigrated to the US by choice, and how new they are generationally to the US. His family also migrated from the South to the North. This had a cultural impact as well. Interracial marriage, though more common, is still statistically rare. “Factoring in all racial combinations, Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld calculates that more than 7 percent of America’s 59 million married couples in 2005 were interracial, compared to less than 2 percent in 1970.”
McGoldrick has this to say about intermarriage:
Although, as a nation, we have a long history of intercultural relationships, until 1967 our society explicitly forbade racial intermarriage, and discouraged cultural intermarriage as well, because it challenged White supremacy. But traditional ethnic and racial categories are now increasingly being challenged by the cultural and racial mixing that has been a long submerged part of our history. Intimate relationships between people of different ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds offer convincing evidence that Americans’ tolerance of cultural differences may be much higher than most people think (p. 26).
She goes on to say, “Couples who choose to ‘marry out’ are usually seeking to rebalance their own ethnic characteristics, moving away from some values as well as toward others (p. 27).”
When we had children, we created yet another cultural, racial and ethnic dynamic. My daughters straddle race and culture in a way neither my husband nor I ever could.