As a social studies teacher, I always discuss the differences between nationality, culture, ethnicity and race with my ninth-grade students. It’s part of our World Geography curriculum (click here for a PDF paper on the subject). I get some interesting reactions from my students during this discussion. It is, after all, a very sensitive subject. Many of my students do not want to be referred to as black, or red, or yellow, or whatever. One of my girl students last year raised her hand during this discussion. When I called on her, she said, “Mr. Garry, we prefer the term African-American.”
“I know you do, Jamasa (not her real name),” I said, “but that is a term that refers to one’s cultural or ethnic identity, not to race. To illustrate, I continued, “In my church, there is a white family that came to the United States from South Africa. If they were to become American citizens now, would it be appropriate for us to refer to them as African-Americans? No, you see how that wouldn’t quite work? Years ago, in another community, I served in a ministry that included a black man from Rhodesia. He was still a citizen of his native country, working in the U.S. as an employee of the World Bank. So, it would have been most inap- propriate for me to refer to him as an African-American, right?”
She, and all my other students, got the point. But, as a result of this dialogue, the growing diversity of my present congregation, and my choice of words in recent blog postings, I have become acutely aware of a gaping chasm in the way that we refer to one another in this country. With so many of us preferring to be referred to by our heritage… African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Native-American, etc., why is that the rest of us are just referred to as “white?” Why is it that being called white doesn’t bother those of us who are? Maybe it’s because we don’t need to be some special kind of Americans because we are the norm? We’re just the regular kind of Americans.
Regular? Hmmm… who gets to be regular in this multicultural country, and, why? Is it because people that look and act more like me are still in the majority? What happens after Mexican-Americans and African-Americans both outnumber whites in this country? And, as things are progressing demographically, especially here in Northern Texas, it won’t be very long now before this becomes the new reality. So, maybe I better start claiming my own heritage. What do you think?
As far as I know, my great-great grandparents all came from various parts of northern Europe. So that makes me European-American, right? If I’m that, instead of “white,” then I am claiming my heritage. When I call myself a European-American, I put myself on the same level as others who claim their heritage. Then nobody gets to be “the norm,” and nobody has to feel like they are surrounded by strangers. Either that, or we all feel surrounded. My hunch is that after there’s no place left for “European-Americans” to flight to, and we’re all bi-lingual, we’ll stop being hyphenated Americans and just be… angels. Won’t that’ll be the day? In the mean time, I want to celebrate and participate in the multicultural nature of this country. The mix of languages, religions, perspectives, foods, art, music, and appear- ance adds immeasurably to my life. To become fully a part of that multicultural reality, then, I need to claim my own heritage.
Theodore Roosevelt, who vehemently spoke out against hyphen- ated Americans in 1915 for not expressing full allegiance to this country (click here to read what he had to say), will probably roll over in his grave when I say this, but I’m finally with you, Jamasa. I now prefer the term, European-American, to just plain white. Let’s leave all the racial references to the geneticists. After all, following the completed mapping of the human genome and the huge genetic marker study recently completed, if we believe what science it telling us now about race and the origin of mankind, we all came out of Africa originally.
Is this a positive step in consciousness, or just an unneeded burden for the politically correct? I invite your thoughts — groans included.
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