Pluralism is the Strength of Our County!

I keep getting myself in trouble at social dinners for the simple statement that I am mixed blood. I simply refuse to self-identify as “white”, a meaningless term with lots of baggage that does disservice to my family’s wonderfully rich background. (Obviously I am turning into a somewhat controversial guest to have at dinner, albeit inadvertently.)

For one thing the word “white” has no meaning and no real definition. As one young dinner guest pointed out recently, “I thought white was just what everybody aspired to be?”  That’s not an unfair summary of U.S. history. I still have a sign from Boston dated 1918 that says “No Irish Need Apply!” In some post-Civil War southern states hiring the :shanty” Irish was considered an nearly-acceptable alternative to owning the African-American slaves who no longer existed as slaves. Leasing convicts was about the only other option available.

And I’m used to hearing “Canuck” applied in various tones of voice to other branches of my family tree. And then there’s my great-great-grandmother, the Algonkin who married a French merchant in Quebec City, Canada. Not only did she gives up her native tongue when she married, she wore French clothes and spoke only French ‘til the day she died. How do I know? Because I was lucky enough to meet some of my great-parents when I was a child and heard stories told with some pride in her sacrifice but more embarrassment over her heritage. Only one picture (a portrait, a daguereotype?)
Existed of her because, as the family said in hushed tones, “She was a bit dark skinned, you know.”

In Canada today, which has First Nations terms not used in the U.S., I would be considered “Metis”. (Someday I’ll talk about Louis Real and the great Metis Uprising that actually got the Canadian Pacific Railroad the government funding it needed for compleion so the Royal Mounties could be speedily swept to central Canada to quell these uppity “savages.” The word Metis itself literally means mixed, but I was brought up to deck anyone who called me a “half-breed.”

And then there’s my grandfather Nikolai. I didn’t even find out his name until my father lie on his deathbed in 1995. You see, grandfather Nikolai had died in the War To End All Wars (WWI) and his memory was preserved by denying his heritage and pretending he was “Polish.” But when I worked in Poland in the 1980’s and tried to trace my family tree, my Polish friends sadly informed me that his last name was not Polish and most likely Russian. (And possibly not a “true” Russian, but a gypsy or worse yet, a Jew!) He had apparently passed for Polish when he immigrated to the U.S. because of all the languages he spoke. Lost in a semi-safe crowd at the height of the Cold War, he disappeared from family respect.

When I describe my childhood, I explain it was somewhat like the United Nations backstage, with everybody squabbling or ignoring each other in a multitude of mutually-unintelligible languages. God help the poor victim who married into the family from another background and was subject to the hostility vented on the “outsider.” My favorite maternal aunt was shunned from almost the whole family because she had the nerve to marry an “Eye-talian” whom she loved. Fortunately, he had a large family who took her in with adoration, she learned to be a great Italian cook, and they lived happily with their children for decades.

My poor mother was Irish & French-Canadian (both suspect) and was never considered to belong. Since the big goal of every immigrant to this country was to pass for Anglo-British, she bleached my fine baby hair to straw with undiluted peroxide, pinned it into painful Shirley Temple curls, and harshly slapped me or washed my mouth with soap if I dared picked up a word of the many languages spoken around me. I had to pass for “white”, as in WASP, which left a bad taste in my mouth forever after.

I was half-raised by my grandmother Mary Katherine Lynch from County Claire in Ireland, and thank God for her intervention and that of her large brood of my mother’s siblings. My ancestors sit beside me at every dinner table and I wouldn’t desecrate their lives by labeling myself “white,” a bland and vague word associated with white supremacy, the KKK, terror, and a general, overwhelming assumption of superiority and power, especially if they are male to boot!

In my teens I was “adopted” by Matchwaya Rom in New York City, and treated and taught as a daughter. I lived in Hawai’I and saw true pluralism in everyday life. I was befriended by a Japanese family who had lived through WWII, and knew how close they were to being interred in a U.S. concentration camp as an “not-white enemy.” In Nepal and India I was given a name and a caste (Matwali –that of Sherpas and foreign anthropologists) to bring me into the group, and in Haiti, my friends introduced me as their “cousine” and insisted joyfully that I must be part African.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that I have been naïve enough to be believe that E Pluribus Unum actually means “from the many to One”. I believe we are humans, and cannot see each other in groups of “us versus them.”

And the saddest thing to me is that we as a country cannot see Mr. Obama as our first truly “mixed” president because way too many people are so obsessed with just one strain of the many rich traditions and bloodlines that make him what he is: a man with just as rich a heritage as most of us have, more truly representative perhaps than any before him of the real population of this United States!

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