Surface    |    Backfill    |    About    |    Contact


My Ethnicity Is Mid-Atlantic White American

Maria Brumm makes a good point about the tendency for white Americans to treat "ethnicity" as meaning "where my ancestors were living in 1492":

Now, so far in the responses to Alice's prompt [for white people to address the fact that they have an ethnicity], and in other situations where this sort of thing comes up in conversation, I have noticed a tendency for white Americans to talk an awful lot about their ancestors. Some of them also talk about their multicultural childhood neighborhoods. But even though a majority of my ancestors came from Germany, and I can sort of mumble along to the Schnitzelbank Song, I am not German. Neither is my grandmother, despite the fact that that is her first language, or the rest of my family, despite the kitschy signs that proudly announce "You can always tell a German, but you can't tell 'em much!" to the users of our various spare bathrooms.

Having ancestors who immigrated from Northern Europe means that I saw my own genealogy reflected in the main narrative thread of the history textbook, while others got the "diversity boxes". There is absolutely no ducking the fact that my ancestry has granted me full membership in the institution of white privilege, but quite a lot has happened in my family since those cholera-ridden steerage-class Atlantic crossings. If I use stories about Germany or Scandinavia to give myself some culture, I'm not so much critiquing the way the cultural construction of whiteness has separated me from my heritage as I am perpetuating the idea that the North European-American whitebread mishmash culture I've got either doesn't exist, or isn't "ethnic".

I fall into much the same boat* as Brumm. My ethnicity -- in the sense of the cultural complex that I was raised to participate in and find meaningful -- is white American (of the mid-Atlantic rather than Midwestern variety**). Though a majority of my ancestors came from Sweden, the additional information you'd gain from me describing myself as specifically "Swedish" is mostly either wrong (I've never even seen lutefisk) or trivial (we always had a blue bird ornament on our Christmas tree). My three Swedish-descended grandparents could usefully be described as Swedish-American, but the specifically Swedish aspects are rather attenuated by the time they get to me, such that my cultural roots run as much back to England, Scotland, France, and Germany as they do to Sweden with my genetic roots.

This is not to deny that understanding where your ancestors are from and how they got to you isn't relevant. It's rather to point out that the cultural context into which their peregrinations and struggles thrust you is in fact a cultural context in just the same way as the one they started out from at whatever time you choose to treat as the beginning of your history.

*Pun unintentionally made but intentionally left in.

**Which I think mostly means that I grew up saying "soda" and "casserole" rather than "pop" and "hotdish."


Environmental Justice WRT Class And Race

This article makes some good points about the classism-dressed-up-as-anti-racism of many liberals' attitudes toward white rural people. But at times it gets a little too caught up in its own (unoriginal, but not therefore wrong) thesis about the need for coalition-building with the despised "rednecks." For example, the author criticizes the tendency of prevailing narratives of the environmental justice movement to focus on racial inequities over economic ones:

The environmental justice movement set out in part to rectify that. The founding notion was to address the way that environmental hazards—refineries, incinerators, toxic dumps—are often sited in poor communities and communities of color. But class and thereby poor white people very quickly vanished from the formula. Toxic dumping in a rural North Carolina African-American community is said to have launched the environmental justice movement in 1982, but the prototypical environmental injustice had been exposed a few years earlier, in the mostly white community at Love Canal in western New York. It wasn't an anomaly either. The 1972 Buffalo Creek flood occurred when a coal-slurry impoundment dam on a mountaintop in WestVirginia burst and killed 125, left 4,000 homeless, destroyed many small communities, and devastated the survivors—almost all of whom were white. And modern-day coal mining continues to ravage poor, mostly white regions of the South in what environmental journalist Antrim Caskey calls "the government-sanctioned bombing of Appalachia." Caskey describes how "coal companies turn communities against each other by telling their employees that the environmentalists want to take away their jobs."

Let's take the larger point about privileging race over class as given, though I find it hard to see environmentalists as ignoring Love Canal and Appalachian mountaintop-removal coal mining. There's more to the story than liberals' disdain for rednecks. One important aspect of the story is the efforts by people opposed to the environmental justice movement to push class as an alternative, and exonerating, explanation. Overt defenses of racism in the US are gauche, so it's tough to argue that there's nothing wrong with putting all the toxic sites in communities of color. However, the myth of the free market sorting the deserving from the lazy is still powerful. So opponents of the environmental justice movement tried to push the idea that the observed inequalities were all, at root, class-based -- that is, people of color live near toxic sites because they are poor, not because there's any specifically racial element to the siting. Examples like Love Canal and Appalachia are directly used to prove that environmental inequality is not environmental injustice. In this context, it's no wonder that people concerned with environmental justice spend a lot of time focusing on the fact that race is indeed a factor independent of class.

Labels: , ,


Good Idea/Bad Idea, Wildfire Edition

Good idea: Having a special separate fund to cover catastrophic firefighting costs. This would reduce cannibalization of other Forest Service programs and the need to go begging to Congress after bad fire seasons. Having a reliable pool of money would also encourage and enable the Forest Service to approach firefighting with a longer view, rather than "OMG there's a fire burning right now!"

Bad idea: Enforcing immigration laws and cultural assimilation during a wildfire crisis response. You would think that in San-freaking-Diego they would be able to get all warnings and emergency communications at least in Spanish as well as English*, even if other languages are tougher to get together. And the last thing you want to do when there's a natural disaster on is have people afraid to seek aid because they fear they might be hassled about their immigration status.

Here's the most ridiculous moment in the article:

San Diego police do not typically ask individuals for their immigration status, but when someone is suspected of a crime, "if they are asked for identification and they can't provide what would prove them to be in this country legally, the existing policy allows us to go ahead and call" U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Sainz said.

Let's think of some other reasons that someone might not have their papers on them -- perhaps because they're fleeing for their lives from a wildfire?

*Given some of the troglodytes in the comment section on the original article, my cranky side is tempted to recommend a policy of issuing the warnings only in Spanish.

Labels: ,



All of the Gary Gygax obits have led me to conclude that I'm the only person on the whole internets that has never played D&D.