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Dining at the Ethnicity Cafeteria

Once-powerful white identities like 'Irish American' are becoming matters of choice.

May 18, 2003|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at New America Foundation.

In contemporary America, ethnicity -- especially white ethnicity -- seems to have become a matter of choice. Collective white identities -- German American, Italian American, Polish American, Irish American and so on -- increasingly serve the whims of the individual. And what's happening to white ethnicity is spreading. The old arbiters of ethnic authenticity are losing their authority. In the new frontier of ethnic identities, you are who you say you are. And if it turns out that you aren't, well, few seem to care.

Take Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, a leading presidential contender. In advance of his announcement to seek the Democratic nomination, the Boston Globe hired a genealogist to research his family history. It was widely known that he hailed from prominent Boston Brahmin families on his mother's side. Because his surname is that of a county on the southwestern tip of Ireland, many assumed that Kerry was also half-Irish. As a politician in the most heavily Irish American state of the union, Kerry never denied his reputed Irish roots. Nor did his staff ever protest when newspapers routinely listed him among prominent Irish pols. The Globe even unearthed copies of Kerry speeches that boasted of his Irish background.

It turns out, however, that Kerry's paternal grandfather was an Austrian Jew named Kohn who changed his name to Kerry and converted to Catholicism around the time he migrated to America in 1905. The senator told the Globe that he learned of his true roots 15 years ago, but he never went public about his ancestry. Still, Kerry didn't seem embarrassed by the Globe story, nor did his presidential campaign have to go into spin control. Some 24 hours after the newspaper published its findings, Kerry was in Florida trying on his Jewish identity at a synagogue. "A light has literally turned on within me -- like an epiphany -- and I am proud to share this special measure of connection with you," he told his Jewish audience.

Several scholars have explored the phenomenon of latter-generation whites seeking to reestablish ethnic ties, real or imagined. These connections can add a missing dimension to an atomized suburban existence and provide a sense of rootedness in a highly mobile population. For politicians and entrepreneurs, optional ethnicities are also ways to broaden appeal. Former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti didn't boast of his Mexican heritage until he faced a formidable reelection challenge. Ralph Lauren, who created the tanned, khakied-WASP look, chose not to go through life as Ralph Lipshitz. His biographer says that Lauren's success derives from one simple idea: "faux ethnicity."

America, of course, has always been a culture of reinvention. Immigrants have long taken advantage of their new home to recast themselves in new guises. But rather than a simple act of exchanging the old identity for a new one, assimilation has involved mixing customs, rituals and identities from the past and present. Notwithstanding the myth that new arrivals to America jumped off the gangplank eager to emulate the native-born, becoming an American has always been a gradual, highly self-conscious act of reconstruction. This mind-set may explain why Americans, perhaps more than anyone else, have always been acutely aware of the malleable nature of ethnic and cultural identity.

"We are just [now] more aware that we are active partners in creating our own identities," says Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish history at New York University. "In a postmodern, multicultural world, the process has simply become more transparent."

In the past, ethnic "passing" was something one did in shameful silence. Today, Americans openly celebrate ethnic borrowing and fusion. Other than a few outraged Boston columnists, there was no genuine uproar over Kerry's imagined identity. Latter-generation American whites are so thoroughly mixed that when someone describes himself as, say, Irish, the expectation is never that he is pure Irish.

Yet, ethnic fluidity and mixing have their psychic costs; losing one's ancestral bearings can produce feelings of loneliness or alienation. Hence the popularity of multiculturalism. By celebrating differences among Americans of varied cultural origins, it helps reestablish connections between American-born children of whatever generation and their foreign-born ancestors. By cultivating a sense of ethnic continuity, multiculturalism -- the promotion of separate but equal cultures in one place -- seeks to mitigate our alienation by encouraging membership in a collective identity.

"Despite the wide range of choices [ethnic fluidity] gives them, people ultimately don't want to be just individuals," says Gary Gerstle, a historian at the University of Maryland and author of "American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century." "They want a greater sense of bondedness and community."

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