White Ubiquity Void

Years ago, I read an essay about the cul­tur­al con­struc­tion of white­ness in Amer­i­ca; the author’s claim was that white­ness is defined as a void, eas­i­er to dis­cuss in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is. I can’t remem­ber if this was men­tioned in the essay, but I believe this loss is derived from the ubiq­ui­ty of white­ness itself. Try­ing to define white­ness is boot­strap­ping. Even the vocab­u­lary involved in such dis­cus­sions of eth­nic­i­ty is insuf­fi­cient to prop­er­ly address the issue. By virtue of their minor­i­ty sta­tus, it is pos­si­ble for folks in a non-white con­struc­tion to hone their self-aware­ness in terms of their asso­ci­a­tion with what­ev­er their minor­i­ty is. So a black folk has an eas­i­er time grap­pling with what it means to be Black because their black­ness is less promi­nent when com­pared to white­ness. This applies just as well to sex and gen­der roles, and even works in sub­cat­e­gories of white­ness based on coun­try of ori­gin.

I’m some­times envi­ous of peo­ple who have this kind of asso­cia­tive chance. I have no lega­cy to use to direct my self-def­i­n­i­tion. My fam­i­ly, awe­some as it is, shows no eth­nic traits, like a focus on food from the old coun­try, songs and sto­ries, or even knowl­edge of dis­tant fam­i­ly over in Europe. This is why that essay res­onat­ed with me so strong­ly, it seemed to be describ­ing my life exact­ly. Because my cul­tur­al back­ground is ubiq­ui­tous to the point of mean­ing­less­ness, I’m miss­ing out on an entire facet of exis­tence. This was like­ly the nascent impulse that made me so inter­est­ed in anthro­pol­o­gy.

Some­thing Alixa + Naima said the oth­er night sparked this thought process. In an amaz­ing poem about Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, they made dis­parag­ing ref­er­ence to being white. After, they explained that it wasn’t a remark about race, but about a cer­tain state of mind they call “white.” To me it seems like this state of mind is the same as the ubiquity/void that I’m talk­ing about. It makes sense, but is also trou­bling. Their sense of cul­ture and lega­cy was very promi­nent in their read­ing, in direct con­trast to white­ness.

Yet where does that leave me? There is no Ital­ian or Pol­ish or Hun­gar­i­an or Irish or Jew­ish her­itage for me to lean on. I can­not adopt myself into any of those par­a­digms and be authen­tic. On the pos­i­tive side, this void leaves me free to define myself in any terms that I choose; except these always seem to remain in the void and the process gets awful­ly old after awhile. It is almost eas­i­er to just be mean­ing­less.

13 Replies

  • Your (our) fam­i­ly is very blessed to have a very strong cul­tur­al back­ground in Catholi­cism.….….
    (just an oppor­tu­ni­ty to also say “Hi”)

  • Hi Mom! You have a great son. Good Job.

    My last seri­ous rela­tion­ship before I got mar­ried was with a very WASPy woman that was brought up in Orange, OH. She was so fas­ci­nat­ed with my “jew­ish­ness” and she was con­sid­er­ing con­vert­ing. She may have when she even­tu­al­ly got mar­ried to a MOT (mem­ber of tribe) doc­tor. (Used the same rab­bi I did.)

    It was amaz­ing how she did not feel any eth­nic­i­ty despite the Anglo-Sax­on roots and she yearned for it. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, what ever she chose, it would not real­ly be her. Self-dis­cov­ery, I think, is the key. Not co-option.

  • Hi Mom! You’re right, but Catholi­cism isn’t an eth­nic­i­ty; which is more of what I’m talk­ing about. There are sim­i­lar­i­ties, sure, but there is noth­ing apart from our Catholi­cism that gives us a cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, dif­fer­ent from a Pol­ish Catholic or Mex­i­can Catholic for instance. We don’t eat piero­gies or cel­e­brate The Day of the Dead. Catholi­cism alone doesn’t fill every cul­tur­al need.

  • I often describe our fam­i­ly as “clas­sic Ital­ian” with­out the Ital­ian. We are very loy­al to each oth­er; when togeth­er, we eat, we drink, we yell.….we eat, we drink, we yell.….)

  • with­out the Ital­ian

    Exact­ly my point; no spe­cif­ic cul­tur­al back­ground. Don’t mis­un­der­stand me, I’m not being crit­i­cal of our fam­i­ly at all! This isn’t some­thing that deserves blame or fault.

  • can’t you just be amer­i­can? i’m only half-jok­ing. i know what you mean about not being a minor­i­ty and not iden­ti­fy­ing with a group in that way. and my com­ment doesn’t real­ly address all of that. but as a for­eign­er, i always found it kind of odd how so many amer­i­cans obsess over “being ital­ian” or “being irish” or what­ev­er when often they have nev­er set foot in the coun­try they (pre­tend to) iden­ti­fy with, nor have any clue what life there would be like. mean­while, there is an amer­i­can cul­ture that these peo­ple actu­al­ly ARE part of. bruce spring­steen and mcdonald’s and dis­ney and dylan and over­ly sug­ary sweets and jazz and entre­pre­neur­ship and can-do atti­tudes and tele­vi­sion and…

  • When peo­ple ask me about my her­itage, I say Amer­i­can, since I’m such a mutt. I see what you’re say­ing, and I think that in oth­er coun­tries, where being Amer­i­can is a minor­i­ty, it is eas­i­er to iden­ti­fy as one. But since we’re soak­ing in it, peo­ple need to be Ital­ian-Amer­i­cans or Irish-Amer­i­cans or what­ev­er. I think that is a nat­ur­al reac­tion to the melt­ing pot, many immi­grants come to the US because they see it as a place to start fresh, with few ties to the old ways, but after a few gen­er­a­tions those ties become impor­tant again.

    It is also trou­bling to iden­ti­fy as Amer­i­can when there is so much unwel­come bag­gage that goes along with it any­more.

  • Wow. When my mom found my blog it was noth­ing but scream­ing for an hour and a half.

    Adam’s Mom rocks!

    (Adam, though, los­es some street cred for hav­ing to recruit his moms to get more com­ments on his blog.)

  • My prob­lem is that I’ve grown tired of my Sloven­ian (almost Ital­ian) roots and have been slow­ly try­ing to become Puer­to Rican.

  • Hey PTB! My mom has not liked many things I’ve writ­ten. I hear about those IRL.

    Andy, isn’t Steve half-Puer­to Rican since he used to be mar­ried to one? Maybe he can give you tips?

  • That’s true about the unwel­come bag­gage. But maybe we need good peo­ple like your­self to proud­ly say “I’m Amer­i­can!” to show the world and our­selves that not every Amer­i­can is a {insert any num­ber of neg­a­tive words here}.

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