Friday, September 9, 2011

Steve Downing on Ethnicity

My ethnicity is ostentatiously unremarkable, so I wonder how much it contributes to who I am, or---more to the point, I suppose---what I’ve turned into. On Dad’s side of the family, obviously it’s by-the-book Anglo. Somewhere back near the dawn of recorded British history one of his ancestors presumably owned the London property that became Number 10 Downing Street. Not that that’s anything to brag about. I’ve stood there at Number 10 Downing Street, as a tourist, but I was certainly not picking up any particular vibe or chill or voice from the beyond the pale.
            Mom’s surname was Costello, and her dad was one of the first whites to settle in what became Grand Rapids, late in the 1800s. He made his way down here from Ontario when he was a kid and just stayed put. The name sounds Italian, but these Costellos and their kin called themselves Black Irish, a practically meaningless colloquialism, even then. In their homes they switched back and forth comfortably between French (French Canadian) and English (American idiomatic English). More than one language under one roof was not remarkable back then. It’s turning so again, isn’t it.
            Now that I’m thinking about it, though, maybe the fact that I’m leading such an unremarkable life is directly attributable to my ethnicity. Otherwise, I have no one but myself to blame. For not discovering any new drug or planet. Not making or stealing a billion dollars and giving it away to charity. Not winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Not fathering a child genius, or any manner of offspring. Not winding up on Dancing With The Stars.
            You don’t run into me and intuitively know---from my size or shape, skin or hair or eye color, or any other physical features, or how I talk---that my ethnic background is this, that or the other thing. Of course now you look at me and your first thought is ‘old guy’. Between you and me, I’m okay with that. Ethnicity is no guard against the aging process in any event.
We deploy the term ethnic to differentiate among cultures and homelands and societies and races and linguistic or ancestral groupings, but at one time it was used strictly to reference anyone who wasn’t either Christian or Jewish---in other words, a heathen, or pagan. In other words just about everybody.
We’re not so exotic to one another any longer, are we. When we commemorate old homeland costuming and music and cuisine and other cultural traditions, as we’re doing this weekend in Walker, at Ethnic Fest, we do it as celebratory partners in what’s become a much shrunken, less mysterious world than the days when our differences defined us.
Maybe that’s a problem. We’re all swimming inarguably in the same waters today. We’re so intermingled, so interconnected, we can’t honestly fault ethnic distinction in our conflicts. To the schemer, anything, anything will do.
Enter the politician. I’ll say no more.

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