But I've recently felt the need to share certain parts of my journey and my story through this. I have not figured it all by any means. These are snapshots of my own journey through race and ethnicity and reconciliation. I knew I needed to write about my journey in discovering who I am as a multi-ethnic woman of God and hopefully this will encourage you to share your stories with me. Because as much as I want to share my own life, I want to hear of yours as well.
So here we go.
Who Am I - Part 1
Growing Up Color Bind
Sometimes I wonder what to call myself. Ethnically speaking. Am I white? I look white. Well I look more peach like but that's beside the point. I mean look at that face. Looks white American to me I suppose.
My dad is Italian and Lebanese and my mom German and English and wee bit of Irish (at least I think she is). So what do I call myself? Western European American? Middle Eastern American? Just American? Italian/German/Lebanese/PlusSomeOtherStuff American? Growing up it was never really a question for me. I just guessed I was a white culture kid and since I fit into that category it felt fine to explore nothing more about it.
It was until a few years ago, at an InterVarsity conference where they were asking for the ethnic breakdown of the attendees and there was a check box for Middle Eastern and I found myself suddenly stumped. Because for the first time I could remember I suddenly could check 3 boxes - White, Middle Eastern, and Multi-Racial. This started a whole new reflective journey on who I was the I thought I was coming to and end in.
But lets go back to my childhood. Growing up I was definitely color blind. I knew things like race and ethnicity existed but I didn't know what they mean or why they were significant. I lived in a diverse neighborhood but went to rather homogeneous schools. It wasn't until college did I see how race and ethnicity really play out in our society (I'll get more to how my view on race and privilege changed next week).
Race and ethnicity was never talked about at home. Especially my own. I knew I was white because of my blond hair and blue eyes. I don't remember knowing I was Lebanese when I was child. I knew I was Italian mostly because of my last name. I guessed I was German because my grandparents name sounded German. But when it came to my culture and heritage, I knew next to nothing about it. I don't think it was my parents fault or even they purposely did so. In fact I feel just the opposite. I feel there were many factors both in our family and in society that lead to my heritage-ignorance.
Societal pressure to conform
My father's side more recently immigrated to the US so I'll focus on them. Both my grandparents were first generation Americans. My grandfather's Ermieta (but he was called Amos) was born in New Jersey but his parents had immigrated from Italy. They were Roman, spoke Italian at home, and yes had family in the mafia. My grandmother, Helen, was born in Iowa after her parents immigrated there from Lebanon. They worked at a family restaurant/nightclub/banquet. My grandmother spoke English, Arabic, and later ASL (as she had a degenerative hearing condition). (Of course I knew none of this until I was in college).
When my grandfather and grandmother met and later moved to South Dakota they had 4 kids (my father, my aunt, and one of my uncles pictured below) who then were half Lebanese and half Italian.
But that was rarely talked about at home. For they lived in a time where it was ideal to be a part of mainstream white culture. Instead of focusing on our cultural differences, it as ideal to assimilate into white America. And my family did just that. They stopped speaking their heart languages, they slowly stopped some of the cultural traditions, and began to assimilate into a midwest American culture instead. The languages lost, the heritages lost, and few things remained. They confirmed to fit in because of pressure to be just like everyone else. If parts of their lives didn't appear "American" enough, they were hidden so that even two generations later it was forgotten.
Generations of Family Brokenness
But it wasn't just societal pressure that caused a distance from their heritage and culture. Our family brokenness itself caused distance from each other.
My grandfather was hardened by the Depression and that created somewhat hurtful relationships with his children over time. While there has since been reconciliation, there was hurt growing up. My grandmother died from cancer when my father was only 19 causing a more tension between him and his father. They had years of distance, anger, and hurt. My father even moved out to California in part because he was hurting from his mother's death and wanted to be away from his father. Because of this distance both emotionally and physically, I was unable to learn much of my own cultural heritage from this side of the family.
My own immediate family carries its own brokenness as well. My parents split when I was 8 years old so passing on ethnic heritage and traditions became a second priority. The focus then became for my mother simply raising us and my father re-establishing a relationship with us after the hurt we felt. It was more about navigating a divorced family rather than passing on cultural traditions. Not that I blame my parents, far from it. I would have done the same. But because of family brokenness their priorities changed. It was just another unfortunate circumstance that lead to a greater distance between myself and my own family heritage.
Because of generational brokenness from within our family and societal brokenness the fact I was Lebanese or Italian or German or anything else easily got lost. For so long growing up I felt I had no culture because one wasn't talked about at home. I felt lost, like there were parts of me I didn't understand. Parts of me that didn't fully identify with all of white culture. And it wasn't until I started culture that some of those parts came to light.
Next week: Who Am I Part 2: White Privilege and Shame