“Be proud of where you come from. Be proud of your heritage.” This a common adage – preached to schoolchildren, a staple of Black History Month, the motto of diversity initiatives. As a racial and religious minority in majority white, Christian school environments, this was always an invitation to me in particular: you be proud, let us celebrate you. This was my opportunity to brag about my great-grandfather who was in a famous Black Jazz group, The Inkspots; to describe the food on my Thanksgiving table; to sing “This little light of mine.” This was my chance to say, “Look! I’m proud to be Black! I’m cultured!”
But I’m also white. I’m white in the blue of my eyes, the pink of my lips, the fall of my hair. There was no invitation – and arguably no need – to celebrate this aspect of my identity. As a multiracial girl who is determined to not only acknowledge, but also develop pride in my entire identity I cannot help but wonder, where is my opportunity to celebrate my “whiteness?”
However, I do recognize the danger in White Pride. I understand how “whiteness” is perpetually promoted because white, Protestantism is the mainstream. It is institutionalized in the books on our schools’ reading lists and perpetuated by media’s conceptualization of beauty. Whiteness is the norm, the standard with which other cultures are held up and declared “Other.” In fact, to be proud of one’s whiteness is seen as inherently offensive – an invocation of white supremacy.
Do you see my predicament? I’m told to celebrate my heritage and I want to – but I want to proud of my whole heritage, the Black and the white.
While celebrating “whiteness” is impermissible, I do have an ‘out:’ I’m Jewish. My ancestors were Jews who fled Eastern Europe, traversed Siberia in pursuit of religious freedom, and emerged on the other side as survivors. They were persecuted and they persisted – this is an identity I’m allowed to be proud of. I’m not just white – I’m Jewish. My blue eyes are not remnants of oppressors, but instead, of survivors. My ancestors overcame challenges because of their ethnic identity, and therefore it is permissible for me to celebrate them today. From this can we conclude that only the persecuted can be proud?
But what of those people who cannot, or opt not to, trace their race to an ethnicity – do they not have a heritage to celebrate? In the U.S., one could argue that American patriotism is evolving into an ethnic identity. For a Black Heritage celebration I may bring in some collard greens, dance to the Cupid shuffle, and expound the victories of Martin Luther King Jr. What would be the comparable markers of American heritage? Maybe I would cook up the staples of a Thanksgiving meal, play “America the Beautiful,” and praise the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. What’s the difference between the two? Have Americans been challenged enough to be championed? Or perhaps persecution is not actually the distinction between those groups who are entitled to celebrate and those who are not.
Regardless, I know – because I have always been told – that I should be proud of my heritage (or at least a portion of it). I’m Black. It’s a cultural identity, a history, an identifier – I should claim it, because it’s going to be imposed on me regardless. It’s my race; its unavoidable. I have been taught to meet prejudices with pride and stereotypes with sassiness. I have been instructed to respond to prejudice by embracing the object of discrimination. I get to celebrate what someone else has marked me as…. Wait, this still doesn’t seem right.
By Gabrielle Newman