I am Italian-American; I am White

Growing up I was often curious about my ethnicity; I am of German, Italian, English, French, Irish, and Scottish descent.  Though I come from multiple ethnic backgrounds, I particularly identify with my Italian heritage.  The origin of my Italianness is my maternal grandfather whose parents came from Naples and Sicily.  His ethnicity featured largely in my life because of the size of this part of my family.  My mother comes from a large family of five kids who in turn produced thirteen grandchildren, all of whom have made homes in central New York.  Needless to say I see a lot of them, and because of this I have participated in many family traditions that have been passed down throughout the generations.

 Like most traditional Italian families, Christmas Eve is the big holiday in my family.  Although my family has since Americanized the big dinner—substituting lobster for the feast of the seven fishes—antipasti always makes an appearance.  Another big family tradition involves the celebration of Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) and eating what is known in my family as Palm Sunday Donuts.  The donuts are not unlike fried dough, but the recipe is one that has been passed down through many years.  My mother only just learned how to make the dough herself during this past Palm Sunday, and I hope to learn how to do it in the future.  These gatherings, which centered around enjoying good Italian food and being with family, have always stuck out in my memory.  Having a family that follows these traditions and the recipes that have been passed down through generations have resulted in my identifying as Italian-American.

 A few weeks ago when my class was reading Roots Too:  White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America, Matthew Frye Jacobson discusses the differences between second generation Americans and third and fourth generations.  He writes, “After decades of striving to conform to the Anglo-Saxon standard, descendants of earlier European immigrants quit the melting pot.  Italianness, Jewishness, Greekness, and Irishness had become badges of pride, not shame.  What the second generation wishes to forget the third wishes to remember…” [1]  This is certainly true in my family.  When my great-grandmother came over from Italy she immediately tried to assimilate herself and her family into American culture.  My grandfather grew up speaking only English and does not know any Italian.  This is due to the need to blend into the American melting pot.  I, on the other hand, wish I had grown up learning Italian, and try to learn as much as I can about my family’s Italian traditions.  This is the difference between second generation Americans and fourth generation Americans.

 However, there is a negative side to the white ethnic revival.  After fighting so long to become a part of the circle of those who can consider themselves to be “white,” Italian-Americans, among other ethnic groups, were trading in their white identities for the ethnic ones they had cast off.  Jacobson also states, “The ethnic revival recast American nationality, and it continues to color our judgment about who ‘we’ American are, and who ‘they’ outside the circle of ‘we the people’ are, too.” [2]  This interpretation of the ethnic revival brings up issues of white privilege.  I have the choice of saying whether I am Italian-American or simply white.  White ethnic revivalism emerged in part because of the uneasiness white American felt over white privilege, of being able to choose when they do and do not want to be white.  White ethnicity challenges our ideas of the “other,” of who is included in white identity and who is still kept on the outside.

 Despite the negative connotations associated with it, I continue to take pride in my white ethnicity as an Italian-American.  I believe ethnicity in all forms is what makes America a unique and thriving country.  My family is distinct because of the Italian traditions and beliefs that play a role in our lives.  I hope someday my children are just as interested in knowing all about their family’s heritage as I am. 

 [1] Jacobson, Matthew Frye, Roots Too:  White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America, (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2006), 2.

 [2] Jacobson, 8.

4 thoughts on “I am Italian-American; I am White

  1. Tori – very true and interesting to bring up how we can choose to embrace whichever definition of ourselves we wish to at the moment and how that can change day to day. I too very much cherish family traditions and am happy to hear that yours as well as mine are continuing to be passed on.

  2. Yes, we can choose to embrace whichever definition of ourselves we wish to be at the moment and that can change day by day. And yet, we are free to be in ethnic flux because we are white. Other races in our country cannot put on different hats and be Italian or Irish one day and American the next. An African American is looked at as an African American. An Asian American as an Asian American and so forth. The cultural construct of race gives whites the flexibility to wear whatever ethnicity fits. To me, this is just another example of how race influences the way we perceive ourselves and our surroundings.

  3. As a sort of opposite approach, I have no real connections to my family’s German or English heritage. We have a couple things that represent our backgroundin our family, but I don’t really identify with that part of myself. I’ve always been more interested in myself within the context of the relatively short history of the United States. For me, my biggest idnetifier is that I am a female and a feminist and that’s the part of my history that has been passed down through the generations of my family.

  4. While knowing where you come from is important in understanding who you are, looking in the scope of our class discussions it is interesting to compare and contrast the passing on of ethnic traditions. We have discussed the shaking off or assimilating of traditions to “white” and the difficulties groups of nonwhite origin have faced in their attempts to become a part of this country. While I too subscribe to my German heritage ( only 3 generations back), I find myself more and more wondering ” What would my grandmother Anna ( for whom I am named) think about my exploration of my German roots?” Would she laugh because all she wanted to be is American… Which I already am. Or would she smile thinking I still hold her in such high regard for the strength she endured for coming to this country. Who knows, but I have the ability to do this because of my German heritage. Other groups have struggled tirelessly, as we have seen throughout our class, to have this luxury and in the 21st century still do not.

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