How to be proud of your heritage (even if you’re white)
Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American
Touchy subject alert!
Let’s face it: people of color have been treated badly in the United States since before it was a country. African slaves and Native Americans were literally treated as subhuman, and their forced labor and forced removal paved the way for the (until sometime very soon) predominantly white country that we currently live in. That’s just history.
But is it history? Somehow, in the year 2017, even after having had a (half) Black president, we are still talking about race. People of color are no longer content to sit in the back of the metaphorical bus, but discrimination remains. Meanwhile, some white people feel encouraged to express anti-minority and anti-immigrant sentiments so vile that we’d thought them permanently banished from public discourse.
Okay, you may be thinking, but why am I reading about this in The Norwegian American?
One category of sentiments that I’ve seen cropping up have to do with so-called reverse racism. You’ll hear someone say something like “We have Black History Month, but when is White History Month?” or “Why can a Mexican be proud of their heritage but I (a white person) can’t?” As the editor of a newspaper that celebrates pride in our heritage from a predominantly white country, a newspaper that I hope does this without being racist, I have opinions on this topic. Stop reading now if you don’t want to hear them.
First, the simple answer to the first question: White History Month is literally all of them. It’s not radical propaganda or fake news to suggest that the contributions of non-white (and male) people have been consistently minimized in the narrative that makes up our history. Mainstream history is white history, and having one Black president doesn’t change that.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg famously answered the question of when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court by saying “when there are nine.” In response to people’s shock, she reminded them that the court had consisted of nine men until 1981. Similarly, this country has had 43 white presidents in a row. When we’ve had eight Black presidents in a row (the proportional demographic equivalent to 43 white presidents), 11 Hispanic and Latino ones, and so on, then maybe we won’t need to prioritize those under-heard voices anymore.
Prioritizing non-whites isn’t “reverse racism,” because the term “racism” describes a system in which a racial majority enforces its privilege over another race through political, economic, and institutional means. When preferences are an attempt to level the playing field, rather than keep it tilted, that’s not racism.
To the second question, I say there is no reason that you, white person, can’t be as proud of your heritage as a Mexican (or Korean, or Iraqi, or Tanzanian), but let’s be specific about it. Clearly I think it’s okay to celebrate being Norwegian and Norwegian American. But if the reason you’re proud to be Norwegian is because of the melanin deficiency it may have given you, or if you think that all Norwegians look a certain way, then we are starting to have problems. “White” isn’t a heritage, and not all Norwegians are white.
“But!” I can almost hear my hypothetical antagonist objecting, “If ‘white’ isn’t a heritage, then why is ‘Black’?” And my answer to that is again a very simple one. While many recent immigrants from Africa know exactly what country their ancestors are from, that is not the case for most African Americans, whose ancestral culture was erased from their memories by the cruelty of the slave trade. So I’d argue that “Black” is a heritage in a way that “White” can never be, because dark-skinned people from all over Africa were lumped together—and banded together, over the generations, to form a culture.
So by all means celebrate your heritage, person of Irish or German or French or Danish descent, as we try to do here at The Norwegian American, recognizing those things about our ancestral lands that make them special, recognizing that those countries today are more diverse than they were when our grandparents or great-great-grandparents came here, and perhaps if we look deeper even seeing that those countries were always more diverse than we imagine. As is this one.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.