A Case for the Importance of Ethnicity
In a recent round table discussion held through University College Cork, author Elizabeth Anderson explained American politics as a graph where one axis is about policy and the other is about culture. She explained that even though things like a higher minimum wage or universal healthcare are widely popular across all political voting blocks, the (largely white or European-American) Republican voters still vote for the party that is against such policies because they are more concerned with the cultural issues at stake: abortion, social justice, anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights. They feel attacked by these shifts in cultural norms for which the left is fighting.
This makes a lot of sense to me. So the next question is, WHY are they so threatened by these cultural changes?
I would like to suggest that part of the reason for their sense of vulnerability when it comes to “identity politics,” (as they like to derisively call it) is their own unconscious lack of identity and belonging. As descendants of immigrants who were forced to assimilate into WASP culture in order to partake of the privileges of being American, which are only afforded to people identified as “white,” European-Americans have had to shed all connection to their own ethnic cultures — the traditions, languages, and cultures of the people who were indigenous to the land from which their ancestors came. I believe that this type of deep culture is more important than American society is willing to acknowledge — especially for people who seem to be doing pretty well on the racial hierarchy. It has been replaced, for European-Americans, by a superficial sense of belonging based on whiteness, nationalism, and religion — all institutions that the liberal left is fighting to change.
Could this be why the “divide and conquer” strategy has been so successful in the United States of America? It is a land made almost entirely (except for the Native tribes) of people whose ancestors are from somewhere else, who had to leave everything behind in order to gain security in this new place.
The phenomenon is well known among recent immigrants: As new generations are born, and languages and knowledge are lost, the children or grand-children of these immigrants are told they are American now — or maybe they are told they are “kind of” American and given a hyphen: African-American, Asian-American, Mexican-American. If some of them, feeling a lack of belonging, turn to the land of their ancestors in search of it, they often find that they didn’t really belong there anymore either. They don’t speak the language, understand the struggles, relate to the people. They are called “Oreos” for being white (read American) on the inside and Black or Brown on the outside. Occasionally they are accused of cultural appropriation for adopting aspects of that culture without really understanding it — a legitimate problem, but a symptom, I believe, of a deeper issue.
Most assimilated (read “white”) Americans aren’t consciously aware of this problem in their own lives. In contrast to the hyphenated Americans, they are told constantly that they belong — in movies, advertisements, stories, and history books. But the reality is they don’t either. Their successful existence on the American continent is predicated on the genocide and expulsion of the people who lived here before them, and on the violent enslavement of other people who were kidnapped from their own native lands. The majority of their collective memory, their legends, myths, holidays and traditions, are based on the collective memory of their European ancestors. At some level, even white Americans know that they do not fully belong on this continent.
And so, they cling desperately to their identity as white, as American, as Christian, because they feel it is all they have. White American identity is based on dominance: dominance over Black people, dominance over Native people, and in the case of cis-gendered men — dominance over female people. And it is that very dominance that the people on the progressive left (who are largely not identified as white) are trying to dismantle. Could it be that conservative white Americans are fighting — and have always fought — tooth and nail against these changes, not because they care so much for power and dominance, but because they are afraid to face the lack of identity — the ethnic emptiness — that lies beneath it?