What We Lost Who We Are
When I was a little girl learning how to read in the Midwest, my mother taped note cards with French translations into my books. My favorite was Are You My Mother? (Etes-vous ma mere?) I loved how the teuf-teuf explained to the little oiseau that a steam shovel couldn't be a little bird's mother. I didn't come to understand until years later that the hand-lettered cards in my books represented my mother's own quiet rebellion; she was reclaiming the language that had been forced out of her childhood. Even though she was born near Brussels, Belgium, my mother had to go to the library to make sure the French in the notecards was correct. Since she was two, she'd lived in Milwaukee, where her GI father had brought her and my grandmother after the end of World War II. His mother (my great-grandmother), a fierce woman whose own grandfather had come to America from Germany a century earlier, turned an icy shoulder to her Belgian daughter-in-law for being a foreigner. My mother had to speak only English "because it wasn't polite to speak a foreign language in front of people who didn't know it." This was why when I was a little girl she insisted that I learn French and call my Belgian grandmother "Bobonne." The English word "Grandma," my mother's name for my dour great-grandmother, evoked painful memories of a harsh welcome to America.
"At least she doesn't have rickets,," my great-grandmother had sniffed the first time she met my mother. Such intense dislike of anything foreign rang true to the mantra of old-- stock English, Scottish, and German Americans who held themselves above newcomers. By their rules, assimilation was a zero-sum proposition: you couldn't blend in and succeed unless you gave up who you were. For white Americans, cultural identity was the price of economic opportunity. Today, this insistence on complete assimilation, together with its corollary that cultural and ethnic markers are dangerous, threatens the sense of unity that white Americans have long credited it with creating. It sterilizes the quirks and habits, rituals and expressions that mark people as members of a group; in the process it erodes the sense of the little things that hold Americans together as a wider community.
Tremendously self-absorbed yet also astonishingly lacking in self-awareness, white America still knows itself best at its borders: when we are at war, maintaining trade barriers to cheap foreign imports, or raising fences against illegal immigrants. It is time to revisit the way we came to see ourselves. By leaving Americans of European descent without a positive way to define themselves, the old taboo against cultural markings forced us to define ourselves by exclusion: saying who we are not instead of who we are. This seeded the culture wars of the last two decades and left white Americans unprepared for a new wave of immigrants who do not look like our great-grandparents did.
Travelers love this joke: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Someone who speaks many languages? Polyglot. One language? American. It's dark humor, funny because it is so accurate. English is our unifying signature and underscores the isolationism that only a superpower can afford: if the world wants to talk to us, let it learn our language. To me, it also suggests that this country has not yet formed a national identity that is solid enough for many Americans to embrace outsiders.
What does it mean to be American? Individualism, consumerism, and mobility are our totems as expressed by the suburb, the strip mall, and the superhighway. Celebrating individualism yet subverting it through a maddening sameness, white middle-class Americans drive in their Fords and Chevrolets to or from their single-family homes in order to buy what they want when they want it. They identify themselves by allegiance to brand names: Schwinn bicycles, Barbie and GI Joe dolls, Nikes and Calvin Kleins. …