Sunday, February 25, 2007

That Ethnic Thing

This Ethnic Thing

In the last few weeks I've been working on St. Patrick's Day designs for my shop. It's been an interesting experience because there isn't a drop of Irish anywhere in my genetic least that I know about. However, I did get assimilated into a big old crazy Irish family and whenever I'm with most of them, there's something that starts to simmer inside me. They seem so easy with being Irish, with having a solid identity that withstands both moves all over the world and the urge to culturally merge that is so much a part of being American.

It's that culturally merge bit that always gets me personally. I wasn't physically born in this country and half my family spoke with strange and bewildering accents to most American ears. The best way to strike panic in most of us kids, even after all these years, is to make some reference to "accents," such as: you pronounced that wrong! Or remarking that a few weeks spent visiting the old country has left its mark on your pronunciation. Hey, you came back with a slight accent. No! Yes. Did not. Did. Aieeeee.

As children, we did all the talking to strangers because our family's English skills weren't fully developed enough to answer the door, the phone, or to ask directions and understand them and have them understood. Once we were teenagers and our parents could speak proper English, often grammatically better than the average American, we still did all the talking because we were mortified and embarrassed that our parents spoke "funny." It was horrible going through all the angst of teen-ness, and have to also deal with family members who weren't cool enough to speak without an accent.

There was a blissful period of time in this country before Bushco when it was actually cool to have an accent, when being "Ethnic" was something interesting and unique. People wanted to know about your accent, where it came from, who you were culturally, how you differed from them, and what we could learn from each other.

Bushco changed that. They made foreign a bad word. They made accents suspect. They made enculturation mandatory and immediate. They once again made it bad to be from somewhere else because if you were, you were either a terrorist or wanted to steal shit jobs. They made ignorance of other cultures a reason to hate and suspect and punish them for being from somewhere else, for believing different things, for gasp! Not being white, Anglo-Saxon Christian Republicans.

I would not want to be a child immigrating to America in these times. It was difficult enough as I was growing up, but foreign-ness still had a certain charm and allure then. It made you interesting. Women with thick dark accents were considered exotic, especially if they also smoked cigarettes to give them that lower sexy tone of voice that would eventually kill them from lung cancer. I both used to smoke and exaggerate my long lost accent as a young woman because it was an advantage over prettier, blond American girls. I was short, dark, and an Atheist. I needed all the advantages I could get.

Then we became the great melting pot where everyone was expected to jump in and become part of the same bland stew. Immigrants weren't allowed to spice it up. They were boiled until all the ethnicity was gone and only then could they jump in. Only then could they be bland enough to be part of the American dream.

With the civil rights movement in this country also came the right to be foreign. It was a magical time. People asked me how to say their names in my native language. They asked me for recipes they could serve their guests as something unique and different. Children began to learn foreign languages in the schools that included cultural components instead of just plain vanilla grammar. America began to truly be the land of immigrants.

Then Bushco came into power and all that started to decay. They introduced hatred and suspicion and served "freedom fries" with their ignorance burgers. White Christian cowboys skyrocketed in the music charts with hateful anthems bringing shame upon everything this country once stood for. Education became something for the elite and it became cool to be dumb, inbred, and spewing hatred from the car stereo as the pickup truck dug deep craters into the earth. Television shows were bland and made fun of anything that wasn't dumb and ignorant and poorly educated like the President. America began a backward slide into the kind of ignorance that once kept slaves and denied women the right to vote. It became a banana republic where English, bad uneducated, grammatically incorrect English was proposed as the official language. Hee-Haw.

There were a couple things that saved this country from itself and continues to do so. One was shows like the Sopranos where even though it feeds on stereotypes and makes one ethnic group seem like idiots and cold-blooded killers, it did break the mold of white people TV. These were not characters who played at being the Sopranos but spoke with white people accents and ate pot roast for dinner. No, these were out there Sopranos were were as different as they could be from the standard American prototype.

Another was the fall of the wall. It allowed communication and intermarriage between cultures that were once kept separated by government induced fear of each other. We became each other's forbidden pleasures and once again those who were from these previously hidden cultures, became desirably exotic.

But most important in all this are the Irish. What other culture has such a day that is celebrated year after year in such large numbers? There's no St. Italian Day or Russian Day or any other Ethnic holiday that draws in all the other cultures and makes them so much part of them on that one day a year. There's no other holiday that brings in the camaraderie and fun and acceptance of both being Irish and being honorary Irish on one special holiday.

So these designs are both my thanks to the Irish for being who they are and most importantly, for accepting me with such open, festive and loving arms. America still has much to learn and it wouldn't hurt to learn some it from the Irish.

Changing minds one t-shirt at a time. Visit Ursine Logic for more designs.

1 comment:

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