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"But where are you from?" Nowhere in particular

(Note: Please don't mainpage this, although I doubt it would be. It's a personal piece, and possibly a little offensive)

Major Strasser: What is your nationality?
Rick: I'm a drunkard.
Captain Renault: That makes Rick a citizen of the world.


One aspect of white privilege is that you never have to answer the questions
"what are you?" or "where are you from?" to strangers. One disadvantage of that is that sometimes you don't have a good answer for that anyway.

I am a European American mongrel, living in Canada. While this may not seem like a big deal, it can be a bit of a culture clash, because most Canadians,both white and nonwhite, consider themselves hyphenates. Most Canadians know well whether they are Scottish, Irish, French, Italian or Ukrainian Canadians. Being "all of the above" isn't usually considered valid (and don't even think about "American Canadian")


When my ancestors came over to the US, they bought into the melting pot myth, which I've come to realize is a fool's bargain. I know some of my ancestry - English, German, maybe Irish - but I feel close to little of it. I have no living ancestors in any of these countries, and any sense of a "motherland" is vaporous. Embracing my Englishness has as much real meaning as becoming a Brony or a Juggalo.

This kind of rootlessness is, I think, at the heart of a lot of the racism from the Nativists trying to keep the Irish out in the 19th century through to the Tea Party trying to keep Mexicans or Muslims out. It's a fear of losing not just "their country" but their very identity.


In the otherwise stultifyingly dull movie The Good Shepherd there's a jawdropping scene between mobster Joseph Palmi (Joe Pesci) and WASP CIA agent Edward Wilson (Matt Damon). Palmi says "Let me ask you something... we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the n*****s, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?" Without a pause, Wilson replies "The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting."

This was never true, but fifty years ago someone like Wilson could believe it (and Damon sells the moment). But believing that is not an option these days, and that can be alarming to white Americans. So how do you deal with it?


If I belong to a tribe at all, it's of writers - a weird and combative people. When I read about James Baldwin freeing his mind at his local library, or Maxine Hong Kingston making the scary leap from novelist to poet at a late age, I feel a kinship that I don't feel anywhere else. It's a fairly tenuous thing to base an identity upon, but it's all that means anything to me.

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