17 March 2010

The Appropriation of Ethnic Identities aka Why I Hate St. Patrick's Day

I could never stand St. Patrick's Day. It always pissed me off, because it emphasizes an element of American culture that, somehow, has always angered me. Although everyone is American, everyone also claims that they are "Irish" or "French" or "Greek and Polish and Italian and British and Spanish and German and ...."  I understand that, as a country that prides itself on being multi-ethnic and is created through a history of immigration, it's important for people to acknowledge their heritage. I understand how this is especially important for people of Irish or Italian (etc.) heritage, who's ancestors might have historically faced discrimination in the United States. However, it's not heritage that Americans claim: they don't say "Kiss me, I am of Irish heritage" or "Kiss me, my grandfather immigrated from Ireland".  No, it's "Kiss me, I am Irish".  The thing is, you're not Irish. Chances are, you know nothing about what Irish culture is like, nor do you even have any clue what it means to be Irish.  You're an American, fully assimilated into American culture, melted away into the melting pot until we can no longer tell where you came from.

It's especially frustrating when, upon telling people I was born in Russia, they respond with "Cool, I am half-Russian". You and I have nothing in common. I've am bilingual and bicultural. I speak Russian, read Russian poetry, eat Russian food, discuss Russian politics; I know what it's like to live in Russia, to breathe Russia, to suffer Russia and enjoy Russia.  You are an American. If, every once in a while, your grandma cooks borscht, that's fantastic! We can discuss Russian cuisine and maybe even Russian grandmas. Still, chances are, you are not Russian. My children will not be Russian. They will be American, because I don't know how too cook Russian food, because I don't embody much of Russian culture, because I, their mother, more than anything else, am an American.

Pay attention to how I talk about my ethnicity and heritage. You won't hear me say "I am Russian" or "I am from Russia". Instead, when someone asks me where I am from, I carefully and consciously phrase it: "I was born in Russia".  I identify as an American, and only recently, as I've been working on self-pride, did I begin occasionally being comfortable identifying as Russian-American, or, rarely, even Russian.  I have an accent. My name is Russian. No matter how hard I try, I can't escape this. People know I am Russian. And, you know what? I hate it.

It started in second grade. Our teacher read us a children's story about a Russian man (he was a famous artist or musician or author, but I don't remember who specifically he was) who felt homesick after moving the to US. The kids looked at me and asked : "are you homesick?" No, I am not homesick, I answered. I wasn't, and I hated the attention. I hated being different, being singled out, having to defend myself. No, I am not homesick, I said over and over again, and they all looked at me and said, "You're homesick." This was right before recess, and I had an Aspie breakdown, I hid myself in the corner and tried not to cry, and I hated myself, and I hated being Russian, and I hated being associated with some stupid story that had nothing at all to do with me.  That was the first time, but not the last.  I know people identify me by my heritage. I know they speak of me as the "Russian girl" or "that girl with the Russian (or sometimes they don't even know it's Russian, and name some other random European country) accent".  And it bothers me.  I hate it when people associate me with other Russian people, when, chances are, we have nothing in common. I hate it when people attribute my behavior to my ethnicity. And, oh, it happens. I've often had people say that I do something "because I am Russian", or, when my behavior or words are deviant, they say "you Russian people are crazy".  I feel like people look right past me. For a long time, I avoided telling people my name. I avoided speaking around people who'd never heard my voice. I avoided this because I knew that, if they found, out, they would think of me as "the Russian one". I hate that every time I speak, every conversation I have, every time I say my name (although my new name of "Kae" has done something to liberate me), the conversation, without fail, always goes to "Where are you from?"  I feel like everyone looks right through me, right through my words and their meaning, and they can only hear the voice saying those words. And, somewhat rebelliously, I identify as American. I envy my sister. Two and a half years younger, and she has no accent; her name is Sasha, unique yet simple, easy to pronounce.  She has friends that didn't know she was Russian until they met me and she said "this is my sister".  "I didn't know you were Russian," they say. "I am," she answers, she proudly says, "I am Russian".

But I am proud of being Russian. I love my experiences with Russian culture, the opportunity I have to speak two languages and to know two different lifestyles. I love that I have an experience that so few have, an experience of infinite value.  I love telling people about Russian culture, telling them the ways in which it's different. I love discussing Russian politics, and trying to get other people to understand it (I also love discussing it with people who already know a lot about it, possibly more than I do myself).  In fact, I feel like I have more pride than my sister. Sure, she's never consciously tried to hide her heritage like I have, but sometimes, I feel like she sees herself as "Russian"  in the same way as all the other "Russian" people that live in the US.  Whenever she says our last name, she pronounces it the way most American's pronounce it - [k l ɛ p I ts k a j a] with an accent on the first "a" - rather than how it's correctly pronounced - [k l jɛ p i ts k a j a] with an accent on the "i". (Wow, I put a lot of work in to this IPA, I hope it's correct; I suppose it's a good thing I'm a linguistics minor.)  I see how that's convenient, especially when someone else needs to spell it. I even understand her saying it to a friend when the friend is curious to know what her last name is, although I wouldn't, because that's not my last name. But, at times, I've heard people ask her to say her last name because they want to hear what it sounds like, and she still says it in the incorrect way that English-speakers pronounce it. Now come on - that's just disrespectful, they want to hear how it's really pronounced! Perhaps it's hypocritical of me to complain about the attention I receive for being Russian and identify as American, and then insist on pronouncing my name correctly all the time. Maybe that's true, but I can't stop: it's part of who I am. I am an American, but I also have a Russian name, and I also lived much of my life in Russia.

I don't see anything wrong in having pride in your ethnicity. I don't have a problem with celebrating other cultures. I think that's a wonderful thing! But Americans, going out and getting drunk because they are "Irish" - I just think that's ridiculous. Everyone is Irish. You know why you're Irish? Because you're AMERICAN. Because, in this country, people of different ethnic backgrounds intermarry. That doesn't happen as often elsewhere. It seldom happens in Russia. I am not Irish because I actually am an immigrant, and actually might have had some of the same experiences your Irish ancestors have had. (However, I want to be careful here not to appropriate discrimination - I definitely think that some of the experiences I described in this blog are disadvantages, but not nearly as serious as the things immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe have faced in the past.)  Yet, although, chances are, as an American, you have some Irish blood in you, the chances of that being true for someone who immigrates to the US from elsewhere in the world are very, very low. And no one celebrates my Russian heritage! No one celebrates immigrants that still come today from all over the world, adding spice to American culture. (That's what I really want - a day to celebrate immigrants of all national origins and races in today's US.) No one cares - everyone just appropriates St. Patrick's Day, because everyone is Irish. Goddammit, yes, it makes me jealous, yes, it makes me feel left out, and yes, it makes me pissed.

Now, this was a significant rant, and, before I end it, I think it's essential that I acknowledge my white privilege. I have the privilege to call myself an American, despite the fact that I was born outside the country. Right here in our nation, in our state, people of color - specifically Latino/a people - are singled out as immigrants and non-American, even if they've lived in this nation all their lives.  It is unfair and discriminatory, and they face arbitrary traffic stops and arrests, teasing, and physical harassment and beatings. No matter how long their ancestors have resigned on this land, people of color still don't have the privileges that I have today. Sure, I have the right to complain, but I can't do so without first stating that I have it much better off than most.


But, hey, I do enjoy wearing green, and I even left a splatter of green in this blog entree. Hope you guys have a fantastic St. Patrick's Day and - BE SAFE.

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