Questioning White Heritage

Mark Johnson | August 20, 2017

This article recently appeared in the Herald Leader

As a predominately white descendent of 19th Century Irish and English immigrants to the United States, I am confused by the term “white heritage.”  My mother tells me of an Native American grandmother somewhere down branch on the family tree.  It wouldn't surprise me to find a smattering of other ethnicities in the bloodline, those with stories too shameful to get past the filter of our acceptable family narratives. Of course, the Human Genome Project could clear it all up, but I’m with John Wright’s speech (masterfully preformed by Bill Murray) in the 1981 movie Stripes:  “We are mutts.  Here’s proof.  His nose is cold.”

What does it mean to embrace “white heritage?” Are we talking about an Irish heritage or an English heritage?  Is “white heritage” primarily French or Polish or Italian or a plethora of other nationalities too cumbersome to list? I once traveled on an overnight train between Edinburgh and London with Scottish day laborers.  I quickly learned how ethnic animosity can be spewed as vehemently inside the color barrier as outside of it.

I can only make sense of what some in our country mean by “white heritage” by using a very narrow definition. It’s the history of white males, who for little more than two centuries have been in control of this grand experiment of representative democracy.  Like all stories, it is complicated.  Despite all the great achievements, there is an underbelly of exploitation, mass extermination, forced slavery and oppression.  While I reject all notions of white supremacy, I have, by virtue of an arbitrary assignment from birth, been a benefactor of white privilege.

Is this the heritage we are celebrating or is this the history we are exposing? Can a concept as rich as heritage be reduced to nothing more superficial and deceptive as skin color?  What recently brought Neo-Nazis and Confederate-Sympathizers together in Charlottesville?  Why were Nazi flags and Confederate flags carried side by side and marched with pride down the streets of an modern American city?  Do these two groups really share a common heritage or do they merely share a similar history?  A shameful history of a shared racism, steeped in the mistaken notion of ethnic superiority and a willingness to employ violence as a means to maintain it.

I find myself in Kentucky because my white Irish ancestors were rejected by the more established white European settlers of the Northeast. My great-grandfathers served the Confederacy because they identified with the southern culture of our Commonwealth.  They were complicit in a system that not only pitted whites against blacks, but also whites against other whites.

My father’s generation faced a different challenge.  The winds of other wars pushed him into a wider world and a variety of conflicting heritages.  This good ol’ Baptist boy from Kentucky was now surrounded by Catholics and Jews.  He learned new ways to insult his own race:  “Filthy Mick!, Clay-eating Redneck!, Damn Yankee.”  But ultimately the differences gave way to a pressing need to fight as one, united by a common banner and a shared commitment of purpose.

Racism did not disappear during my Father’s generation, far from it.  The lines of division were not expunged. But old barriers were coming down. By the time of the Vietnam War, the segregation of troops was gone and Americans of every color, class, religion and background were serving side by side.

Maybe they didn’t realize it. But they, along with the rest of the country, were constructing a different heritage; a distinctively American heritage, where diverse people band together and fight for the cause of freedom for a group other than themselves.

We live into our histories, but we create our heritage.  How will we respond? I hope by knowing our heritage is not just from where we have come. It is shaped by all decisions that influence who we are becoming.


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On August 26, 2017, Jim Stone said:

White privilege? So my father working for $15,000 a year and eating beans and cornbread was "White Privilege" for me? You are totally clueless. I only wish I'd had some BLACK privilege so I could have gotten extra points and gone to college.

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