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Winona LaDuke, Published April 13 2013

Letter: Pondering ethnicity at Coburns

I’m thinking of ethnicity. And, hoping I can still be ethnic 10 years from now.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the Coburns grocery story in Park Rapids, Minn. I was looking for matzo crackers. These are used on the Jewish Passover, which I celebrate. It’s the story of Moses and the escape of the Jews from Egypt. It’s an occasion to celebrate miracles, and to acknowledge that people have a right to live in dignity. And that people can prevail against great odds.

I am a fan of Passover. I am also a fan of the underdog winning on occasion. This should not be a surprise. My family celebrates Passover because we have Jewish ancestry, and also because Ojibwes usually eat bunnies. This is, of course, the other side of my family. The Easter bunny imagery, particularly for families who had trap lines, has always been problematic.

There were no matzos in the Coburns store. But I walked down the ethnic aisle where Mexican and Asian foods are abundant. I wondered, what has become of Italians? Are Italians no longer ethnic? And where is lutefisk? What is ethnicity?

No longer ethnic?

I discuss this with my son, an aficionado of cool things from many cultures. “People are ethnic until they become mainstreamed,” he says, indicating this has happened to the Italians, so they are no longer ethnic. This is depressing.

I recall a book, “How the Irish Became White” by Noel Ignatiev. The book discusses the NINA laws, or “No Irish Need Apply,” from a time when Irish immigrants, and later Jewish and Italian immigrants, faced legal and de facto discrimination. Ignatiev’s book discusses Irish Catholic emigration before and after the potato famine. The book analyzes people’s struggle to survive in what had become white, Protestant America.

In early years of immigration, poor Irish and blacks were thrown together, part of the same class competing for the same jobs. The Irish were often referred to as “Negroes turned inside out; and Negroes as smoked Irish.” But, ultimately, the author notes, Irish made the decision to embrace whiteness, thus becoming part of the system that oppressed blacks. As one reviewer wrote, “… although it contradicted their experience back home, it meant freedom here, since blackness meant slavery. Despite revolutionary roots as an oppressed group fighting for freedom and rights, newly arrived Irish-Americans judged that the best way of gaining acceptance as good citizens was to cooperate in the oppression of African Americans. Once the Irish secured themselves in those jobs, they made sure blacks were kept out …”

And, in fact, despite their roots, many Irish did not support the abolition of slavery.

‘Whiteness’

Welcome to the manufacturing of whiteness. This is a big thought in the ethnic aisle at the grocery store, but stay with me.

My son argues that ethnicity will remain with people who, in the end, will not be able to become “white.” This is “white” as a social status, not a melanin count. “White people” do not exist as a biological fact, only a social construct. I am aware that many of us are multiracial and multiethnic. We don’t want to lose where we came from.

What is clear is that 225 years into America, not all of us will assimilate. I don’t want us to. I prefer for us to celebrate cultural diversity, whether in food, ceremony, language or holidays, not stifle diversity in either shame or dining habits. A cultural monocrop is as dangerous as a biological monocrop (the Irish potato famine taught us this). Cultural monocrops destroy the vitality of a living society and culture.

Even lutefisk

I hope ethnic aisles at local stores in the North Country thrive and become larger. I relish the Thai, East Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican and other restaurants we enjoy in the North. I am thankful for that diversity. I even celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in a small way. I might summon up lutefisk courage, or I might stick with smoked Norwegian salmon for now. And I am going to hope that I can still be ethnic 20 years from now.


LaDuke is an American Indian activist, environmentalist, economist and writer. She is executive director, White Earth Land Recovery Project

on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation.