Who am I? / Race vs. Ethnicity: what’s the difference?

As I continue on this long (and sometimes bumpy) road of ethnic identity and racial reconciliation, I am continuously amazed at how complex this journey really is. One way it gets even more complicated is the subject of ethnicity and race. A lot of white folks use these terms interchangeably. While they do go together, I have learned they are not the same thing.

My journey involves me owning my privilege and supremacy as a white straight man in the Midwest, and continuing to understand how I benefit from such associations and identifications. Discovering the implications of my racial identity is essential to my ethnic identity journey. Growing up in California and moving to the Midwest has been amazing but difficult too. I have never been made more aware of how different two white populations in the same country can be. When I express my emotions in church and other places, many people who look just like me (i.e. white) don’t know how to respond to my passionate, expressive personality. I feel so awkward. Why are these Midwest people not as excited as I am to talk about feelings? Is it a geographical difference in the United States? Or maybe the ridiculously cold winters in Wisconsin just freeze your emotions? While these are both true, maybe there is something more to it.

Race is defined as a group of people with a common physical feature or features. Makes sense why I benefit from white privilege and white supremacy. Ethnicity, however is a state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. For more, see Ethnicity vs. Race.

“Nana, why doesn’t more of our family speak Spanish?” That question is one that still rips a band-aid off a wound for me. I was doing a research project in college interviewing women in my family and I wanted to know more about the side of my family I knew least about: my Spanish heritage. Most white Americans don’t know much about Spanish culture and I grew up just as naïve. I grew up assuming, “I’m only a quarter Spanish so it doesn’t really matter, right?”

As I grew older, I started to realize my Spanish heritage was not the same as my Scotch-Irish side and that the experience of many of my white friends was not always the same as me. Why did some of my family burn to crisp in the sun and others turn an olive color? And why did some of my family have the last name Perez and others not?

My grandma explained that when her older sister was young, the principal beat her when she spoke Spanish in kindergarten. I cannot say if this is the only reason why my family stopped speaking Spanish, but it undoubtedly played a significant role. I do not pretend to understand what it was like for my Spanish family to enter the United States. Names and language can adapt, enabling me now to assimilate fully into white privilege and supremacy. But I wish my family would have carried on more of the language and the culture, the things that tied my family to Cadiz, Spain. I lost something in the process. We all did.

On a recent podcast, I heard Michelle Higgins talk about how white people in the United States, defined by their Italian or Irish ethnic heritage, also experiencing some discrimination for keeping their cultural norms. These communities quickly realized if they defined themselves by their race, they would no longer be the subject of such abuse and oppression. When our families made that choice, we knit ourselves with white supremacy and abandoned our ethnic identities. We no longer saw ourselves as having an identity in our community.

“We had Mediterranean exclusion acts, we had local civil laws about Irish men and women, about people from Germany. We have had a lot of anti-people laws that were directly connected to ethnicities. There was a time when you were Irish there was no way in the world you were going to marry anybody who was Italian. But somehow because of black and brown skinned people, because of the necessary subjugation of people who looked a certain way and that is including our Asian family members as well. Somehow because of that it became more beneficial, it became more secure to get rid of Italian, Greek, German, Irish, Syrian even, Armenian. It became more beneficial to just call oneself white. And when that happened everyone lost something even the people making the choice. They chose to be color-blind amongst people who shared some piece of the spectrum of their own skin color. But they lost in that because the thing that they were bowing down to was artificial. Power directly connected to race is artificial.”  (Michelle Higgins)

Over the last five years I’ve been on a journey of owning my ethnic background and learning what it actually means to be Spanish and Scotch-Irish. At the same time, I need to own my racial identity as a white man in the United States who has participated in and benefited from the oppression of other ethnic and racial groups. (The history of Spain in the Americas is not one to enter into naively or lightly.)

I don’t think the racial identity of being white by itself is a strong enough basis for us to participate in true reconciliation. Being racially white, there’s not enough be proud of as we enter into the pain we cause our minority sisters and brothers. At the same time, drawing entirely on ethnic identity (saying “I’m not white, but I’m Spanish”) is not the best way to approach conversations with minority sisters and brothers. However, a solid understanding of your own ethnic identity can propel you into dialogue when you need to own your privilege. If more white people could create places to explore the ethnic identity our families may have or have not abandoned, could that enrich our understanding of race, white supremacy, and white privilege? Could it give us the courage to enter into the pain of others?

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