Friday, June 24, 2005

The Acid Bath

At Pearsall’s Books, a post that takes exception to Noel Ignatiev’s book How the Irish Became White, and the thesis that‘s implied in its title. I recently came across the following passage in an essay by Richard Rodriguez – “The Third Man” – which I believe is worthy of reflection:
The price of entering white America is an acid bath, a bleaching bath – a transfiguration – that burns away memory. I mean the freedom to become; I mean the freedom to imagine oneself free.

The point of Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (by distancing themselves from black) may be extended to any number of other European immigrants to America. How the Germans became white. How Sicilian Catholics became white. How Russian Jews became white.

Extended even to non-Europeans: How my mother and father became white. My Mexican parents were described as White on their citizenship papers by an unimaginative federal agent. (An honorary degree.)

Who can blame the Irish steward or the Sicilian hatmaker for wanting to be white? White in America was the freedom to disappear from a crowded tenement and to reappear in a Long Island suburb, in an all-electric kitchen, with a set of matching plates.

I grew up wanting to be white. That is, to the extent of wanting to be colorless and to feel complete freedom of movement. The other night at a neighborhood restaurant the waiter, after mentioning he had read my books, said about himself, “I’m white, I’m nothing.” But that was what I wanted, you see, growing up in America – the freedom of being nothing, the confidence of it, the arrogance. And I achieved it.

Growing up an honorary white – which meant only that I was not black – I never wanted to be black (Elvis Presley wanting to be black), such was their white freedom! White, which began as an idea of no color; which defined itself against black and was therefore always bordered with black; white in America ended up as freedom from color – an idea of no boundary. Call me Ishmael.
There’s a lot more on this controversial topic in the book – Brown - The Last Discovery Of America (2002) – from which the passage is taken, and I think that much of it is relevant to the present debate in the U.S. – and also in Europe – on immigration and culture.

No comments: