Sunday, February 22, 2015

Absurdity of Adopting Identity

Ethnicity is a touchy subject. We all have ancestors, we all come from somewhere. Every ethnic group has culture, heritage and should have pride. Caucasians lately have had to resort to borrowing other ethnicities to express pride as white pride is synonymous with prejudice and it's out of style.

I'm asked what are you? My response: human or half cartoon. Looking at me a fortune teller once said I am painted, but the artificial color is the one on the surface. She said the painters are really just bringing my true colors out. I am red, yellow, orange, green, blue, Gray, Brown, white, pink and purple. I am a cacophony, and when painted I look like a rainbow threw up on me.

The complex answer, my ancestors were horny. They fell in love with people and had children, they weren't focused on heritage or lineage. They came from many countries: Sweden, Germany, France, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the US. Most were Irish.

I was raised going to wakes, knowing that the key factors in my family history on both sides were tragic and humiliating. My Irish great grandfather died of emphysema working the railroad. I've had to go through the railroad museum in Sacramento and read plaques belittling and stereotyping Irish workers. I don't know of Cliff Magee fit those stereotypes. I wanted to hit someone by the time I was ready to leave I was so tired of reading plaques ragging on Irish workers, it was all about the amazing Chinese workers. Hats off to them but I say also hats off to the others who worked and died.

Yes, I have feisty family members who drink too much, tell fancy tales and get into fights. I've been one more than once. I'll stick with fancy tales and weaving words.

I look at it differently.

My great uncle Grubby was Irish. He drank too much. He started fights. More than once his reckless behavior endangered lives and caused harm to others. No Irish story is a happy story. His life was like that. He didn't cry out label me, he didn't tag out. He kept going. Most of his twelve siblings hated him, I did mention he was Irish (stereotyping says he had to have an army of siblings). When he died, the family gathered for his wake to trade the stories of his life.

My cousin Scott and I were hours away. In Irish style we drank Jamison's in his honor and memory. I called my grandmother who was at the wake to have her share my story. Most of my generation did not have Grubby stories, he was too cartoon and too volatile. I spent a lot of time at my great grandmother's house. Alice Magee had one of the most beautiful hearts and the loveliest garden in the county. She read tea leaves and could see your future in a ring spun on thread. Did I mention she was Irish? Sometimes a stereotype is based on average perceived character or behavior. It's not always meant as offensive.

Alice let me get away with my shenanigans. I was rambunctious. I heard the adults. No one liked Grubby or that he went to visit his mother. Somehow that was bad? He had to be using her.

I was there this time and I was antagonistic toward him on behalf of the opinionated adults who were not there.  He told me not to swing on a macrame plant holder. I swung for all I was worth. I hit a table and my great grandmother's prize vase fell to the floor and shattered.

Until then, I had never upset Alice. I upset my parents often and was used to getting screamed at and told how worthless and terrible I was. Alice did not do that. She accepted it. No chastising, just acceptance as we know Irish stories are full of loss and sorrow.

Tears filled her eyes, she sighed and said it was just a vase. Grubby could see the hurt, he could see that I was crying now too. It hurt me to hurt her. I would have done anything to take the moment back. He did not yell either.

The deplorable scoundrel, he quietly went for the broom. He got a newspaper and a magnifying glass. He got super glue. He got two chairs. He taught me the second most profound lesson I learned that day. Her reaction taught the first. My world changed, I changed because if their choices that day.

It's not the accidents that count, it's what we do to make things right.

He spent hours with me piecing the vase together carefully, as if we were paleontologists putting prize relics together for a museum. She stood in the door with a beautiful smile. Tears of a different sort in her eyes. I knew why she loved him so much. I loved him too.

That was the one memory I really had to share with him. When my grandmother relayed the story, his siblings and friends grew reflective. Few of them had known him like that. Few had gone beyond their loathing to see the guy inside the Irish caricature he was. It was his one good story. The family remembers now. The memory shares forward in story.

My great great grandfather on my father's side was Cherokee. He lost his land in the land drives twice. He skipped the trail of tears. He rode north to New York state. He met an Irish immigrant girl, Alice Padden. They married in great scandal. They had two kids. His name is different on each census, always Hunter being his last name. He left to apply for the Dawes act. He was denied because he left Oklahoma. He was not heard from again. He cautioned my great great grandmother to raise the children as caucasians.

He insisted they be protected from the color of their skin and the negative connotations of being Cherokee. My grandmother chastised my grandfather when he even mentioned his ethnicities. Prejudice is still out there, ironically it's often held by those who want you to know their a little bit of something or other on so and so's side.
I wish I could find Hunter's grave to put a flower there, to let his spirit know one of his descendants wanders as he did but without the anger. Maybe he knows though.

He was like a coyote, he came fathered two kids with a pretty lady and vanished with a name made up of letters-much like those I use at work?  Who was he? Who am I today? What name should I sign? The joke is on us both.

Isn't it enough to be you? Do you need an impressive lineage to feel important?

Can't you be impressive as yourself?

I don't need to buy overpriced tourist gook that has stylized stereotypical designs. I wince at New age hubris and posers claiming to be Native whiter than I am talking with Brooklyn accents. I wince just as much seeing kids run around with their pants hanging down below their butts "prison style" trying to look tough like black or Hispanic gangsters. Somehow it radiates "weak" "pathetic" and "moron" rather than dangerous, strong, or badass.

It's the old saying I'm starting now, if you have to stand in the shadow of a mountain to point out how impressive your shadow is, remember it is not your shadow your claiming- the shadow is still that of the mountain and to those around you, you look like a fool. Make your shadow tall by being who you are. Be proud of your strengths, your flaws, be aware where you came from.

My heritage was written on air, woven of words and hearts. My ancestors were people who were not perfect. They lived, they died. They live in the stories still shared. None of them were famous, they didn't need to be. They lived their lives, they made their mistakes and celebrated their successes. Many of those moments are forgotten, as most of us will be in a hundred years.

It is alright to be Caucasian and proud of your heritage. The Scottish know that, so why not take a note from them?