Who “Belongs” in America?

Billboard, c 1919 (Library of Congress)

Billboard, circa 1919 (Library of Congress)

U.S. Naturalization Act of 1790
“All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof… that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to the rights of citizenship.”

As a little girl, it never occurred to me that being born white had meaning in and of itself. I would have felt insulted at the idea that I had advantages simply because I was white. The idea of white privilege went against everything I had learned about who I was. After all, my father worked very hard. I wore hand-me-downs to school and ice cream was a rare treat. I firmly believed that anybody who tried hard enough could succeed in life, and that in America everyone had the same chances. White was just something I happened to be. Nonetheless, white privilege had shaped my life long before I was born.

As an adult, I  learned that ancestors on both sides of my family arrived in North America in the 1600s. Puritans and Quakers from England, they landed in the colonies of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania more than one hundred years before the United States was formed. My genealogy reflects the story of America, from one point of view – that of early white colonists, pioneers, and homesteaders. Digging deeper, I realized my ancestors were in the early wave of immigrants who drove out or killed the Wampanoags, the Pequots, the Abenaki, and other indigenous people living in the Northeast. They were among the white people who saw the abandoned native villages and fields of the “new world” not as a tragic result of European diseases that had decimated 90% of the population, but as a “wonderfull Plague” sent by God as a sign that they were meant to take over this land. I didn’t know any of this as a child, but that doesn’t matter.  I inherited the privilege that came with my ancestry and its bloody history, along with my red hair and freckles.

What I did know was that my ancestors were English, French, Scotch-Irish and “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which it turns out means German. And I had no doubt that I was an American, that I belonged. My whiteness was an invisible factor in that identity. The 1790 Naturalization Act was a long time ago. Because my ancestors were predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants,  I was not aware that an evolving definition of who “gets to be white” had affected immigrants’ social status and their rights to citizenship.  In particular, Catholics from Ireland and the Mediterranean, Jewish people, and others from Eastern Europe.

Some years ago, a young white friend was talking about how hard it was for her to get any information about her heritage from her Portuguese and Czechoslovakian grandparents, who had emigrated in the early 20th century. They would tell her nothing of their life or customs before becoming “American.” Feeling the sadness in her voice, I suddenly realized with a chill, that my WASP ancestors were among those who had the power to define who was accepted as white and, therefore, American.  The conditions of belonging: sacrifice Statue of Libertyyour past, your family lore, language, costumes, and celebrations. In other words, become like “us.”

So, my image of immigrants when I was growing up did not include my own ancestors. No. Immigrants were those “poor, tired” people coming here from Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, welcomed by the Statue of Liberty with open arms – or raised torch.  Part of me identified more with the Statue of Liberty than the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I also knew that Chinese workers had come to the West to help build the railroads and that Mexican “migrants” worked in orchards and farms in California. But living in Vermont in the 1950s and early 1960s, I didn’t have contact with many people newly arrived in the U.S. or whose ancestry was very different from mine.  When I learned about citizenship in school, the emphasis was on rights, responsibilities, and being a “good citizen,” with nothing about historical or current issues of who gets to be a U.S. citizen and who has the power to decide that.

In the powerful diversity film, The Color of Fear, the men of color discuss whether or not they identify as Americans. Not one of them has an unambiguous relationship with the phrase “I am an American.” Because, they all agree, the image of “American” is “white.” There are good reasons for this. Despite the fact that people of African descent were legally given the rights of citizenship in 1870, efforts to keep them from voting have persisted right up to the present day. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese workers from  entering the country and denied citizenship to those already here. The Immigration Act of 1924 targeted Japanese and other people as not eligible for citizenship because they were not “Caucasian.” This did not change until the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished national-origins quotas and finally eliminated race as a legal barrier to citizenship. Again, more information that I didn’t learn until I sought it out as an adult.

What unconscious messages do children growing up in the U.S. today get about what it means to be an American, and what immigrants look like? After Vietnam, it was “boat people.” More recently, dehumanizing terminology like “illegal aliens” or simply “illegals” has been used to describe undocumented workers from Mexico, many of whom have been living here for years.  U.S. citizens originally from Muslim countries are subject to extra scrutiny at airports and seen as “terrorists.” There is fear of engineers from Asian countries taking “our” high tech jobs. Being a melting pot was okay as long as most of the people looked like us white folks.

In the current discussion of immigration reform, I frequently hear white people say “all of our ancestors were immigrants” as a way to counter the idea that immigrants are Other. Sometimes the caveat is added, “with the exception of Native Americans.” (However, people brought here as slaves were not really immigrants either.) I’ve said those words myself a few times, but they feel too simplistic. That idea may shift the conversation a little bit, but it can also become another way to ignore the complex history that got us here, including our own privilege.  And to avoid feeling the painful fact that there are people who have been in the U.S. for decades, and even centuries, who still are not treated as the “real Americans” they are or deserve to be.

Learn more:
Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson
Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans by Ronald Takaki

What was your experience as a child of your family’s roots?
Do you know when and how your ancestors came to the U.S.? Anything about their struggles and successes?
What images did you have of immigrants? Who were they? How were they described?
How have you learned about “the immigrant experience” and how did it impact you?

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2 Responses to Who “Belongs” in America?

  1. Susan says:

    Growing up as an Air Force BRAT, being able so see firsthand what it was like to live in other countries, I realized I was hugely privileged, but presumed it was American privilege, not White privilege. My military world contained families of all colors, many interracial marriages, and I experienced us as all the same. It was such a shock to live in a North Carolina town in 1965 and to learn there were sharp demarcations among Americans.

  2. Geraldine Smith says:

    Thanks, for this, Janet. It is really good – why not send it to editorial page of newspapers – it is so timely with all the discussion of immigration reform. Jerry Smith

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