I attended a lecture Arthur Schlesinger maybe twenty-five years ago in which, reflecting on his recent book, he talked about the impending tribalization of America. It was happening, he said, but it was not a good thing. Someone asked what was needed to counteract it. Sex, he said. Michener had a similar thought in his 60s era book, Hawaii, where he idealized the “Golden Man,” the Hawaiian of whom it could not be said which race was his dominant feature.
I thought about that when I officiated at my Goddaughter’s wedding a few days ago. The melange of what we usually call characteristics of ethnicity and race (whatever that means) made it impossible to say for certain who was there, using those old stereotypes. European, African, Hispanic and Indian were mixed in such complex ways that the most one might say is that these are Americans.
It’s still common to want to put people into clearly marked boxes that we assign to skin color: black, white, brown, etc. To that we often demand the addition of ethnic or cultural identifiers such as: African, Mexican, Chinese, Caribbean, and, of course, Ordinary, meaning white Northern European fully immersed in the cultural ethnicity of Middle America. Needless to say, rank and file Ordinary people would take issue with that as they claim their unique ways of being Southern, New Englanders, Northern Californians, etc. It’s a dubious claim, but if it makes them feel better it’s OK with me.
The point is that something new is happening, and it’s happening among a new generation that rejoices in their ethnic heritage without letting it strangle their self identity or shutter their engagement with others who are not like themselves. I doubt if Michener’s Golden Man will ever emerge as the norm, but Schlesinger was right, plain old sex is making a difference.