Who are we? Who are they? The rise of ethnic nationalism may have something to do with how these questions are answered.
Every person has struggled with the question, who am I? It can be answered only in the context of one’s life experiences among the people with whom one lives and works. It means an equally important question will always be, who are we? But who are we is usually answered in the context of, who are they?, the they who are not we.
I sent in for one of the cheap DNA tests to discover my heritage. Raised a son of the Upper Midwest, it turns out I’m mostly British. Given the successive waves of tribes that invaded the British Isles, and the cheap price I paid for the basic kit, little more can be said about my ethnic or racial ancestors. Still, to be British, or more particularly, to be English, always meant to be among a certain class of we who were definitely not among the many they of continental Europe, or anywhere else. It’s no longer true. The Anglo-Saxon-Norman English can no longer be certain about who the we of England are. Waves of immigration from former colonies and Eastern Europe mean a large population who cannot claim descent from centuries of life on the island, yet they’re citizens of the United KIngdom with all the rights and privileges thereof. The mayor of London, for instance, traces his lineage to colonial India, and he’s not C of E but Sunni.
Perhaps Brexit should not be a surprise, but an expected move to recapture, as much as possible, the we-ness of being English according to the old standards. Of course it’s a fool’s errand, but it’s not irrational. The same can be said of most European countries. Their long cherished national identity as a people sharing common ancestry is challenged by the influx of peoples whose skin color and religion are not theirs, and who trace their ancestry to far off places on other continents.
We Americans are a little different. Proudly we claim to be a nation of immigrants –– with limitations. My status as a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) placed me in the center of those who controlled the stories of who we are as Americans. I am among the we who established us as the standard to which all others were held. Some of the others were were admitted to the circle of we if, after a time, they assimilated our ethos, and adopted our stories as theirs. We had no objection to them retaining a few symbols of ethnic heritage, as long as they didn’t crowd out the dominance of our own. Blacks, American Indians, Asians and most Hispanics never quite made the cut, not that we didn’t try with well meaning efforts to make them into honorary WASPs, sometimes against their will –– the Indian schools for instance.
It’s breaking down. It’s been breaking down since the end of WWII. WASPs no longer have the place of authority that once allowed them to set the rules of who we, as Americans, are. Whites of whatever ethnicity or social class are no longer the sole arbiters of who is in and who is not. Moreover, the stories we tell about our origins as a people are no longer limited to Pilgrims and pioneers. I was struck by Ghana’s Year of Return (2019) that encouraged American blacks to discover their roots in Africa. They hoped for settlement and investment, and got some of it, but mostly they got visitors who came to discover more about who they are. Then they went home carrying with them new stories America’s origins that don’t begin in coastal slave markets, but don’t deny the reality of it. In a similar way, American Indians have boldly asserted the right of their stories to a place of primacy as first peoples in America’s narrative. The same is true of Hispanics whose ancestors settled the West long before other Europeans. And consider those of Asian descent who were banned from entering the country or owning property, yet flourish as fully accredited Americans who don’t need to be accredited by anyone else.
Curiously, the old WASPish standards retain influence. Who we are as Americans tends to gravitate in that direction, but into that vortex come new stories and traditions creating a new narrative with more parts. American history can no longer start in England with a parade of ships to Jamestown and Plymouth. It has to include Ghana, China, Spanish America, and the Indian nations into which they came. They won’t displace Jamestown and Plymouth, nor will they displace the Revolutionary War, Civil War, or westward push of European settlement. But those stories will have to stand side-by-side with others that will diminish the luster with which they’ve been polished. That’s OK. We’ll polish up the new narrative to have its own luster.
In the meantime, it shouldn’t surprise us that a large part of the old time white population isn’t happy about losing their place, or being forced to accommodate a new narrative that includes others always treated as they, not we. It’s what’s behind a lot of the tea party stuff and America First nationalism. Nor should we be surprised at the angry impatience of some who demand their rightful status as members of we Americans, on their own terms, and without the need of anyone else’s permission.
There’s a lot of talk about the divisiveness in society, our polarization, and how E Pluribus Unum is disintegrating before our very eyes. There is an unhealthy turn away from representative democracy toward authoritarianism aided by a racially segregated plutocracy. I want to believe it is the last refuge of those committed to the old narrative, and that for all their bravado, they’re doomed to failure. I want to believe we are feeling the birth pangs of a new narrative, a healthier more resilient narrative, that will give new life to a stronger democratic republic.