Monday, April 25, 2005

There Are No White People In Chicago

I’m a third-generation Mexican American and originally from California, but I’ve lived in Chicago for 12 years. One of the most startling differences between the two places is that there are no “white” people here. People who look white to me, and who would be called white in California, strongly identify as Italian or Irish or Polish. Co-workers eventually make clear to me that they’re Lithuanian or German or English. Peers my age have demonstrated their strong identities as Dutch or Swedish or Croatian. This sense of ancestry that most Caucasian Chicagoans have surprised me at first and I had to get used to it. I grew up in California where people of color had our cultural distinctions, but white people just called themselves “white people.” Very few of them conveyed to me any sense of their ancestry.

Maybe the California lack of cultural distinction has to do with the running joke and only slight exaggeration that no one is actually born in California; they all move there from somewhere else and the largest population that moves there isn’t Caucasian. Perhaps the large and growing population of immigrants to California has made non-Hispanic whites there insist on their homogeneity against the rising immigrant tide.

While growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I heard many times the anti-diversity argument “Why do people want to call themselves Mexican American or African American? Why do they want to separate themselves? Why can’t we all just be ‘American?’” Many Californians supported the idea of everyone letting go of their cultural distinctions and just fading into the mainstream. These people see homogeneity as the cure for prejudice. As a young girl, I thought it was my Caucasian friends’ lack of ancestral identity that made them favor everyone just being “American,” but maybe it was actually a bigoted backlash. Maybe for some Californians the solution to racial problems was to erase all cultural distinctions. Maybe to that end they insisted they were just “white” and that was the end of it.

Whatever the reason, I grew up expecting people who looked mainstream-American-white to think of themselves as mainstream-American-white and I was impressed by the first Chicago acquaintance who identified so strongly as Irish that she really took St. Patrick’s Day personally. A boss proudly declaring his Polish background on Pulaski Day surprised me, and countless guys that I’ve dated have startled me by making clear their identification as Dutch or Lithuanian, etc.

Thus have I discovered that there are no “white” people in Chicago. Everyone, not just those of us whose parents learned English as a second language, carries a solid sense of their cultural heritage. Is it like this everywhere outside of California or is this a Chicago phenomenon? I don’t know but, after the cultural blandness of my California Anglo friends, I’m realizing how many different colors there are in white.

5 comments:

Writer Corinna said...

Thanks for this. I am a white woman living in San Diego. I have been bothered by news coming out of Chicago. I am a grad student studying Forensic Psychology. I am thinking that my career is going to have to - in some way - contribute to helping people in Chicago live a life that includes more justice than I have been seeing. Send me an email sometime if you would like to be pen pals, Corinna Craddock writercorinna@yahoo.cm

Anonymous said...

lol I googled "white people Chicago" and this was the first thing that came up. A lot of sociology research contrasts ethnic whites with racialized minority immigrants (wondering whether Asians and Latinos and post 1965 immigrants will take the "ethnic" route of whites or the "race" route of blacks, or a hybrid direction).

Having spent time in both the Bay Area and Chicago, I think ethnic Chicago whites are more Irish or Polish for the same reason that Filipinos in SF or Koreans in LA have a stronger identity (or Blacks in Chicago for that matter) . . .because they are situated in a larger population of whatever group and because they are closer to that source of immigration. That's why there are movies about the Boston Irish but not the San Diego Irish (why Scorcese has yet to make a movie about the Mexican Mafia probably speaks to the universality attributed to white ethics but not to Latinos).

A lot of work on symbolic ethnicity shows that after the Civil Rights movement and with the rise of "multiculturalism" ethnic whites reclaimed the hyphen that their parents and grandparents had been trying to lose in an attempt to assuage white guilt. Although many white Chicagoans have deep ties to their ethnic communities (no disrespect), they are not impacted by their ethnic identities as frequently and possibly as negatively as are racialized minorities. The book 'The Ethnic Myth' by Stephen Steinberg is a good read on this topic.

No clue why I responded to this? But interesting post and hope you are doing well!

Regina said...

Is there really a Mexican Mafia that calls themselves that? Correct me, but I understand you as saying that there's a universally assumed set of white ethics that contrasts the assumption that all Mexicans are free of ethics (morals, laws). That's an interesting reason for the absence of a "Mexican Mafia in popular culture. But don't all the drug traffickers in Breaking Bad count? Oh, wait, the guy at the top of that stack is Africa American. Hmm...

Regina said...

Also, I love when people tell me they found my blog through googling certain words. Thank you. The last phrase I was aware of being linked to was "I suck at relationships." That was a proud moment.

tmossinca said...

I also googled "white people chicago" because I am in Chicago and, frankly, there are a lot of white folks.
My impression is extremely different from yours... I'm from California and am shocked at how racially unequal the city seems. I think integration in California is much more successful, and the "cultural identities" people insist upon divide the city.
If one is third or even second generation, you are more American than anything else. Identification with your home country is fanciful. The vast majority of Americans have never seen their homelands, and to family abroad (if any), you are American. You might feel connected to your roots, but your roots no longer feel connected to you.
I'm all for appreciating where a person comes from. But more important is where they're at. When Chicagans realize this, perhaps the city's segregation will cease to be so glaringly apparent.