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.