Jello Salad is a Weird Ethnic Food
First, I’d like to say that these people have a point. There’s a lotta white people on ScienceBlogs! More than in the science blogosphere generally? I don’t know – pinning down the demographics of the blogosphere is tricky. More than in science generally? Razib has the numbers.
There are any number of places to go from here, but Alice has asked us all to share our ethnic stories, so that’s where I’m going to go with this today. Perhaps I will carp on the defensive nature of people’s response to observations of racial skew, or think of something intelligent to say about Janet’s post, or fawn over the new blogs I am finding by exploring the Urban Scientist’s blogroll, some other time.
So. I am a North Euorpean mutt from the Midwest, and I grew up in a liberal town where people liked to address racial issues by exploring their heritage and celebrating diversity in a fairly superficial (but fun) way that involved lots of traditional music, costumes, and food – especially food. My traditional ethnic food is hotdish*, and my traditional ethnic dessert is a Jello mold with fruit in it.
I can’t remember if anyone in my family actually brought hotdish to an “ethnic food” potluck, or if it was just a running joke. You are not supposed to bring hotdish or Jello to a cultural heritage potluck. If your ethnic food is hotdish, you are expected to bring corned beef or pierogies or sauerkraut or lefse – something that is conventionally associated with a country in which one of your ancestors used to live, that your family might or might not still eat on a regular basis or as part of a ritual meal for special occasions.
Now, so far in the responses to Alice’s prompt, and in other situations where this sort of thing comes up in conversation, I have noticed a tendency for white Americans to talk an awful lot about their ancestors. Some of them also talk about their multicultural childhood neighborhoods. But even though a majority of my ancestors came from Germany, and I can sort of mumble along to the Schnitzelbank Song, I am not German. Neither is my grandmother, despite the fact that that is her first language, or the rest of my family, despite the kitschy signs that proudly announce “You can always tell a German, but you can’t tell ’em much!” to the users of our various spare bathrooms.
Having ancestors who immigrated from Northern Europe means that I saw my own genealogy reflected in the main narrative thread of the history textbook, while others got the “diversity boxes”. There is absolutely no ducking the fact that my ancestry has granted me full membership in the institution of white privilege, but quite a lot has happened in my family since those cholera-ridden steerage-class Atlantic crossings. If I use stories about Germany or Scandinavia to give myself some culture, I’m not so much critiquing the way the cultural construction of whiteness has separated me from my heritage as I am perpetuating the idea that the North European-American whitebread mishmash culture I’ve got either doesn’t exist, or isn’t “ethnic”.
I’m not sure what the people who brag about the racial diversity of their childhood friends are doing, but whatever it is, it smells funny.
Finally, in lieu of an actual conclusion, I will present an anecdote about my personal experience of white privilege, which has absolutely nothing to do with my German heritage and everything to do with my skin color and broadcast standard accent.
The other day I was poking about with a couple of friends at the entrance to the Lawson Adit, which is a tunnel on the Berkeley campus used around the turn of the last century as a teaching tool for the mining program. It goes 4,000 feet into the hills, intersects the Hayward Fault, and was the subject of squabbles among the Fathers of Seismology. It is also locked up.
A cop came by, wondering why we were so interested in the lock. We told her that we were geologists, and sweet-talked her into opening the door so we could step inside the adit for a bit. Would that have happened if we hadn’t been so clearly geeky-looking, i.e., white and Asian? Hah. I suppose it’s possible, but… hah.
*Hotdish, for those of you without Minnesota roots, is a generic term for a class of casserole. It typically involves cream of mushroom soup, and is topped with tater tots or corn flakes or shoestring potatoes or a highly Americanized version of chow mein noodles that comes in a bag and bears a striking resemblance to shoestring potatoes, or maybe curly strips of cardboard.