As we watched commentators (liberal and conservative alike) struggle to pronounce the names of the two bombers from Boston last week, my first thought was of all the people around the world who sat around their TV's, holding their breath, praying the same prayer: "I hope whoever did this is not someone who looks like me, is of my race, my religion, or my ethnicity."
Why? Because as people of color and Muslims in the US know too well, white supremacy and Christian supremacy push whole communities to take accountability, feel shame, and point fingers of blame on each other when one, two, or twenty people of color and/or Muslims kill or hurt anyone. It is painful that people in Boston suffered. That stands alone. As all human suffering always does.
Yet, it is also an important week for this country to look at what we see or do not see about race and ethnicity. For decades, immigrant communities (particularly of color) have been trying to talk to the rest of us about how white supremacy functions with ethnicity and ethnic bias in a way far deeper than we are usually willing to see in the U.S.
'White Ethnics' are an interesting example of this. Let's start with that term itself. It is contested, but has also changed over time. Most would agree that it has often referred to blue collar, 'white' immigrants from Central, Southern, and Eastern Europe.
In the 19th century most would agree that white ethnics were poorer than other 'white' people, but we generally moved up the class ladder a great deal in the 20th century. Currently, the term 'white ethnic' seems to be used mostly for Slavic (Eastern European) people, and those white people who are perceived by other white people as talking louder - acting 'wilder', more 'clannish' - and being poorer than other whites. Those who stick to their families, hold onto cultural traditions and symbols from home, and/or are more recent immigrants to the US.
What stereotypes do these sound like? That's right. The more 'white ethnics' play out the roles and markers that the white supremacist mind sees as the qualities of 'people of color', the more alienated we are from mainstream culture, and the more marked we are as 'white ethnics' and 'other'. That's why I think bias against 'white ethnics' is surely ethnic bias, but mostly it is just a by-product of white supremacy.
I mentioned above that many white ethnics are wealthier today than we were 100 years ago. Why? Well, in part, because many families are like mine. My mother has one German and one Polish parent. I grew up white, my mother married a white guy from the US, and I speak English like a white woman from the Midwest, who has lived in the South her whole adult life. I have a white, US American name. I have used all the tools of assimilation that my family used their privilege to help arrange for me.
I also speak Czech and German. I grew up in a privately 'white ethnic' home - with a Polish grandfather at home with long fingernails who cooked 'weird smelling' things and with white, US American neighbors who would ask my mother: "How many people exactly live in your house?" Our house was decorated to replicate Central Europe, and my mother was privately an incredible instiller of cultural memory, symbol, religion, and language. As an adult, I pretty much replicate (for good, bad and ugly) the patterns of my mother. In public and in my work, I identify my white privilege and use all the tools that I can to fight for liberation for all people.
Also, right inside the front door of my home, stands a five foot charcoal paint sketch of the face of a traditional 'Babushka' - the classical grandmother image of all Slavic people. Every day I wear at least 3 pieces of jewelry that remind me of my culture, and my ancestors. Yet, as a writer, I have probably written only three published pieces where I talk explicitly about immigration, ethnicity, and whiteness together.
When I was 15, I was a pretty confused and messed up teenager. My parents had the resources to send me 'back home'. I lived in Prague for a year, learned Czech, and traveled to visit relatives. My Czech drinking buddies called me "Imperialistka" (little female imperialist) because of my white, US American father.
I saw how Eastern Europe was being degraded economically and environmentally by Western Europe: how poor most people were and how many queer, women, and kid's lives were being lost to human trafficking and sexual slavery. I saw how Western Europe used the white supremacist tropes of 'wild', 'clannish', 'stupid', and 'ethnic' to excuse violating Eastern Europeans, especially Romany (Gypsy) people. I experienced what many Slavic women experience their whole lives - being one of 'the dark ones'. I learned how the oppression of Slavic women and queers is still connected today to the witch burning times and the way Pagan practice was driven underground in Eastern Europe.
I came back a different young woman. I longed to live in Prague again, and had the privilege to go back when I was 18; only to realize that the life I wanted as an out dyke could not be safely lived there at the time. I left Eastern Europe with the throbbing daily pain of knowing that my queer Slavic brothers, sisters, and siblings of all genders could not just leave as I could, flee the homophobia as I did. I try to honor them through my work every day, always keeping them in my memory mind's eye.
Why does any of this matter besides being my own story of becoming politicized? Besides naming what a privilege it is to 'get in touch with your culture'? Because somehow a Polish second generation queer's experience is the same as a young Chechen immigrant guy? No.
Because somehow this 'lets white ethnics off the hook' of being accountable for white privilege and colluding in white supremacy? Actually, the opposite. When I watched the statements of many Slavic people this week, I was clearer than ever how we different our experiences are and how the majority of us have collectively sold ourselves to the dreams of domination and power by intentionally positioning ourselves to push people of color down in order to move up.
The Czech government issued a statement saying 'We are not Chechens'. The bombers own uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, talked about how Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had not only brought shame to the family, but shame to the entire ethnicity. Tsarni was then praised for his statement of 'character' and 'collective responsibility' by mainstream news circuits. Acting like we believe that lie that this was 'all of us'. This country is saying we should be ashamed to be Slavic this week.
I am not ashamed of my poor and pagan Slavic grandmothers. I am not distancing myself from them. No, they can keep all that spiritual poison. I'm trying to be able to sleep at night.
Instead, what does pain me is that generally Slavs have not learned the lesson that instead of folding to fear and distancing ourselves from anything besides white, nationalist rhetoric we could stand on the side of justice. That side would be in solidarity with people of color, poor people around the world, and Muslim communities being targeted by hate. It would mean using our experiences to move to action against white supremacy and xenophobia.
It would mean 'doing the right thing' by an international marginalized community, but to us specifically it would also mean not being on our knees begging all the time for equality on a ladder of whiteness when we are precariously hanging by the lowest rung.
It has been time - for a long time - for us to use our own histories of joy and art-fueled resistance and organize to re-position ourselves politically in a mass-based way. Yet, we have stood so often on the side of the oppressors. This week made me commit, yet again, to being part of changing that.
(Babushka clipart via Bigstock)