Lederhosen and jingle dresses

I grew up in a German-speaking household, with my maternal grandparents–both European immigrants–and extended German-Slavic, Lutheran family with whom I regularly spent time. My mum didn’t learn to speak English until she went to kindergarten. So much German was spoken in our home, in fact, that by the time I got to high school, I was so frustrated at not understanding what was, clearly, being said about me that I opted to take German all four years, plus a term of conversational German my first year at Virginia Tech, just for good measure.

Our culture–language, food, drink, holidays–enveloped us like a warm, comforting blanket. Though I remember a lot of polka dancing, cheek-pinching and entreaties to eat more, it wasn’t smothering, as portrayed in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Rather it was more like a support network of people I had no concept of being without. It just was. And though there was no overt talk of ethnic pride, nor was there shame or discouragement in being ethnic.

Photo of a white child and white adult woman dressed in traditional German clothing with green grass, a hedge and road in the background
My mum and brother, 1975

(The first time I walked into Novak’s Hungarian Restaurant a few years ago, the aroma actually brought me to tears. One whiff of a stogie has the same effect.)

I didn’t learn until I was in my thirties–from a coworker who had grown up on the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota–that the warm, fuzzy, cultural experience I’d had in my childhood is not universal. Chas told me about her family’s experience being sent to St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota, where they–father, aunts, uncles, and cousins–were forced to assimilate into White culture and forbidden to speak their native language. Without delving into the horrifying depths of the history of Indian schools in the U.S. (you should take the time to research this on your own), I ask you to imagine, just for a moment, being ripped from your family as a small child and sent far away from everything you know to live among strangers who brainwash you into believing your food, language, religion, rites, rituals–everything about your culture and your entire way of life–was completely, utterly inferior and wrong.

Young girls wearing colorful dresses with bells on them

Unimaginable, right? Horrifying, yes? Morally and ethically depraved, even? Absolutely. In addition, our [White male] U.S. government also:

  • took millions of acres of valuable, productive land from indigenous peoples without compensation (also known as “stealing”),
  • relegated these folks to reservations, sometimes thousands of miles from their homeland,
  • entered into treaties and reneged on them.

Then our [White male] government appropriated indigenous children and sent them away in a concerted effort to wipe out their very culture. Sit with that for a while.

Am I White male-bashing? No. I’m dropping truth bombs. (If you’re a 30 Rock fan, you’ll get that reference.) As much as I am a part of American White European descent culture–part of the problem, but trying to be part of the solution–I simply can’t wrap my head around why a lot of White people still believe in the supremacy of their skin color. We can point to the past and say, “Those old White dudes who ran shit were so ignorant and racist.” Because yeah, they were. But it’s 2021, for chrissake, and there is no shortage of White people who still cling to the belief that Black and Brown people are inferior to them. How is this even possible?! (That’s a rhetorical question, BTW. I know how it’s possible.)

Since we can’t unlearn things, we become responsible for the knowledge we gain. We can recognize our past, be proud of who we are, and appreciate our customs and culture: but I believe that those of us who are of White European descent should, if we’re able, also commit to using our White privilege in an effort to right these past transgressions. That looks different to each person depending on who you are and what you’re willing and able to do.

Jingle dress photo: Wikimedia Commons

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