During my freshman year, my college’s group for racial (re)conciliation held an event in combination with the theater group in which we used our bodies to explore the concept of home. Through a Never-Have-I-Ever type of exercise, I discovered I was the only person out of approximately 40 in the room who had grown up surrounded by Italian Americans. At this point, I began to realize how important that is to my cultural identity.
There was only one problem: I am not Italian.
I grew up knowing this. Multiple teachers, from my kindergarten teacher through a high school Bible teacher, were Italian American. My classmate Sarah was Italian, Jordan was half Italian, Niko was fully Italian – most of my class had Italian in them, but I had none. Later on, my church was majority Italian, and I gleaned pieces of what it meant to be Italian from church family picnics, big meals together and fresh basil in the garden.
The list goes on: My neighbor Nick was Italian, the neighbors behind us were and the neighbor girls I babysat when we moved across town were also Italian. We lived in North Haven, after all. The owners of the local music store where I took lessons were Italian. My “second family” the Vecchios and half their church — many of the people I loved there, at least — were Italian as well. Again, we lived in the Havens, a very Italian area of Connecticut. I was not bothered by being non-Italian, but I was aware of it.
I discovered I was the only person in the room who had grown up surrounded by Italian Americans.
Recently I have realized that I always study that which I am not. I think about race daily, read and speak about issues black Americans face. Most of my friends are either racial or ethnic minorities in the United States or people of any color from other countries. Yet, despite my interests and passions, I am white and American. There is value in being able to connect across racial boundaries and bring a voice to those who are not heard, but I am still conflicted about my own racial identity.
Likewise, I am conflicted about my ethnic identity. In studying Italian Americans in Connecticut for a class this past semester, I intended to study my home, my history. Yet as I study Italian Americans more and more, I realize how un-Italian I am. This culture that surrounded me and reminds me of home is not my ethnic heritage. Just as I am not black, so too I am not Italian.
What am I?
My parents did not celebrate family history, heritage and culture. I am a sixth generation American from England, Scotland, France, Ireland and (by way of probably one ancestor) Germany. I know I am white by race. I know I am American by nationality. I was born into these identities. Yet, despite knowing all this nominally, I still struggle with racial and ethnic identity.
Perhaps I am conflicted and confused because my immediate family does not find culture and heritage very significant. As an assimilated white American, I also do not feel attached to my heritage. Furthermore, my family is Christian, which means I have been socialized under the true yet often blanketing language of finding my “identity in Christ.”
While I am realizing that I might feel more stable if I secured my identity in Christ alone, I do not want to ignore the other aspects of my identity in the process. Evangelical Christian rhetoric tends to obscure or neglect the social markers that impact our lives, but I know as an evangelical Christian that my race, gender, class, sexuality and so on are too important to gloss over. I am a human being with a body and a history that impact my life — and those around me. Thus, I want to understand myself and how I fit into this country and this world.
I am a human being with a body and a history that impact my life — and those around me.
As I prepare to leave the United States for the summer, my queries take a new form: What does it mean to be a white American female in the Democratic Republic of Congo? I have yet to discover the privileges and hardships of this, and I am still working on understanding my identity appropriately in the States.
I am beginning to understand my identity more, yet as I do so, I am faced with how complex it is. I seek to understand it rightly, not only to understand myself but also to use the privileges society grants me in the best ways possible to pursue justice and mercy. Jesus Christ’s place in my life inspires this. Constantly surrounded by newfound knowledge and questions, I still ask, What or who am I, and what are the implications of that?
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