Ethnic Pride: A Case of Mistaken Identity?

Is “ethnic pride” a false concept? Jennifer Iannolo examines the benefits and hazards of the term based upon her reflections as a first-generation American.

I’ve never understood why some people wear their ethnic heritage like a badge. Whenever I see a car with an Italian flag sticker on the bumper, or someone (heaven forbid) trying to act like a Soprano family member, I find myself wondering what these people are trying to express.

In discussing the concept of “ethnic pride” with a friend of mine, I agreed with his conclusion that such a sentiment was borrowed glory. To claim a true sense of pride is to look back and say, “I did that.” It is an earned sense of personal glory for one’s achievements. How does one claim that by mere default of birth?

Such second-handedness is particularly odd to me because I am a first-generation American. As a child of immigrants, I was raised to be an American, and to respect not only what that title offered me, but what it asked of me in return.

When my father fled fascist Italy he set his eyes on the United States and never looked back. He didn’t want to be Italian — he wanted to be an American. And though his new country greeted him with hatred and racial slurs, he forged a path for himself with determination.

My mother left Scotland with a small trunk of clothes and an inspired vision for her future. She knew that if she were to remain there, economic misery would be a near certainty for the rest of her life.

Though my mother’s assimilation to her new home was less arduous than my father’s, they shared a passionate vision: to be the masters of their own destinies.

To my parents, America was a land of greatness and possibility, and they fervently embraced their new freedom. In a rejection of stifling tribal expectations from the Old World, they married outside of their cultures in a new world — where their own choices were all that mattered.

And though, as their children, my siblings and I possess certain traits reflective of our parents’ cultures (such as the compulsion to make large gestures when we talk), we never had a sense of “Italian” or “Scottish” pride instilled in us. There was simply the pride we earned in embracing and diligently practicing their values of honesty, integrity and hard work as the methods for success.

My thoughts on the subject became clearer when I paid a springtime visit to Scotland with my mother. Her side of the family is part of the Forbes Clan — one of the fiercest families or “clans” ever to inhabit Scotland — so I was eager to delve into my ancestral history. Our itinerary included visits to a number of places where I could explore the Clan’s adventures.

I discovered that my ancestors played a pivotal role in freeing Scotland from England’s tyranny. They fought beside William Wallace at Stirling Bridge, and their blood stained the soil of the battlefields of Culloden.

I retraced their footsteps over that hallowed ground, and as I explored the Culloden memorial site I could feel a swell of admiration and emotion building within me. The inscription on the site’s memorial, built by Duncan Forbes in 1881, was simple yet poignant:

The Battle of Culloden was fought on this moor
16th April 1746.
The graves of the gallant Highlanders who fought for Scotland & Prince Charlie are marked by the names of their clans.

Time-worn stones engraved with family names lined the path of the battlefield. My tears fell in torrents as I saluted the courage of these men and their burning desire to be free — price no object.

I felt a tremendous sense of honor — not because such a pivotal part of history included my ancestors — but because the purposes for which my ancestors fought resonated so deeply within me. The source of my emotional salute had nothing to do with the concepts of “family” or “ethnicity.”

Rather, it was the conviction that if I could have chosen my ancestors, I would have chosen these very people to represent the values I have embraced in my life. The Forbes Clan stood strong against tyranny, serfdom and oppression, and used their wits and fierce determination to overpower a wealthier and seemingly invincible English enemy. Those are my kinds of heroes.

When I returned home, I was compelled to examine the way I felt about the rest of my family’s values. I realized that what I feel is not an ethnic pride — it is the celebration of a particular set of values I have accepted as being in agreement with my own.

Some of these values are common to both my parents’ cultures, such as the idea that there is always another seat at the table, and that cooking for others is an expression of love — or that laughter and lighthearted teasing are essential to one’s enjoyment of life. (Of course, Scots and southern Italians are also infamous for their stubbornness, but I’ll plead the Fifth on that one.)

Other values — my delight in the finer things, and my passionate commitment to the pleasures of sensuality — stem from the sense of life I have embraced from one particular parent. (I am justa lika my fatha.)

There are other cultural ideals I have rejected as being nonsensical, such as the ideal of Italian “duty” to family no matter what the circumstances. Or the perverse Scottish notions that haggis tastes good and that frugality is paramount to virtue.

If I were to accept those without judgment, I may as well wear a t-shirt with both flags on it that says “Don’t screw with me, or else I’ll wrap you in a kilt, bludgeon you, and mail you to your mother — C.O.D.”

Because you see, to blanket my values under a heading of ethnic pride is to accept all the traits of my heritage, positive and negative. It is a package deal that leaves me no personal choices and requires my acceptance without consideration. It necessitates that my sense of pride be derived from accomplishments made by others who came before me.

Conversely, if the acts of those predecessors were despicable, I would under the same premise be required to wear a crown of shame. And unearned guilt is as morally reprehensible to me as stolen credit.

Since the defining features of a healthy pride are discernment and choice, if a person has made a conscious decision to accept and act upon the positive values associated with his heritage, he has done the work required to claim his pride — though it will be a personal, not an ethnic pride.

However, if he has accepted an unexamined package of “pride” without thinking about it, borrowing his glory from others, he will be unable to avoid the guilt as well. It comes with the package. And that may make him think twice before affixing the next bumper sticker.

Jennifer Iannolo
is an editor and columnist for the Atlasphere. When not chained to her laptop complying with the Editor-in-Chief’s endless demands, Jennifer also finds time to be an entrepreneur and passionate gastronome. Further articles and culinary ruminations can be found on her web site, Gastronomic Meditations

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To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.