When one of the white members of Proud Boys who was interviewed on CNN said, “I was born white,” it stirred my memory.
I retired after 35 years as a high school counselor. I thought back to the early 1980s when I was on the staff of a human relations summer camp sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ). In working with the teenagers we had them focus on identity. The young people, as well as staff, took part in the exercises.
For Asians, Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, this task, though difficult, could be dealt with. It was not so easy with the white staff and campers. Many had not dealt with what it meant to be white. When we got together later to share our identities, to hear an older white man tell us he took pride in the European art and music that were brought to this country by white people, it sounded to me to be forced and unnatural.
After further discussion we came around to talking about how each of us were seen by ourselves, as well as each other. Before long, we got to the matter of how white people, being in the majority, were seen by the other groups. Many of the white people were surprised to learn that many in the other groups saw them as aloof and uncaring. Many of the white people, for the first time, were made aware of the advantages they had being part of the white majority. A few Jews had a hard time with this.
This coming together of all of us served us well. Whites, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans were able to take a good look at themselves and consider, as well, how each group was seen by other groups.
Which brings me back to the statement of the young Proud Boy. I may be reading more into what he said than was intended. What I get from his statement is a lack of identity as a person who is part of the majority in this country and the privileges and advantages that come with this.
In the news recently has been discussion at the California State University concerning inserting ethnic studies into the curriculum. Opposition has come from some who feel that teaching about ethnic concerns would be divisive. I believe, indeed, we need to add ethnic studies. At the same time, though, we need to develop with white students, along with sensitivity to minorities, a positive sense of who they are.
Doing this, we may be able to help those Proud Boys to have a better acceptance and understanding of themselves and of others. With this, I would hope, they may not feel the need to take such extreme action.
In considering this, I am reminded about differences between white people. The Italians I know seem to have a positive sense of identity that seems to set them apart. Back in the ’70s when I was at a church in the San Fernando Valley, a teenager told me about a racial conflict at San Fernando High. It seemed to be involving blacks and whites. What surprised me was his account of the conflict. He said the whites and blacks were fighting one another, but the Italians were not involved. Evidently, the Italians had developed a separate identity which did not pose a threat to the Black kids.
Back in the late 1940s, my dad had a gas station in L.A. at the corner of 36th Place and Normandie. His landlord was Chester Colasardo, an Italian immigrant who lived next door to the property. The area was inhabited by mainly Black and Japanese families. Chester’s children all attended Foshay Junior High, which my sister, Evelyn, and I attended. I remember Chester’s sons would hang out at our gas station well into adulthood.
The family members appeared white, and they were very close, with apparently positive identities as Italian. My subsequent relations with Italians have been positive, and I have come to realize how important this positive ethnic identity can be in how we relate to one another.
Phil Shigekuni writes from San Fernando Valley and can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.