Heritage Or Hate: A discussion of cultural and ethnic pride and the ever- present irritant of racism

Cultural diversity fascinates me, and I’ve always eagerly sought out cultural experiences, since before the time I cajoled my high school friends into accompanying me to a Hare Krishna dinner and chant circle.  Today, I eagerly look forward to any exhibition of a culture’s traditional art, cuisine, or music, from our city’s Greek Fest to the kimono landscapes of Itchiku Kubota recently featured at our art museum.  College was a special time for me, for the influx of students from an astonishing array of cultures meant that there was so much to learn and experience.  I looked forward to annual events such as KASA’s Africa Night, ISA’s Diwali celebration, and the Thai Ensemble’s always memorable performance.  All my life, I have been drawn toward interesting people from other parts of the world, and have many friends who grew up (and/ or are still living) in other countries.

That being said, I have developed a new interest in recent years, an interest in my own cultural heritage.  I’m a Caucasian of mixed ancestry, primarily Slavic, Anglo Saxon, and German.  Of these major components, I have found myself developing a strong interest in my Germanic roots.  Specifically, I am fascinated by Germanic mythology and folklore.  Some time ago, I began following these ancient tales up through Scandinavia, and developed a strong interest in exploring that mythos and the culturally relevant insights it contains.  In particular, the shamanic figure of Odin, the wandering mystic god, holds a special appeal.  This isn’t an unusual turn of events for me, as I’ve been fascinated by mythology and ancient cultures for my entire life, whether Hindu, Native American, or Egyptian.  But for me, the experience of exploring my own cultural mythos felt almost revolutionary.

The widespread implication in our society today seems to be that it’s dangerous for a white person to take too much pride in her ancestry.  A white person’s pride in her cultural heritage somehow suggests her feelings of superiority over, and loathing for, members of other ethnic groups.  For me, nothing could be further from the truth.  I’m horrified by the opinions of such people as the white nationalist group Stormfront.  These people staunchly believe that all non- whites should be removed from our country, and that we should not even permit an exchange of trade between our then- “purified” nation and the nations comprised of non- whites.  I think that the resulting loss to our society would be incredible.  In a very real sense, it would destroy the very foundations our country was built upon.  We were strengthened by immigration, and this has enriched us in countless ways.  Where would we be without the inventions, literature, rich traditions, music, and (as a vegetarian, I must add the following) cuisines which evolved in far corners of the world, and were then, joyously, brought here with each wave of immigration?

I am, however, deeply troubled by a phenomenon which is occurring in popular culture.  It has become commonplace for people of other ethnicities to make scathing jokes and stereotypical generalizations of whites, and these comments are often repeated by white people themselves, in a tone of voice that suggests that being white is shameful, embarrassing, and just plain uncool.  I came across many examples of this right here on WordPress, which is what prompted the writing of this article.  These blogs were written by white people who worked or studied with members of another race, and they listed the full range of stereotypical and degrading comments their colleagues made on a regular basis.  Were they offended by this?  No, they seemed to be more ashamed than anything, and didn’t even bother to refute the claims, in their blogs or presumably in life.  I’ve known several people who wistfully fantasized about somehow escaping from the bland, “uncool” trappings of being white.  I admit that, in my college years, I too was like a ball of putty in my professors’ hands, and readily accepted the notion that white Europeans were a malicious bunch bent on world dominion and suppression of the entire southern hemisphere since before the days of colonialism and slavery.  I bowed my blond head and was embarrassed to be white, born into a legacy of vicious exploitation (which I now see as a tendency that has plagued all of humanity since we crawled out of the caves).  This misplaced feeling of shame over my heritage persisted for many years, and I suspect that I am not alone in experiencing these sentiments.  For instance, I also knew a girl with a German surname who had dyed her hair black because she was afraid of looking too Aryan.

Of course, there are several ethnic groups within the umbrella heading of “Caucasian” who openly and publicly declare their ethnic and cultural pride.  The Italians and the Irish are the first that spring to mind.  My boyfriend and I often express our envy of such people, who are able to promote their cultures and their unique history so actively.  They even hold parades!  We all know what would likely result if there was ever a German Pride Parade.  In fact, it was so humorous that we both laughed while discussing the possibility.  Either a public outcry would result (spurred on by paranoids who have blacklisted the entire country and culture of Germany due to the atrocities of World War II), or the event would be usurped by real, bona- fide neo Nazis who would spoil it for everyone!

The fact is that white racists do still exist in this world, as surely as there are racists of all other ethnicities (who are able to express their views much more openly, to cheers rather than jeers).  Everyone knows why racist expression by a white person is violently suppressed, whereas racist expression by a minority individual is considered lighthearted and amusing.  I don’t need to delve into the past for an explanation of why some people may be more sensitive to these concerns than others.  The continuance of racism is like a thorn in my side, and I found that it complicated my own exploration of my German roots on several levels.  Firstly, the general public seems a bit suspicious of any person who talks overmuch about her Germanic heritage and the interests it has spurred.  When I talk about German and Nordic mythology, mysticism, music, and culture, I tend to receive wary looks, followed by inquiries on my feelings toward other races.  This would not be the case, of course, if I was a young Korean woman pursuing my interest in ancient Korean folklore and tradition.  On the contrary, people would find it intriguing or charming, rather than potentially suspicious.  

Secondly, I must also admit that expressing an interest in ancient Germanic culture and mythos has drawn neo Nazi types to me on numerous occasions!  After having placed several mentions of Nordic/ Germanic mythology on my page at My Space, I began receiving messages from interested people.  After checking out their own pages, I was startled to discover a running list of quotes from the mouth of David Duke (white nationalist and former head of the KKK).  Furthermore, I found my interest in Asatru waning due to the fact that many of its proponents in my local area displayed pictures of themselves lifting drinking horns in front of a large Confederate flag.  By way of definition, Asatru is the modern day revival of Germanic Paganism.  It is, in fact, a wonderful and quite authentic re- creation of ancient Germanic belief.  I must state quite clearly that there is nothing about Asatru which is inherently racist.  It is a valid re-creation of a historic spiritual path which is, to me, quite fascinating.  Most Asatruar are likely not at all racist.  In fact, not all of them are even white.  I’ve met practitioners of Asatru who belong to other ethnicities altogether.  However, the Asatruar I’d spoken with in my state of Ohio tended to be of a racist variety.  Most never said so.  Their Confederate flags and quotes from David Duke spoke for themselves.

I think it’s unfortunate that such individuals’ appreciation of their cultural heritage seems hinged on a disdainful presumption of superiority over other races.  It is truly ironic if the best thing a person can say about his cultural or ethnic heritage is “at least I’m not a __.”  Hatred is not a cultural identity, nor is ridiculing other cultures an insightful way of appreciating one’s own.   While I sit reading the Eddas (the primary source of Norse mythology, written down and preserved in medieval Iceland), I find myself actually enjoying them, rather than sneering at their “superiority” over other examples of cultural literature, such as the Upanishads or the Bible.  I strongly wish that all cultural traditions, whether from Tibet or Scandinavia, could be readily appreciated by all people, without the tainting influence of racism.  I also long for the day when my love of Germanic history and its rich, ancient culture would no longer make me a target for neo- Nazis or those who suspect me of being one.

Soahki is a contributing writer for projectgroupthink.wordpress.com. Get instant updates for this blog via Twitter: PGTblog.

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5 Comments

Filed under social commentary, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Heritage Or Hate: A discussion of cultural and ethnic pride and the ever- present irritant of racism

  1. Po

    This article made me realize that I’m severely culturally challenged. I’m so far removed from my German and Czech roots that I’d feel more at home at my local McDonald’s. Is this sad?

  2. Soahki

    I think a lot of Americans are this way. One effect of living in a cultural melting pot is that, over the generations, our own distinct cultural backgrounds seem to break down. It takes effort to trace your roots. Also, some families are better at maintaining cultural awareness than others. My boyfriend’s family still prepares traditional foods, at the least. Mine does not. It’s not necessarily sad to be unaware of your cultural background, though. It probably only means something if you want it to, and if those ties serve to enrich your life somehow.

  3. redpillneo

    “Hatred is not a cultural identity, nor is ridiculing other cultures an insightful way of appreciating one’s own.”

    I would like to comment on the number of musical or artistic subculture types that should glue this one to their shaving mirror.

  4. KevinKMJr

    Ah, another favorite of mine. When asked what I am, I simply reply, “American.” When then asked what my ancient relatives were, then, yes, I will reply that my ancestry is mostly Austrian. This may be unique for me in the fact that none of my known relatives, and i knew my Great Grandparents through high school, knew of a family member that lived anywhere but the United States. Yet, for some reason, no one accepts American as a valid heritage, unless you’re Native American of course.

    The nice thing about this is that I have never felt bound to exploring only one culture. I love the fact that America is a cultural melting pot as I really get to explore all of these cultures simply by going to work every day.

    There will always be a cultural rift between us as long as we define ourselves by what our ancesters were and did. Define yourself by who you are and what you do.

    • soahki

      In response to this:

      “There will always be a cultural rift between us as long as we define ourselves by what our ancesters were and did. Define yourself by who you are and what you do.”

      I do hope that you’re not implying that there is something wrong with choosing to pursue knowledge of one’s heritage and ancestry, if one finds such cultural information interesting. I would never say that there’s anything wrong with choosing NOT to explore one’s cultural background, but I find it odd that others seem to feel there’s something objectionable about my wishes to do so. Taking interest in one’s own cultural ancestry does NOT imply a lack of interest or dislike for the ancestry of others. I hope you will see what I mean by this, even if you would rather just consider yourself an American. I feel that cultural awareness, in and of itself, is not dangerous. If all cultures melted into one mass global culture, I would be saddened that we had lost so many rich traditions and customs. I also suspect that humanity would still present just as much of a danger to itself if cultural differences were removed from the equation.

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