Privilege, In All Its Glory

Shaming people for an accident of birth is divisive and negative

Despite the fact that I recognize and acknowledge having been the unwitting lifelong possessor of various forms of White privilege, as a person of Italian-American heritage, I have walked just a few–a very few, tiny, mincing, tiptoeing steps–on the other side of the street, too. The people of my paternal family were not considered White until 1965 (I was 11 years old), when racist immigration quotas on Italians were overturned. Living in the city of Indianapolis, I never drive past the President Benjamin Harrison home on Delaware Street without recalling that the short-lived President introduced the original Columbus Day celebration as a one-time national holiday in 1892, following the New Orleans lynching of 11 innocent Italian immigrants–an act which brought Italy and the United States nearly to the point of war, as the Italian consul in New Orleans left the city at his government’s direction, and Italy cut off relations with the United States. (And since Taking Umbrage is now a national pastime, let me hasten to assure all readers that I fully celebrate the reinvention of Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day! That does not, however, alter the sad origins of the holiday.) I remember with both laughter and shock the stories told to me about the racism endured by my Italian grandmother and grandfather; the filthy name calling to which my father was subjected while growing up. I know that some Italians in the United States were interned during WW II.

Put simply, what all of this has taught me is: We humans have to begin being just human. People of all creeds, colors and genders cannot continue this acrimonious habit of accusation and resentment for one another’s entitlements, actual or supposed. Rather, it is long past time that we all begin to work together to bequeath to one another, to anyone deprived, our various blessings.

Shaming people for an accident of birth is divisive and negative. It results in nothing but resentment and increased contentiousness. Everyone has some form of unearned, arbitrary advantage: Christian privilege. Ability privilege. Male privilege. Financial privilege. Educational privilege. Heterosexual privilege.

It is an unearned privilege to be born tall or with excellent vision or superb hearing. Being born part of a two-parent, two-earner family is decidedly a privilege. A genetic inclination conferring talent or mental acuity or physical ability is an unearned privilege. The list is endless.

And while, yes, it is fair and just to require that others acknowledge their benefits from unearned privilege, expecting them to feel guilt for this is worse than damaging; it is unproductive. It merely provokes indignation. When we encounter bitterness from another person over our supposedly having had it easy due to some form of privilege, our private response is always resentment and indignation. We recall our personal struggles and we feel belittled. Rare is the individual who will, in such circumstances, stop, take a deep breath and admit: “I didn’t have it easy, no—but your experience was so much harder!”

Attempting to base global or societal changes on such negativity is always destined to fail, simply because every person, everyone, everywhere, wants to feel validated. They do not want to have their efforts and challenges, their personal story, minimized. The sad and tired script of, “‘I have experienced pain and difficulty.’ ‘Well, mine was worse!’” only perpetuates a sequence of bitter, angry responses. From there the progression through negativity to misunderstanding to viciousness never stops.

The cycle becomes a cyclone when natural reactions of shock and sorrow are labeled “fragility”. For anyone with a developed sense of empathy, it’s painful to face the awfulness that another person has endured, especially when recognizing that we ourselves may have played a role, even inadvertently, in their dreadful reality. But to evince sadness, even anguish, in that circumstance, is not to be fragile, but to display enormous strength. Compassion and empathy always require great strength.

But we can, each of us, make a personal choice to put a full stop to all of this. We can look at others, not with tired eyes seeing only differences while resenting what they seem to have that we do not, but instead considering, “What have they experienced, endured, withstood? How is that similar to what I have known? Is it really better, as I am supposing? Or was it simply awful in a different way?” Or, “Did they have any advantages, no matter how slight, that I did not? Are they cognizant of and grateful for those advantages?” “Can I be strong enough to acknowledge that I may have had some advantage, even the slightest, denied to them?”

We can look, too, beyond stereotypes; recognize and refuse to be enmeshed in them. We can question everything we have been taught, seemed to see, heard, and then draw new conclusions, coming to a richer understanding of those who inhabit this world with us.

No matter what our misunderstanding and behavior has been in the past, we can choose this new reaction. We can, as Gandi remarked, be the change we wish to see in the world.

If we choose to let go of the concept of privilege, we may discover that we have infinite commonalities with people who might seem, superficially, to be our polar opposites. We might at last, and in relief, find that, in our common humanity, there is much more that binds us than separates us.

We might discover that we are all, in fact, simply part of the human family.

If you liked this essay, you might also appreciate “Cultural Appreciation”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from June 2, 2021.

When We Weren’t White

This blog post was actually scheduled to publish during the week of Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day. But Mercury Retrograde was in full swing at that time, supposedly causing everything technical to go totally whack; somehow, the post never appeared. So let’s blame it on Mercury Retrograde! Here it is now, belated and totally out of sync with the holiday, but heartfelt nonetheless.

I am, as confirmed by DNA testing, half-Italian. My grandparents were each born in America, but their own families, including some older siblings, were born in Italy: Lucca, in Tuscany, and Vasto, not far from Rome.

One of my great-grandfathers actually arrived on the shores of America pre-Ellis Island, coming through Castle Garden, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Mansuetto Gregori arrived with his wife and children sometime during the 1840s or 1850s, long before Castle Garden stopped processing immigrants in 1890. Family legend, related to me by my grandmother decades ago, held that, having arrived in New York and before moving to what would eventually be Sioux City, Iowa, Mansuetto quickly changed the spelling of the family name to Gregory, hoping to be taken as “Black Irish” (the name once given to those dark-haired, olive-skinned Celts who descended from survivors of the 1588 destruction of the Spanish Armada). The Irish, as Mansuetto quickly determined, had assimilated and were accepted in America, as Italians were not. I’ve never quite understood why Mansuetto would have believed that his accent, as he learned English, would fail to identify him as Italian rather than Irish, but I suppose that logic would have been his least consideration at the time.

We Italians weren’t White, you see. We would not be considered White until 1965 (I was 11 years old), when racist quotas on Italian immigration would finally be overturned.

So although many people–people of color, indigenous people, and those of Asian, Pacific Islander or Jewish descent–might easily glance at me and think, “privileged White person”—and although I, personally, suffered quite little of the anti-Italian sentiment which was once rife in the United States–well, no, not quite. My experience falls nowhere near the same classification as that of many Jews or Asians, and certainly doesn’t even place in the same solar system as the racism experienced daily by most Black people in the United States. But it was not all smooth sailing, either, especially for my paternal Grandmother and Grandfather. As I have reported in prior blog posts, they endured terrible incidents of bigotry throughout their lives. For my Grandmother, especially, those incidents left emotional scars; I will never forget my feelings of disbelief, shock, and grief as she related the painful story of the racist remarks she suffered in her early childhood from her teacher, an Irish-American Roman Catholic nun. (See “And Speaking of Prejudice”, from January 18, 2018.)

For, yes, as Italians, we were also Roman Catholic. Few people today realize or recall just how detrimental to his campaign was the Roman Catholicism practiced by John F. Kennedy. Yet it was not long after his assassination that I sat in my fifth grade classroom, listening fearfully, as my teacher explained to the class that, should the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion ever be revoked, “THEY” would come for us, just as they had murdered our President.  Fortunately for my peace of mind, there were many Catholic children in the neighborhood where I first grew up, since Holy Name church and school were literally around the block.  But the one little girl who was just my age (all the others were older or younger) wasn’t permitted to play with me, the “Car-tholic” girl.

Still, most of these fears and slights touched my life only peripherally, fading away as I grew to adulthood. Perhaps that is why I reacted viscerally to the reframing of Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. Please do not misunderstand! I genuinely believe this is a long-overdue reparation for and acknowledgement of the horrific damage suffered by the native peoples following the arrival of Europeans on the American shores. Nevertheless, I also have a heartfelt personal investment in Columbus Day, as an Italian American aware of the sad truth of the origins of the holiday: that the celebration (originally intended as a one-time event) was declared by the short-lived President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, following the horrifying New Orleans lynching of 11 Italian immigrants. The murders brought Italy and the United States nearly to the point of war; the Italian consul in New Orleans left the city at his government’s direction, and Italy cut off relations with the United States until President Harrison’s paltry act of reparation.

So while I rejoice at the new national consciousness and acknowledgement of wrong doing, at the truth and justice brought to the reframing of the day, for me, personally, it can never quite be that. Columbus Day will for me, always, be known as “Murdered Italian Americans Day”. My racially-profiled ancestors are to me, you see, quite as important as yours are to you. And none of them, yours or mine, deserved to be treated as less than human because of the circumstances of their birth and heritage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “You Dirty Wop”, which you can find in the Archives, below, from February 1, 2018.