Ask "Who is a Jew?" in a circle of rabbis and you will get the kind of discussion that, as the Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye put it, "would cross a rabbi's eyes." But do that many Anglos, WASPs, the misnamed "whites" or "Caucasians," know just how much suffering is buried in the anglophone world concerning those labels?
This first came home to me as a young man, when I invited a proud-to-be-Celtic Irish-American colleague home for a beer. My boys were playing a tape of folk songs that included the classic working song "Drill, ye Tarriers, Drill," that laments the demands of bosses.
As the song replayed the refrain, this acquaintance sang along. To my horror, he replaced the word "tarrier" with "nigger." That's when I turned to him and said, "No, Pat, you don't understand. That song is about exploited Irish workers."
He gave me the Dan Quayle deer-in-the-headlights look. All his life he had thought that having pinkish white skin and an Anglo-sounding name, as many Irish names became after English conquest, meant that he was a bona fide member of the predominant and entitled U.S. "majority"!
So I proceeded to tell him about railroad chain gangs and the Molly Maguires and the whole nine yards, about how thoroughly his ancestors were once abused in the United States. This man came to admit he was racist and wrong -- more important, that he had a lot in common with the many who have suffered throughout the history of the anglophone world.
Much the same thing, but with less open acknowledgment, happened with a now-retired Episcopal priest, a Rev. Arpee. As a geneology buff, I am always pondering the origins of family names and I innocently asked him about his, since Arpee is an unusual name with no obvious origin and almost certainly not English, as English names usually have meanings that are obvious to the historically inclined.
He told me privately that it was originally Arpinian, from -- you guessed -- Armenia. It's not the lineage an Episcopal priest would want to broadcast, given the penchant among many Episcopalians of asking individuals with a family name that is not obviously English whether they are "born and bred" Episcopalian, code for "Are you really one of us?"
To me, Armenia summons to mind the tragedy of the 1915-18 murder of 1.5 million Armenians in what is today Turkey, which the government of Turkey continues to refuse to even acknowledge. When I asked Arpee why he didn't change his name back, he brushed the question aside. Yet imagine the indignity of his father, a cobbler, fleeing for his life, then hiding who he was.
Like these two, there are legions of hyphenated Americans who "pass" for Anglo-Saxon but whose families had nothing to do historically or culturally with Albion until the Ellis Island experience.
Even Brahmin WASPs aren't WASP. The Roosevelts are Dutch and the Astors German. No educated person needs to have the Gallic origin of the DuPonts (in French "of the bridge') pointed out.
The Mellons are that curious and invented origin known as Scots-Irish. This was the predominant origin of rebel colonial America, but it was really a cover for Ulster Irish. In a few instances, it denoted an ancestry tracing back to those foot soldiers in Cromwell's Puritan army who decided to stay in Ireland after their military campaign to subdue rebels. Ulster legend has it, however, that the "Scots" part comes from (entirely mythical) Scots who, it is claimed, were the eight counties' "original" inhabitants.
This amply explains how it came to be that the Scots-Irish in America badly mistreated and discriminated against the Irish Catholic immigrants. Hell hath no fury like a feud among cousins! (If you have any doubt, check out the Arabs and the Jews in the Middle East.)
It also explains why the Scots-Irish migrated to America. Most of the Ulstermen were starving and the British Crown didn't give a farthing for their fate. Indeed, many who stayed participated in the Irish rebellion of 1798.
Here's the kicker: today less than 25 percent of the U.S. population is genuinely WASP. Indeed, the "majority" is a minority!
We all know we are really mongrels of one sort or another. What we don't face up to is the vast conspiracy of silence concerning the horrific pain, in the denial of various national and cultural identities, of past injustices, in plain human suffering that so many "white" Americans have undergone.
In the family history of many of us who do not have a physically identifiable ethnic origin, such as so-called black skin, someone made the uncomfortable attempt to "pass." My own mother, on grounds that she was partly French (one-eighth, to be exact), disliked it when I began to proudly call myself Hispanic.
In turn, I don't call Anglos "white" if I can avoid it. I don't even call Anglos Anglo, if I can avoid it. So many Anglos aren't Anglo at all. Their forbears suffered at the hands of the English or their descendants, some to the point of wishing to hide their own rich ancestral cultures and languages.
Now there's the real white man's burden!