Last week, Rosa received a challenge from her French teacher: everyone in the class who brought a dish from their culture to the school’s upcoming International Dinner would get extra credit points. Rosa wanted the points, of course, but she came home perplexed. “What’s my culture?” she asked. “I mean, I’m just American.”
Her question is a familiar one for me. I grew up in a household that was pretty culturally generic. My father comes from an old Quaker family from Lancaster County, PA. My mother was the child of much more recent immigrants, her mother from Cornwall, England and her father from Ireland. She grew up in the midst of a large Irish extended family, but since she was raised Protestant, she always had mixed feelings about her Irish identity. She made sure we had corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, but besides that, we did not observe any particular cultural traditions from Ireland or Cornwall or anywhere else. As far as we were concerned, we were just plain American.
When I went to college in the late 80’s, identity politics were huge. Kids who had spent high school trying to blend were suddenly free to proclaim themselves Korean-American or Salvadoran-American or Caribbean-American and to take pride in that identity. There were even a “half-Asian” and “wrong-side-Jewish” student groups.
At the Women’s Center, there were lots of conversations about how women “of color” needed to have a larger role in the feminist movement that up to that point had been dominated by the concerns of white women. I was told in no uncertain terms that it was oppressive to call myself “just” American. That implied that my heritage, my family, my story was normative while the life, family and story of people of color was some kind of deviant or qualified version of the “real” American experience.
I had to admit they had a point. The only response I could think of was to become a hyphenated American myself. There didn’t seem to be much by way of a Quaker-American or Cornish-American identity movement, so I figured I’d go ahead and be an Irish-American. That got my through some tense conversations at the Women’s Center and spurred me to read poetry by Seamus Heaney.
But then I graduated and moved to Boston, Massachusetts where there really was an Irish American community. I went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston the first year I lived there, and was completely disgusted by the drunken hordes of idiots waving Irish flags. Once I encountered the real life Irish American community in Southie, I really wanted nothing at all to do with Irish-Americans as a group. I went back to just being me—a white American from the Midwest with northern European ancestry.
But what dish do I bring to an International Dinner? “Hot Dish” would represent the Midwest, but is that a culture? I suppose I could offer cabbage to represent the Irish, but who would eat it? The truth is I grew up eating Spam and Hamburger Helper. Luckily for my kids, I married a Jewish guy. In the end, we can always bring kugel.
I love the idea behind the International Dinner—sharing food is a great way to build community within a hyper-diverse school like Oakland Mills. When we make room for different cultures to “show up” in our communities, we send the message that there is room for all of us here. You don’t have to hide who you are or pretend you’re something different in order to be part of “us”. That’s hugely important.
But “multicultural” events present people like me with some uneasy questions, all of which are worth considering as we figure out how to have a sense of "us" while honoring the particularities of the people involved:
- Can I participate in a community where particular cultures are affirmed without claiming any particular culture myself?
- Can I be generically American without implying that those with strong cultural identities are somehow less American?
- Can I teach my kids to be proud of their family and their history even if we don’t have a sense of connection to a community of people who share our culture?
- Can we find strength in our own particularity and bring that to a group, even if a flag or a language or a potluck dish doesn’t represent that particularity?
- Can I show up to an International dinner with Spam?