The Order of Things

Hey, you know something people? I'm not black, but there's a whole lots a times I wish I could say I'm not white.  –Frank Zappa, “Trouble Every Day”

There are packs of idiots on both ends of the racial/political spectrum whose rhetoric—vile and bountiful in its store of hatred, ignorance, victimization, and self-pity—has only served to push anger and defensive reactions about race, religion, and national identity toward the center.  If ever a discussion needed reasonable voices and open ears, this is it. If you think otherwise, talk to Shirley Sherrod.

Even after noble but usually half-measured attempts to integrate people (via busing and affirmative action), in the end we all pack up our tents and stick with our own camps, which seems more a part of our basic, homogeneous tribal origins and less a rejection of others.  We cleave to our own, but I know that I would wither and die in a city that didn’t have lots of people who don’t look or talk like I do.  I’ll take diversity any day over a planned community full of people who wear sweaters. And on a purely visceral level, I'd be delighted if President Obama rocked a dashiki for the next State of the Union address. Nobody would be barking "You lie" during that speech. 

Actually, I don’t much like the term “diversity,” a polite political contrivance that carries the freight of agenda, when the reality is that we all rub shoulders uneasily, cautious and afraid of each other’s cultures in their strangeness, like trying to push two magnet poles together that are made to resist each other.

There’s a parallel in religion. While acknowledging a Creator pretty much across the board, the strict Bible readers don’t trust the “idolatrous” Roman Catholics, guitar-mass Catholics don’t get along with pre-Vatican II believers, the Episcopalians roll their eyes at each other, the Jews struggle against constant suspicion and misunderstanding, the Buddhists keep their divisions to themselves, the Hindus have been slugging it out with each other for centuries, just about everybody wants to take a swing at Islam and, as it is with poets and Rapture believers, nobody listens to the atheists. 

In discussions of race, it’s much the same thing.  We seem to vault our common welfare and go right to the barbed wire.

For a long time I’ve marveled at the willfulness with which we carve ourselves apart from each other (and cheat ourselves in the process) through labeling.  Because of my distant ancestry, surname and almost fluorescent coloring I’ve been called Irish-American, which makes me laugh since I’ve never been to Ireland.  

I am Caucasian, probably closer to beige than white (my great-great-great grandfather was, I am told, half Cherokee, allowing me only the benefit of a light beard), and I have neither pride nor embarrassment over the color of my skin, as I have learned the hard way that what is worth being proud or ashamed of is the fruit of my actions.  Nonetheless, Caucasian is my “affiliation.”  Over the years, I’ve been humbled and humiliated by my own racial ignorance, grateful to be left holding a shred of common sense that demands I keep my eye on what people do rather than their hue. 

What I find unifying in my life’s experience is what I share with about 320 million other people: a devotion to the founding principles of my country, an almost painful love for my children and the world they’re inheriting, a pre-set respect for and interest in what happens to my neighbors, a belief in fairness and freedom to live out whatever destiny (good or bad) may come my way or yours, and a deep celebration of other people’s courage in their struggles and triumphs. And these are universal principles (of course there are exceptions--that's why we have a system of courts and prisons).

One thing I don’t have is a desire to separate myself from my fellows, so if the subject of nationality or race comes up, I don’t ever refer to myself as Irish or European-American.   The mere racial or geographic affiliation instantly distances me from a huge group of the very people whose destinies are entwined with my own.  In America of 2010, any small change to stop the erosion of our shared experience will help.  

So here's my solution.

I am American first, with a subset (European, Irish) born only of chance.  So if you must, call me American-Irish.   And I think with the simple switching of the terms, I bring myself closer to other citizens: American-Blacks (a black-skinned Dominican friend broils when he’s called “African-American”), American-Mexicans (or American-Latino, American-Brazilian, or American-Puerto Rican), American-Asians, American-Natives, American- Iraquis and American-What-Have-Yous.  No matter our differences, we’re first Americans. 

Changing the order of affiliation might just be the easiest and most obvious first step to unify us with due respect to our “tribes”  and open a smoother path toward a civilized conversation about race or religion.  

It’s a start, simple and probably a little naïve, but it costs nothing and is a first step to some semblance of unity.  I’m a man—American by birth, man by chromosome.  An American Man.  That’s my designation for good.  

Anyone care to join me in the emphasis shift?  


  1. after reading this, I was forced to write my own blog, for no apparent reason... no agenda... train stories and cactus flowers.


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