I have a lot of trouble relating to people who don’t know or care about their familial or cultural history. ‘I’m Australian,’ they might say. ‘But you’re white, right?’ I might reply, supressing irritation that the “real” Australian must always be a white one. ‘Yeah, but my family’s been here about three generations. I think we were from England or Scotland before?’ I can’t understand how people who are in contact with their birth families weren’t told, don’t think to ask; I can’t understand how it doesn’t matter to them. That information is a large part of who I am.
That’s a difference in perspective and experience, not a deficiency on the part of people who live in that way. I don’t want to frame the decentring of inherited culture and history as a loss. I suppose it may to some be funny, in a way, to do what I do and base who one is in elsewhere and elsewhen, and to know so much of who I am through mediated means. There are many ways of building up a life.
Now, when this occurs with people with a privileged identity, namely whiteness? It is part and parcel of the overall story of whiteness. Specific ethnicity and culture must be given up in order to be absorbed into whiteness and don its monolithicism. On a systemic level, doing away with specificity is what’s required to gain privilege. On an individual level, I get the charm of belonging with the people around you, and to the here and now.
When non-white people absorb into the white mainstream, that’s another story. We’re pushed to give up what makes us different, to not threaten white norms, to forget. Whiteness is invested in our giving up our specificity – but it’s also never going to let anyone forget that we are other. Only a semi-absorption, a sort of giving up, is possible. You can let go of history and culture, but the categories won’t let go of you. Non-white people are inevitably constructed in terms of our otherness, even if some of us don’t know all of what that otherness contains.
For me, for whom assimilation is as death, I can’t conceive of desiring absorption. It pains me to think of not knowing about all those generations I don’t know about beyond my great-great-grandparents, and it pains me to think that descendants of mine might not care. For someone for whom that history is a substantial part of who she is and what matters, I can’t relate to, but respect and admire, people building lives based in themselves, their individual lives, and the here and now.