Home > Ground Zero, reflections on race > Finding Our Humanity: Calling on my fellow Euro-Americans

Finding Our Humanity: Calling on my fellow Euro-Americans

Last Sunday I was stopped by a member of my congregation… someone from what I call my church family. She mentioned THIS is why I cannot, will not, comply, written after I explained to my son that I would probably (or not) be arrested on the National Day of Non-Compliance

THIS is why I cannot, will not, comply.

Arizona in Crayola: Multicultural, I guess. Non-Toxic, debatable.

 When I asked my son what might lead an officer to suspect someone was not in the country legally and he answered, with only a little doubt in his voice…

“Their race.”

To which I countered,

“What race are Americans?”

He responded, 


With no hesitation. None whatsoever.


My son is only 14 years old, and already he’s picked up the subconscious message about who is American and who is not. My son is only 14 years old, it already it is imbedded somewhere in his subconscious that Americans are white.

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After confiding that she’d been thinking about that blog entry ever since, she started to talk about all the different classifications of Americans… Mexican, African, Native, Chinese etc.

I have to confess that I got a little nervous. Because the only thing harder than talking about race with people who are not white, in my experience, is talking about race with people who are. And I felt my shield go up, because I’ve heard one or two profoundly stupid things said in my church home, and I wasn’t sure what was coming. I was afraid it would be some argument about how all those prefixes should be dropped, and my mind was racing because I hadn’t been mentally prepared for a “that thing you said” conversation. But then she asked, “But what am I? Am I Caucasian or European American?” And I responded cautiously, still not sure where we were headed, “Well, there would be Italian, German, and Irish American…”

And then she asked the million dollar question. What can she do, in her day-to-day interactions, to challenge the assumption that Americans are of European descent by default, and everything else is “other.”

I wish I’d had a better answer. I’m a unusal case (in more ways than one, I know…) in that outside of work and church on Sunday, very few people who I see on a daily or weekly basis are white. I shared with her that I make it a point (with people who tend to use race or ethnicity to describe others when it is not relevant to the conversation), to mention EVERYONE’S race (aka, my “this white lady at walgreens” story), I don’t have those kinds of conversations often.

Tonight I was at a volunteer meeting for the Community Posada and someone (not white) mentioned Euro-Americans in a conversation, which was the motivation I needed to write this post and not table it until after I get all the other drafts in my head published. Most of the discussion on what I write happens in the link comments on my Facebook wall, but for the sake of centralizing feedback and hopefully providing some ideas and resources for others, I’d like to ask people to comment here and not on FB. You don’t need to sign up for an account to comment.

I want to hear from my Anglo/Euro/Caucasian American readers. Do you consciously use language to counteract the assumption that Americans are white by default? What does that sound like? How and when do you use it? What kind of reactions do you get? If you don’t, what kind of ideas do you have?

Thanks to all of you in advance, and a very special thanks to my sister. You renewed my faith last Sunday, as well as my commitment to continue witnessing, LOUDLY, about the costs of racism to white people. As proud as we may be to fight for justice, we need to acknowledge that we are also fighting for our own humanity.

A PS… This was written as a call for reflection & discussion to white/euro/anglo/gring@ people because I feel strongly we need to take more responsibility in creating equality and justice for all. People of privilege shouldn’t be looking to the people who are being oppressed to show us the light when we’re holding the matches and candles. That said, if you don’t fall into the targeted demographic and you have a suggestion about how we can do better or want to point out something we may do with the best of intentions that we really shouldn’t, jump right in.

  1. December 9, 2010 at 11:19 PM

    I would add that we can be better allies, too ~ maybe more of us Euro-/Gringas/Gringos/Pale People need to step up to the plate and take on the role of public protesters… your thoughts?

    • December 10, 2010 at 10:03 PM

      Theadora, I’m in the Tim Wise camp in terms of what our role is… racism is a white problem. We (for the most part) created it and we benefit from it. It is our responsibility to eradicate it. Looking it racism as something black/brown/gold people need to overcome is just passing the buck. It is our responsibility to GET LOUD about it to other white people. Because white people don’t listen to black, brown, or gold people about racism. If they did, we wouldn’t still need to talk about it. White people listen to other white people… sometimes.

  2. W
    December 10, 2010 at 3:19 AM

    One of the things that stands out to me is that when people see someone “of color” and are making polite conversation about their racial heritage, most of the time, they ask, “What’s your nationality?” This irks me no end, and not just because it is a malapropism for what they are asking — what the person’s ethnicity is. Nationality is one’s national affiliation. One can be of any color and still belong to a country, especially in America! To ask what someone’s nationality is implies that they are not American, that they are “other”, foreign, and do not belong, no matter how long they and/or their ancestors have been here, and no matter what their actual citizenship is. I’m half African-American, people sometimes ask me what my nationality is. Well, I was born here. I’m American. Nobody asks my grandmother what here nationality is, though she is not even a citizen. She’s here on a Green Card from Canada, and her parents were from England.

    • W
      December 10, 2010 at 3:21 AM

      Excuse me, I meant to say that nobody asks my grandmother what her nationality is, not “here”. Just in case you were confused. 🙂

      • December 10, 2010 at 10:10 PM

        Thank you, because I’m easily confused! But that time, I read what you meant rather than what you wrote anyway 😉

    • December 10, 2010 at 10:21 PM

      I think that is an excellent point, and goes hand in hand with the discussion. I wonder sometimes if some white people encounter people “of color” so infrequently that they don’t realize that the “one time” question they are asking is the 12th time that week for the recipient.

      I’m not sure how anyone else who is following this feels, but IMO there is no such thing as making polite conversation about racial heritage. Polite conversation is something you exchange with a stranger. You don’t generally ask them their dress size or weight or sexual orientation… all of which are part of the total person, but non of which you really need to know of every person you stand in the checkout line with.

      I used to get a lot of “What are they” questions… they drove me nuts.

  3. Ei
    December 10, 2010 at 8:51 AM

    Recently I was talking to a co-worker who was telling me a story about her friend’s very scary experience of being robbed. It was increasingly hard for me to have sympathy for her friend, who probably deserved it, because this woman kept referring to the assailants as “four black guys.”

    I didn’t challenge her. But later I took her out to lunch and I told her my own equivalent to the “white lady at Walgreen’s ” story. And I think she got it, at least it seems like she’s trying harder. She snorted right out loud when I asked her if it wouldn’t piss her off to hear someone talk about her pretty milky white skin like it was a scarf on a rack at Yonkers.

    And when I don’t know what to say to people, I text Cyndi to ask her. 😛

    • December 10, 2010 at 10:26 PM

      Gawd, I love you. I’m so inyourfacecrazytrailerparkwhitegirl about everything, and you can pull off the same thing with class and subtlety.

      • Ei
        December 13, 2010 at 2:28 PM

        Ah you make me blush. I so wish I could be a little more crazywhitetrailerparkgirl. Sometimes. Like right now. I need some trailler park RIGHT NOW.

  4. December 10, 2010 at 10:19 AM

    Our language informs our thought – and you’re right, these are really difficult issues to talk about – because different people have different vocabularies.

    One of the reasons (I think) many people refer to others in cultural/ethnic/racial terms is to acknowledge identity as a minority (= likely to have experienced discrimination)…. but what others (less enlightened others) may hear in that distinction is simply a label; AND that it’s OK to call people black/white/brown/pink; AND that the difference lies in the skin-tone/race, not cultural/economic/religious/educational factors.

    Another thing I find interesting is that unless we’re familiar with a country’s location-on-the-map AND history-a-little, we rarely refer to people as “Country-American”, no matter how recently naturalized they may be. So we hear: Japanese-Am, Chinese-Am… but not a lot of Laotian-Am – and I have NEVER heard Zambian-Am – or Burkina Fasoan-Am… just Asian-Am and African-Am

    … and there are some nationalities that we seem to avoid hyphenating all together, no matter how familiar their country of origin may be… “Saudi-Arabian-American”… “Russian/Soviet-American”.

    I really don’t know where I’m going with this… except that it’s got me thinking… and I’m gonna figure it out… and we’ll have coffee sometime and strategize, you and I…

    For now, I’d like anyone who wants to to call me any of the following: Gringa, White-American, Euro-American, Austrian-American, Honky-Immigrant-Chick… and, my fave, “White-Liberal-Intelligencia”…
    Wouldn’t it be funny if we all went to the EXTREME for a little while? “Hi, I’m Carolina, an ‘off the plane’-Austrian-American with a hint of Polish&Czech about 4 generations ago. This is my husband, a *Welsh-from-way-back-when and we-don’t-know-what-else-but-I-think-he-looks-like-he’s-from-France and someone-said-something-once about Iroquois or Huron ancestry at a family reunion… but the guy was a little tipsy and had just seen “Dances With Wolves”, so who knows?*-American.” – and – “My best friend is a half-Columbian, American-Venezuelan-American. (Born: in US, Raised: in Venezuela, Lives: in US, Mama: Columbian-former-Venezuelan-resident-American, Papa: Venezuelan-almost-American).

    Now I’m thinking about the word “American” itself. What does it mean, really? When people say “I’m an American”, what are they saying? Most of the times I hear it, it seems to smack of arrogance and privilege… every once in a while it seems meant to express a sense of fairness – or tolerance – or freedom… but mostly, it has a “holier-than-thou” tinge that made me never EVER want to be an American while I was growing up… or marry one…

    … ended up doing both… whooodathunkit? But no worries! Neither one of us is really a “real American”… cuz… well… we’re just not… THOSE people scare me!


    • December 10, 2010 at 10:22 AM

      OMG! I think my response was longer than your original post!

    • December 10, 2010 at 10:33 PM

      Carolina, maybe the white people never had you either 😉 What can I say except… yup. Uh huh. That too.

      I’m looking forward to hanging out over coffee… I’m sure as we kick off our justice coalition thingie we’ll be needing plenty!

      • December 10, 2010 at 10:34 PM

        (for those who haven’t heard the inside joke in that comment: a friend I went to high school with commented, “Somebody call 9-1-1, they stole our white girl again” on my FB status once… my BFF shook her head and commented, “The white people never even had you.”)

        • Becky
          December 10, 2010 at 11:31 PM

          Love this one. I actually have a blog in draft about how I am sick of the whole, “You know Shauna, the black girl in cubicle three” comments. It’s something I talk about a lot with the kids, about how we identify people in other ways, and use race when we need to describe someone, but also not as the first or most important thing we notice.

          I don’t have a good plan for addressing the problem of “Euro-Americans” as being default. I am inclined to want to stop labeling everyone. I am pretty tired of all of it…Asian-American, African-American (and especially when so many of my friends of color are not from the continent of Africa anyway), and so on and so forth. I don’t know if the answer is to start calling white folks something crazy, or to stop calling everyone anything.

          I did have a wonderful conversation recently with a good friend from Georgia, who found nothing wrong with using the word “mulatto” to describe my kids. She was raised with it, after all, and isn’t that what they are?? *bangs head on wall* Anyway, I asked her to look up the history of the word and get back to me and we would talk more. We ended up have a great convo about why the word is troubling, and how we don’t use words like that to describe the blood content of other people. She got it! And she got that white folks, those crazy Euro-Americans, like to exoticize the “other.” I feel like I am making progress, one white person at a time. Because you are right, we are the ones who have to address racism and eradicate it.

          I am not sure I made any kind of point here, but…YEAH!

  5. Jolinda Stephens
    December 10, 2010 at 11:22 AM

    I’ve been fairly conscious of using European American fairly liberally in formal conversations for about the last 15 or 20 years. It does cause some funny looks. What I have the most difficulty with is talking about my family without all the ethnic, racial and even sexual identity labels. As the mother of a European American child and an African American child I was very aware of the differences in both their experiences of the world and my own as I helped them navigate the world.

    But 11 years ago my husband and I left the kids and and grandkids, one multi-racial, behind and moved to another state. Then five years ago we divorced and I moved to another state to a town where I knew no one. So there I was a single European American woman. I found that very often when I told a simple family story, I got very perplexed looks until I went back and filled in all the prefixes. They simply couldn’t make sense of it because in their mind everyone in my story was white. They KNEW that my family is multi-racial, yet it was an effort for them to visual anything but white. BTW: I’m now a proud GREAT grandmother. Ella was born a month ago.

    Slightly off-topic but I also make a real effort in both my speech and writing not to use dark and black to indicate bad things. And, every year at this time I write a column for the congregational newsletter on the goodness that the dark time of the year brings. Solstice is not simply about honoring the return of the light; it is also about recognizing the gifts of the dark – of rest and sleep and dreams and germination and cradling.

    • December 10, 2010 at 10:39 PM

      I do that too. I also have always made it a concious effort, when talking to my children, to never refer to people by their race UNLESS I am describing their physical appearance, and then it’s never the only or first descriptor. (You remember Miss so and so… she’s tall, she’s Latina, and she has really long hair).

      I just had such a wow moment. I’m not all that many years away from not having three kids at home that are part of everything I do day to day, and in almost every picture I have of myself. I’ll be facing those same issues.

      Congratulations on your GREAT grandbaby… Welcome to the singing world, Ella!

  6. December 10, 2010 at 7:04 PM

    I am gonna have to think about how I want to respond to this and will get back to you….very interesting question though.

  7. Becky
    December 10, 2010 at 11:32 PM

    Erg. I swear I was replying to the blog over all…not sure how I ended up replying to a reply. *sigh* oh well!

  8. December 12, 2010 at 1:36 AM

    I have been thinking about your blog post quite a lot and I hope that I am able to convey what I mean, clearly.

    First, it seems as if the labels of African-American, Asian-American or European-American are actually more “politically correct” labels to describe certain characteristics of people, specifically skin color. When I say, “I saw an African-American,” the person I am speaking to will (almost always) automatically picture a person who is black. If I were to say, “European-American,” the person I am speaking to will (almost always) automatically picture a person who is white. If I were to say, “American” the person will automatically see a person that they feel comfortable associating as American. For example, most people, who are American will automatically picture themselves or someone important to them. Those who are not American will picture someone that they are close to, who is an American. (The same applies to any nationality…..people will picture those they know, regardless of skin color. This also applies to almost any situation until we know for sure what the descriptors are. For example, when someone talkes about their children, I picture my children until I see a picture or are provided with other discriptions.)

    Second, the terms also seems to {try to} imply “origin of ancestry” – current nationality, unless of course, the person’s origin of ancestry or their current nationality is incorrect. For example, I know a gentleman who may be described as a European-American (because he is white) when in reality, he is African-African.

    Third, labels are what we use to classify ourselves and others. We tend to classify each other not based in reality, but based in what we choose to believe or choose to see. In addition, when we are trying to describe one person to another, we typically use descriptors that quickly eliminate/create as many people from the list as possible. For example, if someone is going to try to pick me out of a room, you are going to use the factors that will best eliminate as many candidates as possible. So, if I was in a room with 60 people all divided equally between gender and color, the quickest way to point me out is to state: Heidi is a white woman with blonde hair. With that description, you have quickly eliminated about 55 people. In order to narrow down the rest, you might add my eye color, height, approximate weight, distinctive qualities (dress, laugh, voice, habits, etc.) If you were trying to explain what I looked like to an artist, you would use the same very specific, but limiting descriptors in order to gain an accurate picture.
    We also tend to identify with certain labels, either positively or negatively. Words are simply a combination of letters that we recognize; however, when you add emotion to the word, it can be empowering or dangerous. (Interestingly, the same word can be both empowering AND dangerous, depending on whether the person who receives the message chooses to put a positive or negative spin on it.)

    Finally, I think that we end up segregating each other far more when we insist on labels for ourselves or others….the more we label, the more we segregate. At any given point, as a group, we are all human….we are all part of the whole….100%. When we label, we will automatically categorize people and then we will start to play the “us against them” game, typically the “us” is the group with the largest number. For example, when we label gender, the group goes from 100% human to 50% male and 50% female. When you further label, the percentages decrease and the people are more segregated and are also more wary of the members in the other groups…which as we know, leads to discrimination. My suggestion is to label less.

  9. December 12, 2010 at 10:37 PM

    Heidi, I’m not sure what you meant to convey. I am sure that you’re missing the gist of the conversation, and equally sure that I’d put an awful lot of time and effort into trying to explain it to you and be met with minimal success. you have just done exactly what I described being afraid that the woman in this story was going to do.

    • December 12, 2010 at 11:34 PM

      Wow, that was quite insulting.

  10. December 15, 2010 at 3:38 AM

    Okay, I gotta tell you that I am pretty mad at you for “calling me out,” ESPECIALLY when there were responses similar to mine that did NOT get called out. I am even more upset because I asked you to remove my post (and the subsequent responses) and you did not.
    Regardless, your insult and this whole blog have just been eating at me and eating at me, mostly ’cause I feel pretty strongly that my response had validity and your insult was really not in line with your “play nice” rule.
    So, I am gonna add a couple things and then I will not play in this sandbox any more.
    I understood perfectly well what this post was about…and besides people removing the labels that they impose on themselves and others, there are only a couple other effective things that I can think of {off the top of my head}, that we can do as individuals.
    One of those items is to ask our children and each other…..”What does an American look like?” I think this is similar to the question, “What does a stranger look like?” when you are trying to teach your children that “strangers” are not just the “scary looking guy with weird hair and teeth” – – that a stranger is anyone you don’t know. The concept is the same.

    Also, our society highlights in the media that “Americans” are those patriotic white people holding the tea party signs that are spelled incorrectly or that “Americans” are the white people in military uniforms that are bravely fighting and dying for our freedoms, or that “American’s” are the old white men who are in positions of power, or that “Americans” are the white women who are Grizzly Bears and Soccer Mom’s.
    Then, we reiterate this message that the media portrays by not only allowing our children to watch it, but sometimes even encouraging it…..and then we wonder why our kids say, “American’s are white.”

    We also raise our children to believe that race = nationality and we wonder where they get it.
    We confuse origin/nationality/citizenship status with skin color and then wonder why people are confused.

    Finally, you and I may disagree on certain subtexts; however, I’d like you to remember that I am NOT the enemy.

  11. December 15, 2010 at 5:34 AM

    I’m not going to try reading & addressing your comment from my phone again, except to ask when you asked me to delete your comment?

  12. W
    January 18, 2011 at 5:22 PM

    Hmm… I was looking through some old e-mail and was reminded of this conversation and some posts I’d missed. I am sorry that you and jhcckkm / Heidi had a falling out over this discussion and that she asked for her post to be removed. While she did end with wishing we could dispense with labels altogether (as you were afraid the woman in your story would suggest), I thought that her post contributed to the discussion of some of the fears and concerns we have about when and where to label or use descriptors. There are times when giving someone a label gets to the point effectively; however, the problem with labels is that we are too quick to use them and sometimes we use them unnecessarily and inappropriately. The middle-ground between the acceptable label and the unacceptable label is so vast and situation-driven that it seems the potholes cannot be avoided. I think, though, that we cannot simply chuck them all out, just because they can be difficult to deal with. Like many things in life, it’s just not that simple.

  1. December 9, 2010 at 11:32 PM

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