For a while, I was back and forth on if I should call myself Italian-American or not. I’m 3rd generation…and is that really enough to say I am not simply US American? Do I have the right to claim my Italian Heritage when I don’t speak the language, or have the same ideals as many Italian? Or live the same way? Haven’t I been thoroughly Americanized by now? Haven’t I…
You know what? That’s a pretty bullshit existential crisis I was having. It’s a conflict born out of white privilege. I can be US American…or I can be Italian-American. I can choose that. But only white Americans have that luxury. I have an awesomely diverse group of friends, and despite various creeds, genders, colors, and sexualities, it’s upsetting to think that outside of this community, we are treated very differently, but one of those ways is pretty arbitrary…adjectives.
Maybe 10 times a year, I am mistaken for Middle Eastern, and treated as an Arab-American for 30 seconds before they realize I’m Italian. When my family lived in Southwestern Virginia, it was made very clear that we were not white, just looked white. We were “passing” as white. We were the Other, and were treated accordingly. And it sucked. And we moved. And it ended. But my friends who do have darker skin colors, regardless of what that heritage might be, can’t simply move away from it. Yet for 99.999% of my life, I’ll be treated like a white American.
And this is kind of new for an Italian. 2 generations ago, regardless of location we were a minority. Now, we’re not. White includes Southern European countries now. And that’s simply luck. We are very damned lucky not to be treated like our 1st generation ancestors were. Which, by the way, is how black, Hispanic, Asian, and Arab-Americans are treated now. We didn’t earn white privilege, the rest of the white America just got lazy, or something. I can’t point to when Italians became “white,” but we did. And we should not take that for granted, nor should we forget how our ancestors in America were treated. Because many of our friends are being treated that way now.
So, I am going by Italian-American. Why? Because I have friends who are black, who have roots in this country going back far longer than mine, and they are called African-American. Not because of their continent of origin, but because of the color of their skin. Even if they are called Black American, that is still an arbitrary and segregating adjective. I have Arab friends whose family came to America not long after mine, but they don’t get to decide to just be American now. They have brown skin, so they are Arab-American. They aren’t even given their country of origin. I have Native American friends who legitimately have heritage here going back further than any white American, but they have an adjective because they aren’t white. I am going by Italian-American because I have no right to go by anything else. I am not indigenous. My roots are from elsewhere. But mostly, if my friends can’t just be called American, I don’t even want to be able to claim that title either.