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Black sheep rising

November 29, 2008

Our people are badly stereotyped as being cold, unfeeling, shallow, and basically miserable. While of course not entirely without base, such a broad categorization neglects attention to the justifications for – and benefits of – what has best been called impersonal understatement.

It was heartening to come across, in the personal blog of a member of our tribe, an apology for our way of expression.

The Happy WASP Boy
posted March 30, 2006

Okay, I lied. Here’s one more post before I go off to a weekend of happy delirium, overeating, snowball fights, and reflective worship with two dozen fifteen year-olds.

So this post at Lucky White Girl led me to this post at Bitch Lab to this post at Listening for Change. Topic: whiteness. And at the last of these three blogs, I found this:

Yes, I know as well as the rest of us of the isolation we grew up with. White people don’t sleep with their children. They don’t play much and they don’t hug much. They don’t laugh much. And they spend most of the time trying to look good. We have beautiful cribs and curtains. We don’t have much connecting going on.

Barb at Lucky White Girl wrote:

So what can we -those of us who recognize the emptiness of typical North American white culture- do to sate that desire for a cultural heritage we can be proud of, for a culture we -as progressives- can identify with?

But here’s the thing I’ve realized in my life: though there is much that is vacuous and materialistic about North American middle-class culture, that has damn all to do with skin color or ethnic heritage! I grew up with a father who was a European war refugee and a mother who came from an “old” California family of German, English,and Scots-Irish ancestry. I spent most of my time with my mother’s side of the family, and they formed my values and my world view.

Yes, we’re WASPs. If you want to stereotype one aspect of us, we’re a Brooks Brothers wearing, Bloody Mary drinking, Buick Roadmaster station-wagon driving, fraternity and sorority joining, tennis-playing, mayonnaise and meat loaf eating, Junior League cookbook owning, monogrammed thank-you note writing, Town and Country magazine reading, English horseback riding, debutante ball attending, Social Register listed, pastel polo-shirt or sweater set clad clan. Without apologies.

(I’ve rebelled against my family in some ways, mostly having to do with fashion. I am the first tattooed man in several centuries of family history. I’d rather wear Diesel, Energie, and Paul Frank than Ralph Lauren, J. Peterman, or Izod Lacoste. But I can still “do it up” WASP style; you should see me in my seersucker suit! My other rebellion, of course, is talking about the family in public.)

Yes, in our family, babies don’t sleep in their parents’ beds. Yes, kids move away to college when they turn 18. Yes, when I greet most of my male cousins, we shake hands instead of hugging. Yes, we don’t raise our voices at the table. We chew with our mouths closed, keep our hands off the table, and don’t interrupt each other.

But you know what? We laugh. A lot. And even if we don’t live loud like something out of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, we adore each other. Where on God’s green earth is it written that the expressive and emotive cultures of the Mediterranean or Latin worlds are healthier than we quieter, more restrained WASPs? I adore my wife’s family in Colombia (we’ll visit them soon), and I am always happy to be among my friends who come from more “colorful” backgrounds. (Mine is one of only half a dozen inter-ethnic marriages in the family.) But that doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of having grown up WASPy, of having been raised in a culture that valued understated elegance, self-restraint, self-reliance and a sturdy Protestant work ethic.

News flash, folks: Anglo-Saxon reticence is not a recipe for misery! It’s not inherently oppressive or misery making, at least no more so than any other way of doing things. No culture has a monopoly on dysfunction; no culture has a monopoly on healthy child-rearing practices. My ancestors were fortunate, and some of them probably made their money in ways that were cruel and exploitative. But the sins of the fathers are not automatically visited upon the sons and daughters! I can regret what my ancestors may have done without rejecting all of their values, all of their contributions, all of the wonderful pieces of a very real culture they bequeathed to me.

Next month, I’m going to gather with forty-odd family members for Easter. We’ll eat deviled eggs; we’ll play croquet on the lawn; we’ll wear pink and green and talk Cal football and the stock market and the war; we’ll watch the children hunt for shiny plastic orbs in the grass and we’ll catch up with each other. There won’t be a lot of yelling. No loud music will be played. There will certainly be no dancing. No one will get drunk and fall down. We’ll all be in bed by 11:00PM and up not long after dawn. We’ll be cheerful, courteous, and gentle. We’ll have a wonderful time, all without raising our voices once.

At the end of the weekend, when I say goodbye to a few of my male family members, I’ll shake their hands warmly, pat them on the shoulder — and no more. And they’ll know I love them and I’ll know they love me and we’ve never once said it, nor are we likely to start. But don’t pity me — I’ll know that I’m treasured, and my family will know I treasure them. Growing up WASP means that you learn that love is often understated, often silent, but no less perceptible and no less powerful as a result! I’ve got a culture of which I am deeply proud, and a family whom I love with every fiber of my being.

Shed no tears for this happy white boy.

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