Most of my life, I had not given much thought to my racial identity. I never really thought about myself as a “white person” or what it meant to be white, unless I had to fill out a form for school, a job, or standardized tests. It was just a label with very little meaning to me. What I did think about what my identity as a great-grandchild of Norwegian, German, and Italian immigrants. My grandparents on both my maternal and paternal side shaped our family cultures around their experience as the children of European immigrants.
My grandma would talk about how her parents had to change their name upon entry to the US because there were too many families in their boarding house with the surname “Olson.” My grandpa would talk about the objections their parents had to him marrying my grandma. His German Catholic parents and her Norwegian Lutheran family did not like the idea of intermarrying. My paternal grandparents would talk about growing up in the Italian neighborhood of Chicago with stories about my great aunt knowing a famous mafia member’s child. We ate sweet apple roasted ribs on Christmas with anise cookies for dessert. My thick brown hair was attributed my Italian heritage by my dad. All of these little experiences shaped my identity as an American with European ancestry, but we never talked about whiteness.
I cannot think of one time that my family talked about our whiteness. We never really talked about race at all. Now, as a more informed adult, I can recognize racial attitudes that were covertly disseminated in conversation or political discussions, but I would not have been able to identify it if I had not learned what I now know. In the past couple of years, I have learned more about race, racism, and cultural identities than I had in the previous 23 years. I am learning about others and myself, trying to be a more compassionate, fair, and just individual. I am learning about more than just my ethnicity. I am learning what it means to be white in America, the good, bad, and in between.