Ethnicity in Art and Life


White Americans have an odd and interesting relationship to their provenance or ethnicity. When asked the question “Where are you from?” they often launch into convoluted dissertations on geography and genealogy accompanied by fractional references to heritage. “I’m a quarter Irish, a quarter Scottish, and half German,” but when asked how long their families have been in America the answer usually involves several generations and no linguistic inheritance. But, as a nation of immigrants, Americans we seem to need a geographic or ethnic hook to give themselves an anchor in the world. For some reason, simply being an American isn’t a satisfactory answer to the question. My own heritage is lost in America’s distant past. My mother was a Christy (Scottish) on her father’s side and a Murphy (Irish) on her mother’s, but I don’t know much more than that. My father had no idea where his family came from. Bernard could be French, and for a few years I fabricated a French ancestry, but it is also a common name in Germany, Switzerland, and Holland. Add an “h” or a “t” and it might be something else.

When obvious physical attributes are in play the question can have more sinister overtones. Lucie, my 8-year-old granddaughter, whose mother’s family was born in India was asked that question in an aggressive accusatory way by a classmate last year. She answered that she was from Seattle but the other girl said “No you’re not. You’re not American. You’re from India.” It was upsetting to Lucie and the rest of us in the family. Second grade racism or looking for a handle to differentiate because of Lucie’s color? What was really behind the question? Did it originate with a parental comment or did it come from something within the child?

A View From The BridgeThese questions floated to the surface recently because of Lucie’s upset and two current plays that have ethnicity at their core. Bad Jews is a bitingly funny tragi-comic four-character play about three Jewish cousins and a WASPish girlfriend arguing about Jewishness in the aftermath of their grandfather’s death. The other play, A View From The Bridge, is Arthur Miller’s drama about an Italian-American intergenerational snake pit with gender, incest, homophobia, xenophobia, and distorted family values at its core.

Both plays ask us to examine how we find our identities? How important is ethnic or national heritage? Are we our ethnicity? How much should it define persona or character? Interestingly, it is Jonah, the quiet cousin in Bad Jews, who makes the defining statement about ethnicity not Dafna (Diana) the motor-mouthed, religiously superior, would-be Israeli gladiator. And, in A View From The Bridge it is Katie, the innocent niece not her bellicose uncle, Eddie Carbone, who is the moral center of the play. Ethnicity is a character in both plays just as it was with Lucie on the playground. Why can’t we see the humanity in each other rather than holding so tightly to race and origin for our identities? Both plays and Lucie’s playground confrontation ask us to look at our own ideas about assimilation. I love my granddaughter and I’m certain that she learned a lesson that will help her confront similar situations in the future. I wish that weren’t true, but this is not the first or the last race-based comment she and her brother, Ben, will have to deal with. Sad but true.

Bad Jews

I believe art can help us see, understand, and cope with differences. America has a dirty past. We are forever tarnished by slavery. Race is the most obvious, visible, and divisive attribute we put forward but ethnicity has also been a factor in America’s checkered past. Italian, Irish, Polish, and other nationalities were discriminated against as they settled into American communities – New York, Boston, Chicago are cases in point. Today, it’s Hispanics and Muslims that are profiled, victimized and prejudged by their looks or dress. Art can help us overcome our racial and ethnic insecurities and prejudices. It can give us the insight and tools to help us examine our opinions and attitudes. Art is a gift. Bad Jews and A View From The Bridge are both quality productions – well acted, entertaining, and instructive. In a few years I hope to take Lucie and her brother, Ben, to see plays with similar themes that deal with real world issues. They’re smart kids. They’ll get the message.

Does Ben look threatening to you?

Ben in the bath

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