Tuesday, July 1, 2008

WASP ain't a four letter word

WASP: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I don’t think I’ve ever once heard that term used in a non-derogatory way. WASPs are supposed to be power-hungry, intolerant, uptight bigots. In the least, they are felt to be the dreaded overlords of the less fortunate in society.

Besides “fat” people, WASPs are the last group in American society about which it is still acceptable to make stereotypical or negative remarks. When I was in college WASPs – white Christians more generally – were to blame for all the suffering of non-WASPs in our society, no the world. Of course, it never dawned on the critics that the institutions through which all the venom could be spewed and disseminated were created by WASPs.

While in college, for reasons that I cannot now succinctly explain, I tried to embrace other cultures, explore “diversity,” but I, ultimately, felt betrayed by them. This turned me back inward and, for years, I explored my Irish and Scottish heritages, virtually ignoring that I’m really a WASP. Recently, though, it has been impossible to ignore what I really am.

My ancestors came to America from England in 1632 on one of the early pilgrim ships. The first ancestor to arrive established one of America’s great east coast families. Tens of thousands of my cousins are still in New England and all over the United States. I share common ancestors with President Taft and Nelson Rockefeller, as well as many other great American men and women.

These folks did not come to America like kings. My ancestors, like many early WASP immigrants, were religious separatists and came here precisely because they were outside Britain’s power structures. Nothing was handed to them and nothing was expected to be given them by anyone else. They came, established strong social, governmental and religious institutions and prospered.

Most of us WASPs are not part of the social elite. It would be completely dishonest to suggest that being white in America does not have its advantages; yet, most of us WASPs were not born into privilege. My grandparents were factory workers. Their parents and grandparents were farmers, tradesmen or small-town merchants. They were faithful Protestants of various stripes; pious, responsible and hardworking.

Like the history of every nation, ours includes very ugly episodes of all kinds of inhumanity to man. Slavery in America was, no doubt, a WASP institution but we hardly invented it. Every (major) civilization known to man has known some form of slavery. Slavery was practiced all over the world for thousands of years. In England and America, though, WASP morality ultimately tore down that horrible institution.

America, to me, is like a grand, garish palace. It’s big, bold, beautiful, sometimes extremely tacky, sometimes ugly, but impossible to ignore. That palace – the good and the bad – was built by her inhabitants: Afro-Americans; Latinos; Irish; Germans; Chinese; Jews; French; Arabs; Scots; Dutch; Italians, etc. The glory and the blame belong to all of us. Her foundation, though, was laid by WASPs. The institutions of government, our system of economics, all that keep her from complete collapse, were created by WASPs. Whatever mistakes we’ve made over the centuries – and there have been many – should be measured against the things we’ve done right.

White supremacy makes no sense to me. But I am proud of my English heritage. I am proud to be a WASP.

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