A Tricoastal Woman: European-American

Nancy Jane Moore

European-American

I grew up in a small town outside of Houston in a culture that was mostly white, Anglo, and Christian.

It wasn’t exclusively white. We had both African-American and Mexican-American neighbors and, after NASA set up the Johnson Space Center nearby, we had Jewish ones as well. The NASA influx also brought in people with roots in other countries, not all of them European.

But the default culture was white. Southern white, with a Texas flavor.

The local school was small and inadequate, so my folks sent me to junior high and high school in Alvin, a neighboring town where the schools had modern items like language labs and new math. My mother took me to the bus stop at 7 a.m. every morning.

Every morning while I waited for the bus, I saw our neighbor Mr. Mitchell drive by in an Alvin school bus. (You couldn’t miss our orange and white buses.) I thought it was odd that he drove right by us but didn’t take us to school, so I asked my mother about it.

Turned out that Mr. Mitchell was driving that bus into Alvin to pick up all the Black kids and drive them another twenty miles down the road to Dickenson, which had a “colored” school.

Note that this was some years after the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregated schools unconstitutional (I’m not that old). Eventually, Dickenson closed its segregated school and Alvin integrated. But they managed to drag their feet about it for a dozen years.

I imagine that put Mr. Mitchell out of a job, now that I think about it. I don’t recall us getting any Black teachers or bus drivers after the schools were integrated. But back then, schools that integrated without a lot of hassle looked like a victory. And we didn’t have riots or school closures or even the opening of a lot of all-white private schools.

The culture was still white, though, even if there were more people who weren’t.

A few years ago, an African-American friend of mine in casual conversation referred to me as “European-American.” It strikes me as a reasonable term to use if we’re serious about getting away from letting the default definition of American be “certain kinds of white people.”

Though I’m not completely comfortable with it, not because it’s not accurate to say that my ancestry is European, but because my family has been on this side of the Atlantic long enough that I know nothing but very vague stories about where we came from before landing in North America. I don’t feel tied to any other countries.

The most recent immigrant in my family is my grandmother’s grandfather, who came from Ireland before the U.S. Civil War. As near as I can tell, most of the rest were here before the American Revolution.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t come from immigrants. It just means that my ancestors got here before immigration became complicated. And, of course, they were white. I have the impression that even my Irish ancestors didn’t run into much difficulty coming to America.

The truth is, the only Americans who aren’t immigrants are those we call Native Americans. Given the way they have been treated under laws and treaties and military action, it is obvious that birthright isn’t the defining feature when it comes to immigration debates.

The current state of affairs is not the first time our country has engaged in anti-immigrant behavior. It gives me some measure of comfort to know that actions blocking or imprisoning or discriminating against people based on their countries of origin have not fared well in the history books. That won’t end the suffering such actions are causing right now, though.

It recently occurred to me that I’ve spent half my life in U.S. jurisdictions where the white, non-Hispanic population was under 50 percent. I spent many years in Washington, D.C., which was predominantly African-American, then returned to a Texas in which non-Hispanic white people – though they still held onto political power – had shrunk to 45 percent of the population.

Now I live in California, another majority-minority (as the current term goes) state. The American I’ve been living in isn’t white and Anglo. It’s a diverse place, with people from all over the world.

I’ve always thought that the mix of cultures in our country was one of our greatest assets, that despite some very ugly racism, we were doing better at living in a diverse society than, say, the Europeans. Recent political changes have shaken my faith in that theory.

But Texas and California are our two largest states; together they represent about twenty percent of the population. And while the Texas politicians are still trying to drag the state back to the 19th century, the changing demographic will eventually change the politics as it has already changed Texas culture.

California, meanwhile, is setting a good example on diversity after having gone through the throes of anti-immigrant fervor in the 1990s. The New York Times had a recent piece on how what happens in California – good and bad – eventually happens in the rest of the United States.

I’m glad they noticed. I figured this out 20 years ago – long before I even thought about living out here – when I was first working as a legal reporter and realized how crucial it was to cover both litigation and legislative action in California, because the same things were soon to be seen elsewhere.

It’s not that we don’t have problems in California. The old Woody Guthrie song still holds true: California may be the “Garden of Eden,” but unfortunately, “You won’t find it so hot if you don’t have the dough-re-me.”

But right now Californians are doing a better job than most at figuring out how to live together. Given the number of serious protests nationwide over the ban of people from certain Muslim nations, some of the rest of the country isn’t far behind. With luck the federal government will catch up with us all sooner or later.

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A Tricoastal Woman: European-American — 7 Comments

  1. This has been in mind so much since our Midwestern summer + Family. Argh.

    That wedding dinner the night before the wedding for close friends and family (not the same as the real wedding dinner in an upscale restaurant the night before that) was catered by a Mexican-American family, of “Mexican” food, now for the palates of these WHITE midwesterners in Illinois. Neither the family, or its business, and then this dinner would have happened 30 years ago. However, from the beginning this small city was at least half African American, and it was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1850’s, as escapees made their way to the Great Lakes and over Canada’s border. Now with all the corporations including the Boeing branch for which my bro’s and engineer, there are Asians etc.

    Yet this place is little hands central, and the most segregated place on a daily basis of no interactions between black and white I’ve been outside Austin.

    But so much of what people like my family depend on and take for granted is provided by those ‘others.’

    When I was about 20 I moved from the midwest to New Mexico. I’ve never lived in a segregated place since, and here in NYC we just keep getting more diverse every year — until of course the international obscenely wealthy class drives out all the rest of us, that is. They are doing a grand job of that.

  2. I’m glad that my relatives are sane voters, for the most part! And it’s lovely living in Oakland where I see so many different people on the street.

    I think one of the things that makes me maddest about the election is that now we have to fight holding actions on things like health care, LGBT rights, and core First Amendment issues, instead of turning our energies toward dealing with income inequality (of the kind you reference in NYC) and making any significant progress in addressing climate change. The thought that the big climate change fight will be over whether or not the information NASA and EPA have will be released instead of what we’re going to do to minimize the effect just drives me wild.

  3. They are taking a sledge hammer, literally, to the planet itself.

    This is a coup d’etat for the the non-factuals, mad hatters and billionaires.

  4. But even the most native of my ancestors came across the Bering Strait, or possibly across the ocean on early rafts. All of us have immigrancy in our backgrounds, whether or not the stories go the further back.

    The last story I have of my great-great-grandmother was that a band of Cherokee who were traveling to a reservation saw her at her house and stopped to ask her if she wanted to travel with them. And, no, she said, she was white. She had married a white man, she had white children — this was what she had chosen.

    And so, they went on, leaving behind her, and her tall bronze childen and grandchildren and great-grandchildren; none of whom had anything but dark eyes until I and my younger brother were born.

    • Your great-great grandmother’s story is a great illustration of just how complicated our history is. When I get around to doing my genome, I won’t be surprised if I find that I have Native American or African ancestors. But the European influence still changed everything.

      Since all homo sapiens originally came from Africa, one could argue that we’re not native anywhere else. I came to the conclusion that it’s reasonable to call people native to an area if they were living there before people kept written records. That’s a rough rule of thumb and may need some revising. But it applies elsewhere, too.

  5. I’ve not heard the term Euro American before. I think of myself as Anglo American for reasons having to do with acculturation as much as ancestry. In my schools, both public elementary and Catholic prep school, we were taught European History and Literature from a very much British perspective. In fact, I’ve been known to refer to my prep school as “wanna be WASP” school. I’ve worked much of my life in racially integrated environments where I’ve sometimes thought I was losing my mind because I seemed to be the only white person who could see what appeared to me to be overt racism. And I’ve lived the last 25 years in a totally integrated neighborhood with neighbors of every imaginable race, ethnicity, national origin and religion. I’m happy to report that the black people (not all African American) think that even though I look white, I really black.

  6. I tend to use the term Anglo by itself to describe myself, but then I thought I was a WASP (being white, mostly Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant) until I moved to the East Coast and figured out what the expression really meant. I wrote this because my family didn’t immigrate recently and I thought it was important to acknowledge that most people in the US came from elsewhere and not all that long ago.

    And I just like living around a lot of different kinds of people who come from different backgrounds and do things differently. Makes me much more aware of what the world is really like.