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Ethnic Pride vs. Ethnic Inclusivity

Can we have the best of both at the same time?

I am 100% Scandinavian, mostly Swedish with one Danish grandparent.

I have an interracial family of my choosing. I dated outside of my race and adopted outside my race. These facts are not unusual for today’s families. I adopted my black son from foster care, and he and his buddies taught me about black adolescents.

I lived at International House when I first moved to New York City and met young men and women from across the globe — Asian, African, Latino, European, and Middle Eastern. Men outnumbered women by a large margin, and American women were objects of attention.

I take pride in Scandinavian customs and traditions in my home. I make certain foods on Christmas Eve and delight in the blonde hair and blue eyes of a granddaughter.

I remember when I was investigating a case of discrimination several decades ago, the manager’s display of Irish pride (plaques and funny sayings and a little Irish desk flag) was used as evidence of discrimination and superiority. I had mixed feelings about that; one can feel ethnic pride while not feeling superior, I think.

Can one be proud of one’s own ethnic heritage?

We can welcome the introduction of othe cultures, even into the lineage, as well.

It’s a challenge I’ve seen generationally. My grandmother was born in Sweden, and three of my four grandparents were immigrants in the early 20th century. I have Swedish vases and painted plaques, Swedish Christmas decorations, and a 200-year-old dish from a Swedish castle. I grew up with the unstated assumption that Scandinavian anything was best.

I was quickly disabused of that notion when I moved to Polyglot New York City as a young adult. I said to a black friend, as I was learning the derogatory words for various ethnic groups, that Scandinavians were exempt. “Yeah, what about Squarehead?” he asked. I had never heard the term.

I made many other cultural mistakes, as I learned what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Now I bounce my grandchild on my knee and sing a Swedish nursery rhyme, though the words may be mauled into my own nonsense. It doesn’t matter, my grandchild might repeat the nonsense. My son is Scandinavian and Irish by ancestry, and his wife is German, Irish, and a mix of other European roots.

He might not know my father spoke Swedish at home until he went to school, and that some of my relatives’ English was heavily accented. The Lutheran church service my father attended was conducted in Swedish at first, and his parents got Swedish-language newspapers. It’s the normal immigrant story of how generations transition.

When some Swedish cousins visited recently, I took out letters my Grandmother wrote, in Swedish, decades ago. They shook their heads — too many obsolete words to translate.

I enjoy reading the stories published online by those who detail habits of daily life in Scandinavia. Many of these traditions were transported to the upper Midwest. I grew up drinking weak coffee, lots of it, and observing coffee breaks at 10 am and 3 pm, usually accompanied by a little sweet pastry.

My parents were stoic and not given to lots of conversation. They lived simply. Kids spent as much time outdoors as possible. Other Swedish traditions I recognize as part of daily life growing up. I am only now learning that it was culturally specific.

Tak, Varsagod, Uffda

We in the Upper Midwest might still say “tak” (thanks) or “Varsagod” (you’re welcome) or “uffda” similar to the Yiddish “Oy vey.” It’s an expression of mild annoyance.

At some point, my Midwestern family of origin discovered pizza and Italian and Chinese, bagels, and other foods.

Meanwhile, some restaurants in rural Minnesota still serve lefse (a Norwegian flatbread) as bread and carry traditional Scandinavian foods on the menu. It’s common to have a business clerk ask if a name (Anderson, Hansen) is spelled son or sen. These endings specify someone’s country of origin — Sweden, Norway, or Denmark.

I worked in Minneapolis for twenty-five years. I had friends and colleagues who were Native American and immigrants, or descendants of the world’s diaspora.

Yet in nursing homes, I worked with rural, elderly patients who were hard of hearing and couldn’t understand accented English that I easily understood. They complained to me. It was the real struggle of people who have always lived one way trying to adjust to new realities.

Immigrants who learned a trade, had compassion, and a strong work ethic were sometimes rejected by the people they helped. First-generation Europeans viewed 21st-century immigrants — often brown, from African or southeast Asian or Islander traditions — as different.

Racism is part of our reality.

I have written about these experiences elsewhere. And we know about the protests after the death of George Floyd, a black man, killed in Minneapolis.

My sons’ childhood friends included Chinese-, Laotian-, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and European Americans. Our school district was diverse in race, ethnicity, and language of origin.

Fourteen percent of all marriages are interracial, and that’s probably a smaller number than the actual interracial families. We know from television shows on ancestry that our DNA can contain many surprises when examined.

I’ve learned from other women-in-the-middle about their families melded together from various cultures. I enjoy making red beans and rice, and greens cooked with ham.

But I serve Swedish meatballs on Christmas and make glogg, a mulled, potent wine.

We can abandon those habits which don’t serve us well — stoic behavior, being unemotional, and uttering few-word responses. Yah, you betcha. We can embrace other cultural traditions which are a better fit. I enjoy being in a multicultural choir where we sing and move with the rhythms of gospel music and the blues — as well as Latin chants. Even the Lutheran Bach of my childhood shows up in our music on occasion.

Future generations will be further removed, and know less about what aspects of their lives stem from their cultural roots. The Swedish child’s cap I have lovingly passed down may simply look outdated. It is.

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2 Responses

  1. SingingFrogPress
    | Reply

    Thanks for this Sharon. I love all the ways our individual stories touch on who we all are as a nation in this very fraught moment.

  2. Kitty Custer
    | Reply

    Your writing touched many of my own points of family cultural history with the same conclusion. Thanks for blogging your thoughts.

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