Section IV: Ethnic Dynamics in American Society

Understanding One Another

Anthony Celebreeze

Ours is a nation which must be uniquely aware of that quality which has come to be called ethnicity.

Ours is not a land populated by people who have lived and worked and played together for many centuries. Some of the American people have indeed been here for thousands of years, but they have been joined by other, more recent immigrants to the North American Shores.

The passage of time has brought to our shores people whose roots can be traced to every corner of the earth. Northern Europeans came in great numbers in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the wake of the great explorers’ voyages to the new world. Blacks were carried to our shores during that same period to fulfill the needs of an underpopulated expanse. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw millions…of central and southern Europeans reach this nation….Throughout these centuries in addition groups of Asians added their numbers to the growing population of America.

For many years it was fashionable to speak of a melting pot-in which the individual cultures immigrants brought with them would be boiled–and presumably sanitized thereby–and from which could be distilled a new American culture.

In the last few years it has been recognized by many Americans-frequently the children and grandchildren of immigrants–that the melting pot metaphor is an unfortunate one. It suggests a belief that the proper way to treat ethnic cultures is to destroy them; this is not acceptable. It has been recognized too that the image of the melting pot never comported with reality in any event. Whatever emphasis was placed on homogeneity and adoption of a common outlook and culture, persistent elements of individual ethnic cultures remained with groups of Americans. Now most Americans have come to recognize that the cultural heritages which make each ethnic group unique are not properly sources of embarrassment, but should be sources of intense pride.

Ethnic pride is necessary. It allows a man or woman to give his or her best effort, to surmount by accomplishment and diligence the barriers presented by discrimination and prejudice. It allows a person to face any other as an equal secure in the conviction that no accident of birth makes him inferior, knowing that any man who willingly gives in to the weakness of bigotry and prejudice acts not from strength and knowledge but from weakness and ignorance. Ethnic pride allows men and women to exert themselves to their fullest capacities, to strive and to achieve, convinced that they need apologize to no man for their forbears.

Ethnic pride has its potential dangers, as well, of course. If narrowly understood such pride can…add new dimensions to the divisions which plague our nation,…can open new wounds in the body of American unity. It can encourage bigotry and discrimination, it can pit man against man simply because the roots of each can be traced to different corners of the earth.

Or–the ethnic’s interest in his own origins, his love for the culture of his ancestors, can help us bind up our national wounds and can aid in the struggle to attain the long sought after goal of national unity and understanding. Properly understood, I believe the new found interest in ethnicity has such potential.

Anyone who has come to love a culture must, if he is at all sensitive, come to understand that others may have a similar feeling for the heritage which they call their own. As an individual compares the culture of his ancestors with the culture of his neighbors he must begin to realize that for all the substantial differences which set those cultures apart the needs and drives which men seek to deal with in their stay upon this earth are remarkably similar….It would seem that such understanding is the first step toward a solution of the disunity which plagues us.

From such understanding can result a breakdown of alienation, and ultimately the maintenance of a pluralistic society with a diversity of attitude but with some consensus about basic values and common national goals. With these insights into our fellow man–and perhaps more importantly into ourselves and those who are most like us–we can begin anew the task of bringing unity to our nation.

The challenge which faces us all is to ensure that the values of ethnicity are not perverted by those who misunderstand its importance. We must not allow the pride which allows each of us to stand up as an equal to any other become confused with the arrogancd which makes us believe that an accident or birth can make us superior to another.

Our pride in our heritage can and should enable us to make sacrifices for what we know to be the common good without the fear of weakness which would give pause to those who do not understand their own worth.

Address presented at the National Conference on Ethnicity at The Cleveland State University on May 13, 1972.


Ethnicity Copyright © 2020 by Anthony Celebreeze. All Rights Reserved.

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