Pride = Prejudice
To embrace your race, ethnicity or other essentialist qualities is to embrace bigotry. Different presupposes better or worse.
From the time I was a small boy in Brooklyn, my father invested considerable effort in stoking my ethnic pride. He’d regale me with heroic tales of Da Vinci and DiMaggio. On Columbus Day, he’d brave the (loathsome, to him) Manhattan throngs in order to prop me on his shoulders for the parade, with its endless procession of banners celebrating the Marconis and Meuccis. And yet it wasn’t long before I found myself perplexed by Dad’s agenda. Was he seriously suggesting that the vowel at the end of Dimag’s surname helped him collect a single hit during the famous streak? For that matter, if it was Da Vinci’s Italian genes that gave us the Mona Lisa or the design for the helicopter, why weren’t people in 15th Century Italy churning out helicopters and Mona Lisas left and right? Seemed to me that the role models Dad kept citing were merely exceptional individuals whose achievements had nothing to do with Italy, other Italians, my father, or me.
Plus, this being the ’50s, the heyday of the Mob, I sensed a more troubling dimension to Dad's entreaties. I recall asking, “But if I say I’m Italian and I’m proud of DiMaggio, isn’t that the same as somebody else saying you’re Italian and you should be ashamed of Capone? Why can’t I just be me?” I decided I would sink or swim on my own merits. (And Ted Williams was a better hitter anyway.)
I am especially mindful of such long-ago dialogues these days, given the proliferation of cultural forces urging deep immersion in our ethnic and racial backgrounds. There are those ubiquitous and smarmy ads for Ancestry DNA. There have been popular TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots. Almost every college maintains an Office of Diversity, whose mission is in part to help students glory in their supposed origins and to promote relevant associations and even dedicated coursework.
Consider what’s really happening in such Pride initiatives. We are taking hordes of people who may never have given much thought to “who they think they are” and we’re training them to de-assimilate: to feel bound to some of their neighbors—the ones who look like them—but separate from the rest. And it's not separate and equal, folks, but rather separate and superior, inasmuch as the entire point of exploring one’s heritage is to celebrate it (as a distinct background from some other possible heritage).
You cannot hold, truly hold, both of the following beliefs simultaneously:
I’m glad I’m Italian.
I’d be just as happy being something else.
Such an egalitarian outlook negates the whole meaning of genuine ethnic pride. If it’s equally good for a person to be Italian or Irish or Romanian or black or Vietnamese, then why be proud of being any given one of those? Why make distinctions?
If you are truly proud to be A, a full embrace of that emotional state means—inevitably—a rejection of not-A, or if not a rejection, surely a deeply ingrained sense that not-A is “less than.” Not-A is the “other.”
(This is also true of religion, by the way. The Pope can talk ecumenicalism all he wants, but if he truly felt ecumenical deep in his bones, he would not be a Pope, or a devout Catholic at all. We’re talking about salvation, for Christ’s sake, literally. If you believe that Catholicism is THE righteous highway to Heaven, how can Judaism or Islam get you there just as well? It’s nonsensical. So yes, religion entails bigotry too.)
No matter what anyone from the Pride Brigade espouses, I cannot be proud to be A and also fully respect your pride in being B. Because the minute I fully respect your right to be B—that B is “as good as” A, only different—then there’s really no point in my being proud of being A anymore. There’s no way around this. My father’s logic would go as follows: “You can be as proud you want, but you’re wrong. Italian is really the thing to be.” Now Dad would never say that to someone, or even probably think it verbatim. But it would in there, driving him.
It’s an impossible psychic dichotomy to maintain. (Yes, I’m going to belabor this a bit because it’s such a seminal point.) It can’t be “just as good” for your neighbor to be proud of his heritage, because the moment you concede that, you have eroded your own pride in being whatever you are.
To shift to a slightly more lighthearted context, have you ever been on the No. 4 train to the Bronx in a subway car full of equal parts Yankees and Red Sox fans? I have, folks. You’ll see a version of this phenomenon play out in front of you in real life. There is only one true path. And if you’re not wearing the hat I’m wearing, your path is the wrong one. And that’s just baseball. (Hell, people will try to kill each other even over sports allegiances. This happened outside Dodger Stadium. Or, you follow international soccer?)
I know the rebuttal, and on the surface it sounds persuasive: In most cases we’re dealing with groups who have too long been marginalized and defamed. Surely that was true in the case of the Black Pride and Gay Pride movements. So, the argument goes, we’re just trying to imbue people from those communities with a proper sense of self. But to insist that such groups feel actual collective pride is an overcorrection, and we have an object lesson here that I happen to know something about, as it was a key theme of my 2005 book, SHAM: the self-esteem movement in America’s schools. The theory was that if you give underperforming students a reason to feel good about themselves—if you tell them they’re really wonderful and special—their newly minted self-images will self-fulfill. The results of such spitball thinking have been disastrous by every metric. Not only did scholastic performance plummet across the board, but in the process…well, I put it this way in a 2012 piece for the New York Daily News:
“The rise of the self-esteem movement was stunningly successful at one thing only: yielding a bumper crop of young narcissists who value their own needs first and foremost — and may act out to defend that ethic.” (See also this book by psychologist Jean Twenge.)
But to go back to where we started, pride in your heritage for its own sake makes no sense, as it strips the word pride of all meaning. I now give the floor to George Carlin, riffing on his own putative heritage, “Being Irish isn't a skill. Pride should be reserved for something you can actually do, not for something that comes down to DNA. You wouldn't say I'm proud to be predisposed to have colon cancer, would you?”
Such retrograde thinking is no laughing matter in its social impact. At a time when American society is quite polarized enough already, we should not be extolling notions that, intentionally or not, encourage us to focus more intently on our differences. You think we really need an added incentive to feel estranged from those around us?
Moreover, as implied in the question I posed to my father, pride and prejudice are fruits of the same poison tree: the mindless effort to correlate major personal traits with ethnicity and race. For if there is something inherent in being Italian that produced Da Vinci or DiMaggio, is there not also something inherent in being Italian that produced Capone or Gotti?
Every black American who’s proud to belong to the race that gave us Thurgood Marshall or LeBron or Beyonce opens the logical door for someone to say, “Yeah, and you’re also part of the race that gave us those thugs who took down the 7-Eleven last night and killed that shopkeeper.”
None of this is, therefore, innocuous. We say we simply want to feel a spiritual kinship with people like us, but really how far is it from uplifting sagas about “people like us” to grim accusations about “people like them”? In a very real sense, pride is prejudice. It flows from the emotional language of the bigot.
(Indeed, the very concept of race lays the groundwork for bigotry, which is one reason why I abandoned mine. Let’s leave people for a moment and talk fruit. Suppose I put two pieces of fruit in front of you and you recognize them both as apples. But they do look slightly different. Then I tell you that only one piece of fruit, on the left, is an apple. The second piece of fruit, on the right, is actually a bapple. Now you begin to wonder. Hmmm. Why is one an apple and one a bapple? What makes them different? Is it just the subtle variation in color you now notice as you scrutinize the two pieces of fruit more closely? Or are there other intrinsic differences here? Maybe they taste different? Maybe one is healthier? Maybe one gives you profound diarrhea? Maybe one is lethal. Sorting like things into “this” and “that” logically and ineluctably raises questions of comparative quality.)
If I am your neighbor, am I less like you for the lack of forebears in Lima or Lagos? We both take out the garbage. We both grumble about “the kids.” We wake up to the same lousy winter weather, shaking our heads at one another as we scrape the ice from our windshields.
I am no more Italian than you are Swedish or Nigerian. I am no more “white” than you are “black.” Here in America, we are each one of 300 million countrymen in the here and now. That is the bond we should reinforce, not some abstract and anachronistic lineage that drags us back, on our separate paths, to nations if not whole cultures that no longer exist.
This is not an argument for some bland, white-bread society. The basil does not need to stand off to the side and declare its independence from the soup in order to be recognized; its contribution to flavor will be apparent. The grand social Cuisinart of American culture has already processed bits and pieces of all constituent cultures and will continue to do so. Every culture ends up "in there."
Each of us has the power to opt out of today's heritage-mania—to insist on being appraised on our own individual merits. One of Americana’s bedrock ideals is reinvention, an unshackling from the chains of tradition. I am no more tied to being Italian than I am tied to being a barber, as was my grandfather. We must look forward, not backward.
Here, past is not prologue. It is simply past, and ought to be left there. You have no heritage to be proud of. You are just you. Do well in life and be proud of yourself.