I had the strangest question surface in my mind the other day: Am I still Polish?
I've been doing a lot of thinking about the meaning of racial, ethnic, and national identity, how fluid and overlapping it can be. How divisive. And how ultimately ineffective in helping establish a meaningful identity.
For over thirty years I thought of myself as Polish. I prided myself on being Polish. I hung onto that identity because that's what I grew up hearing I was. I was given that label and I internalized it without question. I felt as though being Polish was a no-brainer, and to deny it was to offend my family, something I dared not do.
I clung to this identity even when it became obvious I didn't really know how to be Polish, or that Poles living in Poland (my relatives in particular) no longer thought of me as "purely Polish" due to the American influences on my values and preferences. I insisted I was Polish because I didn't have any alternatives on my radar.
Being white in the United States, it seemed the alternative to a Polish identity (which carried with it a sense of belonging and a history) was to blend into the mainstream, the norm, the...ordinary. I saw nothing special about being "white American".
Now that I think about it, many misguided proponents of "white history month" and "white pride" movements try to base themselves on what they must see as the advantages of minorities. They - and I for the longest time - wanted to stand out from the crowd. Even when being part of the crowd brings with it benefits of white privilege, the grass always seem greener on the other side of the proverbial fence.
Only in the last few years have I finally made the transition to thinking of myself as "Polish-American", trying to somehow combine both aspects of my experiences into a single identity. I fought this new hyphenated label, and I'm still uneasy about it, because when I think of Polish-Americans, I think of second, third, and later generations of people whose ancestors were Polish, but who themselves only maintain the genetic influences of Poland, and none of the culture. Perhaps they're still Catholic, but just as likely not. Hardly any of them know more Polish than a mispronounced "kielbasa" or "pierogi". Some may have visited Poland, but even these were no more than tourists. There may be some Polish traditions still present in the home, but they may often have an American flavor to them. In other words, I didn't really see myself as a "Polish-American" because I was more Polish than them. Yet I was more American than not, so to ignore that aspect of my identity was incorrect.
But really, what I've been realizing more and more lately, and what brought me to my initial, strange question above, is that perhaps trying to hold onto the "Polish" identity at all no longer serves me. Maybe it'd be better to say that my family of origin is Polish, that I was born in Poland, that I speak Polish - my heritage language - to my daughter, but that none of this necessarily makes me feel the need to continue to identify with the label.
The thing about labels is that they carry with them expectations. Once you label yourself - or someone else - certain assumptions follow. I struggled with my Catholic identity in much the same way for a long time. Being Catholic presumes certain spiritual practices, certain socio-political stances, certain priorities, certain beliefs. And once these assumptions were no longer true for me, I had no choice but to question if I really should continue to identify as Catholic. I had decided that I had a "birthright" to the Catholic identity by way of my Polishness. Yet here I am questioning even that!
We use national identities to separate ourselves from each other. Poles are known for certain folk arts, several key famous people, popular kitchen fare, idiotic Polak jokes. But who cares? These are not important reasons to separate people. It makes a lot more sense to divide people according to sex, because certain undeniable biological experiences follow, and even these are not guaranteed and have been fought tooth-and-nail by feminists for several generations.
Why do I need membership in a group in order to take advantage of what the group is known for? Why can't I have a claim to things by virtue of our shared humanity? Shouldn't all the things we admire or appreciate about any given culture contribute to the betterment of humanity as a whole? Why can't so-called outsiders appreciate culture-specific beauty, food, music, art, traditions? And values really aren't culture-specific, not to the exclusion of every other culture; they just tend to overlap by region, probably where multiple cultures were once a single culture.
That's the other thing, two thousand years ago - at the time of Jesus - there was no Poland. But Poland is one of the older civilizations. There are countless modern nation-states who have split from various other cultures and established their own identity. For what, I ask? Why this ongoing hair-splitting, this posing of us versus them? Even among modern-day Americans, there's Yankees and Southerners, there's Democrats and Republicans, there's the filthy wealthy and the working-middle class - and various identities in between each pair. Do any of these labels ultimately matter? Do they bring happiness to their carriers? Do they enable purpose-driven lives? Or do they serve to divide, to feed our egos, our need to feel important, even at the cost of others, in order for us to feel a sense of meaning in our lives?
I recently read a quote about the meaning of life. Namely, that there is no set meaning to life, save for the meaning each individual gives her or his own life. And sadly, the vast majority of us automatically delegate that right, that privilege, that honor, to someone else. To the groups we think we belong to. To our nationality, our race, our sex, our socio-economic status, our profession, our religion. When our life's purpose is tied to the "mission" of any sub-group of humanity, something that in no way benefits humanity as a whole, then our life's meaning is useless. But if we are able to transcend all the various categories that work to put up division - both among us and within each individual, then we begin to see these labels as merely superficial, elementary, and not at all helpful in allowing us to live a meaningful, purpose-driven life.
I'm not saying to ignore the ways in which we differ from each other! Not at all! I'm saying lets allow our differences to be what they are, nothing more and nothing less. They are simple variations on a theme. How wonderful to look around and see the different ways beauty expresses itself. The different flavors cuisine can take on. The different ways of looking at life and priorities and values. Observing these differences should give us pause, fill us with amazement, and give us pride in the unique expressions that life has taken within ourselves. In no way should it make us start comparing ourselves to each other, wishing away some things while coveting others.
So, am I still Polish? It doesn't much matter how I self-identify if others don't perceive me the same way. When I'm in Poland, my awkward behaviors and uncertainty about the norms will immediately give me away, in spite of my Polish language skills. When I'm in the United States, only rarely does anyone ever detect a bit of an accent in my speech, and this is generally when I've switched from thinking in Polish. Otherwise, I look and act as if I am just one of many white American individuals. That's one of the beauties of the American identity - that individuality is actually expected. While there is some group-think when it comes to choices Americans make, when someone goes against the grain, it is not enough to warrant being stripped of one's American label. At least not for white Americans, that is. It's not an ideal label, but it's much closer to who I am in the world than "Polish".
And while it may be technically true, "Polish-American" is not how I identify. My past is grounded in Polishness, this is true. But my present, and my future - no. Even if it troubles my Polish relatives, I am not one of them when it comes to nationality. I do not consider Polishness to be in any way better than any other nationality. I feel the exact same way about Americanness. In essence, I'm a global citizen. My immigration is the single most influential aspect of my identity. Because I don't fully belong anywhere in particular, I belong everywhere equally.