Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ethnic Identification


        Even when a country has not existed for years, some people continue to identify themselves as members of that non-existent country. Problems arise when they strive to restore themselves as an independent country. My trips into trauma zones have brought me into contact with a number of these groups, and I have seen the negative consequences of the lack of their integration into the presently existing country. Some examples would be the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Chechnyans in Russia, and Kurds in Iraq. The pattern seems to indicate that people form an ethnic identity early, see that as who they are, and can find it difficult to or refuse to re-identify as a member of the dominant group.
        My own sense of an almost forgotten early identity came the other day at the old state capital in Tallahassee. We were in the room covering the history of prisons and corrections in the state. One of the stories involved a young man from North Dakota who had been picked up as a vagrant, sent to prison and as was the practice at the time sold to a private company as labor. The young man did something that upset the foreman, who took a dislike to him and gave him a whipping from which he died.
       I had a sense of shock and tears welled up. He had killed one of my people. My people? I hadn’t lived in the state for 60 years and had no desire to go back. But if the boy had been from any other state, I wouldn’t have had that strong of a reaction.
        The story continued. His parents were, as would be expected, incensed and they enlisted the aid of the governor of North Dakota to come to Florida and raise hell with the Florida governor. As a result the practice of selling the prisoners was stopped. My reaction was, “good for my people.”
       My father was brought to the U.S. from Sweden as a child and always identified strongly with being a Swede, to him an obviously superior people. On the other hand he stressed we were now Americans and he and my mother spoke only English to us and used Swedish only when they wanted what they said not to be understood by the children. They spoke negatively about the local Germans who spoke German at home and kept German customs. They weren’t adjusting to the new world. The Germans on the other hand spoke of Swedes as lacking character since they had been so willing to adopt the ways of the new world. In this case the ethnic differences between the two groups seldom broke into open conflict, except maybe at a dance when people were in their cups.
        I would have been upset at the treatment of the young man in Florida regardless of his background, but it was the strength of my response on seeing he was from my home state that surprised me. It was as if my lower, primitive brain had been tapped into. Forget the higher level logical part of the brain, don’t mess with my people.
       My strong emotional response gave me a bit more insight into the strength of the emotional responses of people I have interviewed in various countries where ethnic conflicts are going on.

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