Ethnic History And the Construction of Race
For this paper tracing family history, I have decided to focus on my mother’s family since that was where I could find the most pertinent information. I was able to trace three of my four great-grandparents back to their emigration to the United States, but was unable to find anything solid for the fourth. My mother’s maiden name was Albensi, which is of Italian origin, and all four of her grandparents were immigrants from Italy. Of the three that I could find information about, two departed Italy from Naples and were from the southern part of Italy, and one was from Genoa in the north. This distinction is noted on the two passenger lists where under ethnicity/race/nationality it says “Italian (South)” for my family from the area of Naples but on the list for my great-grandfather from Genoa, it just notes “Italian.” (Ancestry.com) I am not sure if this had any bearing in the United States, but it is interesting because in Italy there is definitely a cultural, political, and socio-economic split between the north and south, with the south often looked down-upon by those in the more advanced northern parts of the country. My assumption is, however, that once Italians came to the U.S., native residents probably did not care about these subtleties.
My great-grandparents arrived to the U.S. In 1902, 1913, and 1915, all at the height of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. (Ancestry.com) My mother’s maternal grandparents, Berardino Albensi and Immacolota Dauria, met and were married in Dover, NJ. Berardino worked in the mining industry through the Depression and then moved into agriculture, growing vegetables and raising livestock. This line of work most likely fit in nicely with nativist conceptions of Italians as rural, backward people. Berardino and Immacolota moved to a community in Dover settled by Italians from the Naples region. They did not try to assimilate into American culture, instead choosing to continue speaking only Italian and maintaining their native customs. (Albensi and Grey) In fact, when one of their daughters married a man of Polish descent, she was disowned by the family. (Albensi and Grey) This certainly would not qualify as trying to assimilate into the “melting pot” of American society. Their children were also subjected to Italian slurs such as “dago” and “ginny” which more than likely heightened their family’s desire to stay within their community.
My mother’s paternal grandparents, Paul Dirupo and Antonia Luciani, also lived in New Jersey in the town of Netcong. Paul was a mason by trade, and Antonia worked in the family bakery. These occupations required more interaction with people outside the Italian community and both of them spoke fluent English. Antonia eventually became the assistant postmaster and took part in the women’s suffrage movement. (Grey) Although they did live in a largely Italian neighborhood, because of their professions, this side of the family was more assimilationist. Overall, I would argue that my family fits in more closely with the cultural pluralist model of acculturation because both sets of great-grandparents chose to live in Italian communities, for the most part marry other Italians, and keep alive their traditions and language.
In his book, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, Matthew Frye Jacobson is trying to explain the idea that race is not a biological absolute, but rather, is malleable and therefore can be used and defined for political purposes. His main concern in this work is to dispel the notion that race is a biological certainty and not a social fabrication. For him, the awesome power of race as an ideology resides in its ability to pass a natural fact. (Jacobson, 10) Before the great waves of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jacobson argues that anyone of European descent was considered white. Essentially concerned with property rights and citizenship, the early American conception was fairly simple in that almost anyone who was not an Indian or a Negro was considered white. Since “white” America was fairly homogenous at the time, meaning mostly Anglo-Saxon, and still had a wide-open frontier, the main threats to white dominance came from the natives and the slave population.
By the time my great-grandparents were arriving around the turn of the century, decades of immigration by Europeans who were not from Great Britain and were usually not Protestant, made the Anglo-Saxon elite began to view the new immigrants as a larger threat to the republic. Therefore, the notion of who was white began to shrink and there was a fragmenting of races into nations. Italians, Celts, Finns, Jews, and Slavs were now all considered distinct races, unfit for assimilation and republican self-governance, as opposed to being part of a monolithic white race. In Jacobson’s book, he quotes a journalist being asked if an Italian is a white man: “No sir, he is a Dago.” (Jacobson, 56) This was the kind of treatment that my ancestors were subjected to, and it shows that they were viewed by native-born, Anglo-Saxon Americans as non-white and a different, and lower, race.
It is hard to say whether the treatment they received caused them to retreat into their own communities, or whether the fact that they chose not to assimilate, especially my mother’s maternal grandparents, made them an easy target. By choosing to speak Italian and live their life in an insular community, it is somewhat understandable why other Americans could argue they were a totally different kind of people. Jacobson also talks about how Italians were seen as having an “innate criminality” and not “acting white” because they accepted “economic niches” that were seen as below Anglo-Saxon norms. (Jacobson, 56-57) This idea of “acting white” is very interesting because it assumes that peoples’ ethnic and racial background mean they are pre-determined to act in a certain way, and it also means that somehow, social elites have to decide what it means to act white. Because my family did not assimilate in the first generation, they were able to be labeled as non-white by others.
Once immigration was heavily restricted in 1924, and the events of the Great Depression and the Second World War helped to integrate Americans of European descent, the idea of “whiteness” became bigger once again. The second and third generations of my family became more assimilated into American culture over time. (Albensi and Grey) This is fairly typical, I would think, as younger people have less ties to the home country of their grandparents. I also think that the idea of ethnicity and race has changed a lot since my great-grandparents moved to this country. Nowadays, it is ok for people to be proud of their ethnic heritage and it does not keep them outside of the mainstream. Also, pretty much anybody of European descent is now considered “white,” so the concept of that racial category had widened, and there are now many ethnicities that fit within it. There is a natural process of assimilation over time, and my family is no exception. My mother and our family are considered white, and I think that this proves Jacobson’s thesis that race is something that is socially constructed and not a biological given.
Albensi, Elizabeth Dirupo. Personal Interview. 1 April, 2010.
Ancestry.com “Boston Passenger Lists, 1820-1943.” Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2006
Web. 3 April, 2010.
Ancestry.com. “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.” Ancestry.com Operations, Inc.,
2006. Web. 3 April, 2010.
Grey, Judith Albensi. Personal Interview. 1 April, 2010.
Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. Print.
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