I grew up in Brooklyn. Brooklyn, NY. The Brooklyn. Not the old-money Brooklyn that is Brooklyn Heights. Not the hipster-ground-zero Brooklyn that is Park Slope. Not the gentrified Brooklyn that is DUMBO, Red Hook, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Williamsburg or Greenpoint. Not the gentrifying Brooklyn that is Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, or Sunset Park. Southern Brooklyn. Bay Ridge. A working-class melting pot. I grew up there. I didn’t transplant there, I don’t claim to be a Brooklynite despite having spent much of my life elsewhere. I’m the genuine article. I don’t have the accent, but I can do it. I don’t often use the lingo, but I know it as well as anyone. And, I know and understand some native behaviors that seem alien or bizarre to much of the country.

One of the first things that would happen when my friends and I would meet a new kid was to find out “what he was.” As in, ethnic origin and related matters. Not with any malice or ill intent, but merely as a datum, one as baseline and nonjudgmental as a name and home address. Once we knew that Alex or Mark or George or Frankie or Joey or Stevie was Italian or Irish or Greek or Jewish or Norwegian or one of the other origins that were common in our neighborhood, we filed the information away and got on with what Brooklyn kids would do.

I never gave this behavior much thought. That is, until I went away to college. Turns out, that’s not a common practice in much of the rest of the country, and I recall having conversations about that with the other New York kids. It was quite a bit of culture shock, even though I was a mere three hours outside NY, in upstate NY. I did what kids do. I adapted, I went with the flow.

This phenomenon proved out the same way after school, when I got my first job and moved to Long Island. The “natives” routinely discussed such matters, the transplants did not. Again, I went with it, but as an adult and with the experiences I had had to then, I erred on the side of caution.

Once I left that world and went into the restaurant business in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, things got back to “normal.” Indeed, it was even more of a primary topic of conversation, given that the area was receiving a large influx of people from Russia, former Soviet republics, various Middle Eastern nations, the Balkans, central-eastern Europe and so forth, who commingled with the established Jews, Italians and Irish (many second-, third-, or fourth-generation American-born). Meet someone, and it wouldn’t be long before you knew “what they were.” No big deal, no worries about political correctness, no outrage, no fuss.

To us, at least. It remained that people not of New York found this behavior to range from inappropriate to uncomfortable to insulting and/or a telltale of bigotry. I get the former two – they’re matters of etiquette learned while young, and we can debate things from that angle calmly and rationally. The latter two, on the other hand, require the presumption of ill intent. Some will disagree with this, asserting that ingrained bigotry doesn’t require actual malicious feelings, but I reject that aspersion. America is a nation of immigrants, and no matter that many families need to look backward two to four centuries to find their immigrant forebears, our celebrated culture is fundamentally rooted and intertwined with immigration (indeed, one of my best friends is so “American” that he has no ready response to “what are you” other than “American.” To which, he often hears, “no, what are you really?” which elicits a long familial history. To everyone’s benefit).

“What we are” is a part of who we are, and “what we are” counts a whole lot more than many of the other identities that have been elevated and celebrated of late.

One might think that the advocates of diversity and multiculturalism would celebrate the sharing of our different origins. One might think that getting to know the back stories of new acquaintances is a Good Thing. One might contemplate the proliferation of DNA testing companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe as a sign that people are curious about ethnic history and origins. But, thanks to scolds and busybodies, we’ve turned into an walking-on-eggshells culture where people often feel at risk of eternal damnation for committing the slightest social faux pas or uttering a harmless but ill-received turn of phrase.

So, instead of celebrating “what we are,” and recognizing that our diverse heritages are as much a part of being Americans as our shared values and membership in our common society, we’re encouraged to shy away, to remain ignorant of each other’s roots, to ignore the fact that we are blessed with a wealth of diverse stories, experiences, and histories. We are informed that our curiosity in this regard must be of ill intent or based on a desire to divide and marginalize – something that no one who saw my friends and I hanging out would ever think to imagine.

That, there, is a microcosm of a growing sickness in our culture: the presumption of ill will. It’s why offended-ness is a thing. It’s why there’s a growing list of words we’re not supposed to use. It’s the reason for safe spaces, trigger warnings, the declaration of personal pronouns, and the reflexive, defensive tribalism that is dividing the nation. We would do well to remember – things are a big deal only if we make them a big deal. Taking offense where none is intended is a decision, a voluntary act. Today, we argue that the onus for avoiding offense should invariably fall on the speaker, and that the “speakee” is the victim. But, offended-ness is indeed a choice, and the granting of infinite power to the “speakee” merely serves to encourage anger, divisiveness, hostility, and presumption of malice aforethought. Such presumption is rarely right and usually wrong, and it would do society a great deal of good to remember that.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


Like this post?