Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What is the legacy of a People?

LEGACY: legacy |ˈlegəsē|: noun ( pl. -cies)
• a thing handed down by a predecessor. Origin: late Middle English; from Old French legacie, from medieval Latin legatia ‘legateship,’ from legatus ‘person delegated’.

In the Oxford English dictionary, standing apart from the pronunciation and etymology of the word 'legacy', is a very simple and succinct definition, "a thing handed down by a predecessor".   I think it's safe to assume that many people would say a legacy is a positive thing; however, what happens when a legacy is not a good thing?  What happens when you inherit something which is socially unpalatable?  What if the legacy of the people from whom you descend is not a legacy at all, but is a stereotype which does not touch your life, although many people assume it does?  What if your assumed legacy is alcoholism?

I am Irish, and so this legacy comes to me.

Recently, I had to have a mammogram re-check.  Anyone who has had mammogram associated 'issues' will relate, without me getting into any of the ugly details.  The radiologist asks about my family background, and if there is a family history of breast cancer.  I laugh nervously and answer quite honestly, "I don't know.  I'm Irish and Irish families don't really discuss such matters".  I answered in this way because, in my experience, Irish families don't.

The radiologist laughs and comes back with a response I've heard too many times before.  "Oh, come on", she says, "not even when they've had one too many beers at the pub?".  I recognize an unmistakeable edge in my tone when explain to her that, other than me, no one in my family drinks alcohol.  Occasionally I enjoy good red wine, and yes I might even have a pint or two of Guinness when I'm in Ireland.  "Really?", she says, "No one else in your family drinks?".  It is clear that she does not believe me, and in truth it doesn't really matter what I say, because she has already decided who we are based on one word, IRISH.

I am Irish, and so this legacy comes to me.

A friend of mine is a psychiatrist.  He calls alcoholism 'The Irish Disease'.  Once, I asked him if he ever had an Irish patient who was an alcoholic.  He said he didn't recall any Irish patients, but certainly did deal with people from Scotland and England who were alcoholics.  He then explained that 'everyone knows' alcoholism is the Irish disease.  I expressed surprise at the fact that he knows 'everyone', and then very sarcastically explained that, even assuming his contention might very well be true, the Scottish and the English are different ethnic groups from the Irish.  Well from 'THAT' area of the world was his less than brilliant comeback.

The nation of Ireland has produced some of the greatest minds on the planet in the realms of literature and political philosophy, but it appears as though, at times, this is easily forgotten.  The 'drunken Paddy' is always remembered.

I am Irish, and so this legacy comes to me.

A stereotype often emerges out of a given group because it fits some of the members of that group, of that there can be no doubt; however, just because a stereotype exists, does that mean we all fit into it?

Think about every colonized race of people in history and the stereotypes which were perpetuated about them.  Think about the stereotypes associated with the people from whom you descend.

'Alcoholic', 'Lazy bum', 'Cheapskate', 'Shylock', 'Welfare Queen'?

Does the stereotype fit someone in your family tree?  Perhaps it does, but does that mean that's all there is to the whole person, or to the whole ethic group?  NO.  Human beings are not two dimensional figures, neither all saint nor all sinner. No matter how simple a life we may lead, we are complex individuals.  Each of us has both good qualities and bad, no matter what our country of origin.

My interest lies in uncovering all dimensions of the individuals in my family tree, within the stories of their lives.  If alcoholism is part of the story, then certainly I acknowledge it; however, falling prey to the temptation to slot all individuals into stereotypes is just not that interesting to me.

Copyright©irisheyesjg2012.

12 comments:

  1. I'm sorry your stress in a difficult situation was exacerbated by a nominally professional health provider. Stereotypes serve an us-and-the dichotomy where the "us" is better. I can't say I've heard this in Australia but the stereotypes have been replaced by other ethnic groups. Each new migration wave becomes the "other".

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  2. Hello Cassmob,

    As always, thank you for your comments. I really appreciate receiving them.

    It’s so true what you’ve said. You have taken me back to my days in graduate school and studying the work of Edward Said and Michel Foucault, among others, and the idea 'Othering' as the way in which a dominant group or culture perceives an increase in their own power by defining another group as lesser than, as 'the other'.

    Despite having this knowledge under my belt, I always find it interesting to notice how easily 'we', i.e. members of society, fall into this sort of habit of 'othering' on an almost subconscious level. To many of us, such as the friend I mention in this piece, or the radiologist, it comes sort of naturally. In these instances I don't think either one of them meant to be deliberately hurtful, instead it is as though the stereotype is ‘inside of their thinking’ without them even thinking about it.

    Cheers to you,
    Jennifer

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  3. Wow, you do it to me every time. You post the light and the dark, the serious and not so serious. Great post and really worth thinking about, but don’t be surprised if someone tells you to lighten up.

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    1. Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks for your comments; they are much appreciated.

      When I read your comments I smiled (in a good way) because 'lighten up' is a phrase that drives me crazy, and it's one I hear all the time from people who think I am too serious about many matters, so I found it funny that you would mention that I might hear it in response to this post.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  4. I’d never tell you to lighten up, but I think some Irish are not bothered by this kind of thing. I like what you say about stereotypes being inside of us without us really thinking about it. How many of us can honestly say we’ve never laughed at an ethnic joke?

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    1. Hi Ashling,

      Thanks for your comments; they are much appreciated.

      Your point about people laughing at ethnic jokes is a great example of people buying into stereotypes without really thinking about them.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  5. Wonderful post! It packed a punch. Growing up I often compared the family stories and experiences of my Rusyn immigrant grandparents with those of my best friend, whose Mexican grandparents crossed the Rio Grande (illegally) and ended up in the Los Angeles barrios. Different foods, different looks, but so very many similarities - especially their prejudices against "others" in America. So far down in the socio-economic pecking order that they seemed to need find an "other" group further down as a foil.

    That said, there are cultural traits within ethnicities - as you alluded to in your initial comment about being Irish. You didn't say "in my family we don't discuss these things". Certainly her comment was thoughtless, and one could easily be offended. But if one is going to speak in generalities, others (and yes, a deliberate choice of words) may respond in kind.

    I do hope all is well on the health front.

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    1. Hi Susan,

      As always, thank you for your comments; they are much appreciated.

      While generalities are a common feature of communication, I think a distinction needs to be drawn between benign generalizations and negative stereotypes. Generalizations can describe without being offensive, but negative stereotypes rarely describe and are inherently offensive.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  6. Thank You to each one of you for sharing in this 'conversation'. One of the things I like most about platforms such as this one is the ability to share perspectives on a matter. I debated about whether or not to share this post, and decided to do so because I truly believe that discussion leads to understanding.

    I am sending each one of you a hug and a thank you for offering comments where many have just avoided engaging the subject.

    Cheers to each of you,
    Jennifer

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  7. You are welcome Jennifer and personally I think some subjects need serious reflection. Thank you for giving us this opportunity. Cassmob

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  8. I'm late to the "party" but think I'll jump in anyhow. Your post elicited two divergent thoughts as I read it. I recognized that the two main ethnic groups I am researching--Irish and Polish--have both often been the brunt of ethnic slurs, and while I've not previously dwelt on that commonality, see that those two people groups also share a heritage of being downtrodden by other groups seeking ascendancy. Why else would statements like yours about the heritage's sterling examples of brilliant thinkers be buried in a very opposite public perception of the group as a whole?

    And yet, I also must acknowledge that the very reason I am currently blogging is to catalog the letters and family history of an average Irishman whose life succumbed to the tragedy of alcoholism. The sum of it all is that, as you so effectively illustrated it, there is a wide gamut of human behaviors embedded within each people group--and yet, we must not take the actions of one as representative of the whole. A simple concept, yet one so complex to unfold in our everyday actions.

    That thought aside...my prayers for your health and well being!

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    1. Hello Jacqi,

      As alway, I very much appreciate receiving your comments anytime. Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comments on this topic.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

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Cheers, Jennifer

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