Here on the blog, I've touched on issues of race before: just over two months ago, my post "The Happy WASP Boy" generated some fairly heated responses. With tongue only partially planted in cheek, I wrote then:
But here's the thing I've realized in my life: though there is much that is vacuous and materialistic about North American middle-class culture, that has damn all to do with skin color or ethnic heritage! I grew up with a father who was a European war refugee and a mother who came from an "old" California family of German, English,and Scots-Irish ancestry. I spent most of my time with my mother's side of the family, and they formed my values and my world view.
Yes, we're WASPs. If you want to stereotype one aspect of us, we're a Brooks Brothers wearing, Bloody Mary drinking, Buick Roadmaster station-wagon driving, fraternity and sorority joining, tennis-playing, mayonnaise and meat loaf eating, Junior League cookbook owning, monogrammed thank-you note writing, Town and Country magazine reading, English horseback riding, debutante ball attending, Social Register listed, pastel polo-shirt or sweater set clad clan. Without apologies.
There was a lot of discussion in the comments, and it was pointed out to me by several people that my characterization of my family was less about skin color and more about class. I think I was aware of that when I wrote the post, but honestly, felt awkward about writing about my family and my background in terms of class. Where I come from, class is hinted at but never discussed: just in blogging about my family in these posts, I've violated some rules. There are certain topics that aren't to be talked about too openly, and issues of class and money are among them.
When we were cynical teenagers, my brother and I came up with the terms OKOP and NOKOP. OKOP stood for "Our Kind of People"; NOKOP (obviously) for "Not Our Kind of People." We used the words ironically, expressing our chagrin at what we saw as the subtle elitism and snobbery of many members of our extended clan. My cousins of my generation picked up the terms, and at times, the line between the sincere and the ironic use of the acronyms became blurred. Someone would bring home a girlfriend to meet the family, and she would tie her sweater around her waist instead of draping it over her shoulders. "So NOKOP", we'd mouth to each other over the family dinner table. I once brought a friend to a Fourth of July party who wore a "Porn Star" baseball cap. "She's nice", said one cousin, "but a bit NOKOP, don't you think?" What began as an expression to poke fun at certain elements of class consciousness in our clan became instead a way of reinforcing those same elements. That's what happens, I suppose.
Of course, we've become a much more diverse family over the years. Half-a-dozen of us are in interracial marriages with people from a wide variety of social backgrounds. A great many of us don't care about the things an older generation cared about; only a handful of my cousins still worry about who's in the Social Register and keeping up expensive club memberships. And well over half of us vote solidly Democratic -- something that would have horrified our great-grandparents' generation. (My mother's father and his brother were the only members of their entire family who voted for FDR).
For years and years, I struggled to come to terms with whether or not I wanted to embrace or reject certain aspects of my "class background." At Berkeley, I learned quickly that others were allowed to say with pride that they were the first in the family to go to university -- but I couldn't say "I'm a fourth-generation Golden Bear" without being greeted with rolled eyes and epithets like "f-ing snob". Those of us who were from "old families" (a favorite euphemism of the upper-middle classes) learned to conceal it -- or openly disparage it. When I lived in a co-op at Cal (I had become the first male member of my mother's family in a century not to pledge a fraternity), I knew one other gal in the house who came from a similar background to my own. We both made a conscious choice to make fun of our privileges. We wore our Che Guevara t-shirts and wallowed in white guilt like pigs in a trough.
My sophomore year in Ridge House, I had a roommate named "Oscar." Oscar was from a Mexican-American family in the Central Valley; he was the first in his family to go to college. Oscar was active in MEChA, as well as the society for Hispanic Engineers and Scientists (two organizations that didn't always see eye-to-eye, but that's another story.) He talked with great pride about his family and what it was like to grow up the son of agricultural laborers, spending half his childhood in Michoacan and the other half in rural Fresno County. But I didn't want to talk about growing up spending my childhood in places like Santa Barbara and Piedmont and Carmel by-the-Sea. Where Oscar was proud of his family, I was ashamed of what I believed at the time to be unmerited good fortune and privilege.
Oscar was a smart lad and a good friend; we went to church together. One day he asked me: "Hugo, why are you so ashamed of who you are?" I protested that I wasn't, and he persisted: "You walk around apologizing for being a white boy from Carmel all the time. It's getting really old. Your family is part of who you are, and you should be proud of your roots. Period. Even if you can't pronounce your own name right." (He insisted on calling me "Ooogo", rather than the English "Hugh-go" or the German "Hoo-go.")
I told Oscar it wasn't that easy. I said: "People admire you for coming from where you've come from -- they don't feel that same way about white guys whose great-grandfathers went here. It's like I haven't earned being here." Oscar laughed and laughed: "Shit, Oooogo, sometimes I worry everyone thinks I got in here because of affirmative action; you're worrying you got in here because of your relatives' influence. We both doubt ourselves because of our backgrounds, as different as we are -- that's just classic!" I laughed with him.
And then I shared with him the terms "NOKOP" and "OKOP", and I believe I made his whole semester. As soon as I explained the terms to him, he rolled on the floor in hysterics, gasping in two languages. The English consisted of "Oh, you f-ing white people, you f-ing white people, I love you soooo much". As if this wasn't bizarre enough, Oscar then picked up the phone in our room and called up a series of his friends from MEChA, telling them about me and NOKOP and OKOP. And if you were around Oscar or his friends in the 1986-87 academic year, you would have heard them using the acronyms constantly, often in exaggerated accents modeled on Mr. Howell from Gilligan's Island: "Ernie, you ridiculous pocho imbecile, that outfit is soooo NOKOP."
Oscar met my parents and my aunt on one occasion, and was gracious as could be. Though he and his friends enjoyed ribbing me, he was also sending me a very positive message: I shouldn't take myself or my family so damned seriously. Oscar taught me that my "white guilt" and my "working class chic" were both affectations that only reinforced my image as an earnest, clueless, elitist. More than anyone else, Oscar believed that we are simultaneously products of our family background and our own unique choices. He urged me to always separate the two, and he taught me that shame and guilt ought only be associated with the latter, never the former. "Your family's your family, man", he'd say; "Love them, be proud of them, and don't pretend they aren't who they are."
I haven't heard from Oscar in over a decade; last time we talked, he was back in grad school pursuing a second Ph.D. -- and I had just started teaching at PCC. As he always did, he brought up NOKOP and OKOP. The last time we talked, I had just gotten my nipples pierced (it was an impulse) and I shared the rather painful news with him. He shrieked with laughter; "Ooogo, even I KNOW that has to be soooo NOKOP." I agreed that indeed it was, and that my family would not take it well. "Man", Oscar snorted, "you're going to be all right."
I rarely use NOKOP or OKOP except in jest any more; neither do my cousins. I don't worry about whether or not my name is in the Social Register, and I'd rather tithe to God than pay dues to the Valley Hunt or the Jonathan Club. But I don't pretend, either, that those things were not at least a part of my heritage; I don't deny my background any more. My family taught me early on not to boast or brag -- OKOP don't draw attention to themselves. But Oscar taught me that there is no virtue in being embarrassed by one's heritage, and he taught me that constant apologies were just another sign of privilege. Living in happy gratitude for one's heritage -- with the assurance that one is neither above or beneath any other person because of that heritage -- is what he urged. And it's Oscar's words I still try and follow these days.