White Men Can’t Celebrate

Musings on whether expressiveness is linked to ethnicity, as cultural stereotypes would have it, or more closely (and inversely) related to relative wealth.

And the Oscar goes to…. Roberto Benigni!

Leaping from his seat, Roberto hugs and kisses everyone within grabbing distance — family members, colleagues, strangers, the usher — and then starts for the stage. His excitement lifts him off the floor, quite literally. He jumps onto the back of the row of seats to his left, reaching for balance from one upstretched hand to the next as he makes his teetering way to the front, the very embodiment of enthusiastic celebration.

Benigni’s response to his 1999 award for best performance by an actor should also have been a shoo-in for most-enthusiastic acceptance of any award, ever. Delightfully uninhibited, its memory still makes me smile.

Fast forward about ten years.

They’re always celebrating something.

The speaker is my Spanish tutor and we’re talking about a new-to-me Mexican celebration that has come up on my calendar: the Day of the Race. My tutor is unable to explain it precisely, which I attribute to my Spanish, but a check with Wiki also shows confusion about its purpose, perhaps because the celebrators are not of one mind. Some mark the spread of hispanic influence, some mark the indigenous resistance thereto.  I think.

But, hey, whatever: the one thing that’s clear is that it’s a celebration of something. As my tutor — himself of Mexican heritage — goes on to say, It’s a celebratory culture.

As I make my way home that evening, I find myself wondering: Is Canada a celebratory culture? I mean, I know we go downhill, headfirst on cafeteria trays really well, but do we celebrate it with any enthusiasm when we do? Watching us, would Roberto Benigni even know that we’d won anything worth winning?

When I examine my own cultural and national stereotypes about celebratory cultures, I think first of southern European temperaments — Italians, Spaniards, Greeks — and of countries with significant immigration from those sources — Mexico and Brazil, say. I think next of hot places: the Caribbean countries come to mind. Ya, mon. By contrast, the English, Scottish, Scandinavians, Germans, and eastern Europeans don’t even rate an honourable mention.

Maybe that’s one clue to Canada’s stereotypical buttoned-down persona: our history of initial immigration from these buttoned-down, pale-white countries. Yet it can’t be ethnicity alone that determines our national character. If “white men can’t celebrate“, how do we account for the Irish and the Newfoundlanders, who must rank first in celebration and overall expressiveness in Northern Europe and Canada, respectively?

No, I am struck more by what seems like an inverse relationship between relative wealth and celebration: the more we have, the less we seem to celebrate. Is it just chance that celebratory cultures are overwhelmingly also relatively poor ones?

At the individual level, the connection makes sense: in a world of crashing disparities, it would be tacky at best, and cruelly thoughtless at worst, for the richest among us to revel publicly in their wealth. We expect something more like gratitude and humility from the rich — or at least a decent reticence — rather than wild displays of excitement and joy. In amateur and professional sports, unabashed celebration by elite athletes is excused only in the moment of triumph: as the overtime puck goes in the net, or the long birdie putt drops for the come-from-behind win. In after-game interviews they are expected to revert to modest form.

Similarly, at the national level, it is only where our teams compete as underdogs — think women’s hockey against the USA — that we feel free to celebrate a winning outcome exuberantly. Where we have an overwhelming advantage — think women’s hockey against anyone other than the USA — we expect and exhibit a subdued, sportsmanlike reaction to the almost inevitable win.

And so, perhaps, it is with our society, our culture, our nation as a whole. Blessed with disproportionate wealth and advantages — earned and unearned — we may also be cursed with the need to hold back, to refrain from celebrating our overwhelming good fortune with the same exuberance as others celebrate their lesser fortune.

As we mark Canada’s birthday in our typical, buttoned-down way, let us be grateful, then, for our lack of true celebratory spirit. It might be a sign of just how lucky we are; of just how much we actually have to celebrate.

And if you do happen to see me standing on the furniture — well, I hope you’ll overlook it, just this once. I’ll be back to normal on Tuesday, I promise.


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6 Responses to White Men Can’t Celebrate

  1. John Whitman says:

    Hi Isabel,
    While Canada didn’t get to CELEBRATE this year after the recent IIHF women’s hockey tournament, I take exception to your classifying Canadian women’s hockey as underdogs against the USA. By my count, in the 37 women’s international hockey tournaments that have taken place since 1990, Canada has won 27 gold medals versus the USA’s 10.

    Now if you had said women’s soccer (or football as it is called in other parts of the world) – that is a whole other story!

    John W

    • Mary E says:

      Isabel, you said poorer countries celebrate better. I have heard they do church way better, too. I wonder if there is a connection?

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Mary E – Hah! I bet there is a connection. Years ago in Saskatoon, one of our congregation members (who had been a United Church missionary in Korea) told the story of going to church with his then 5-year-old son, who was developmentally delayed. They attended two churches other than their own: a local evangelical one and an Anglican one. When he wanted to know which one they were going to, the kid asked, completely unselfconsciously, whether they were going to the “happily, happily” church or to the “quietly, quietly” one. So much for “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – I have nothing but full confidence in your counting and defer to your result. Drat! That means we can’t whoop it up when we do beat those pesky Americans! Thanks a bunch…

  2. Susan Wright says:

    Isabel, great post as usual. So…not to quibble…but the Canada Day celebration in Calgary was quite the whoop-up, in no small part because we were just plain relieved to be able to get downtown in a car instead of a canoe. The flood has had a devastating impact on the city and surrounding area, however for one glorious day Calgarians were able to put it all behind them and join Mayor Nenshi in celebrating the joy of being Canadian.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – Good to hear from you – and glad things have stopped getting worse out there! It would be an interesting study – to define the conditions under which various groups give themselves permission to really celebrate. Having come through a son-of-a-bitch experience might be sufficient excuse for anyone!

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