When I’m asked what ethnic group I belong to, my immediate response is “I’m Irish,” quickly modified by “but I’m also Scottish and English and maybe Dutch.” That’s a pretty common response from white people in the U.S.: we tend to assume questions about our ethnicity are about our ancestry.
But while ancestry can be part of ethnicity, it’s not the whole picture. In my case, the ties to European ancestry go so far back that they have no real effect on my current life. My great-great grandfather came to the U.S. from Ireland before the Civil War; every other ancestor I know about came before the American Revolution.
The truth is, my ethnic group is white American, with a subgroup of Anglo Texan (using Anglo to mean “non-Hispanic,” which is commonly done in Texas). My social and cultural experiences are similar to those of white people living in the U.S. in general, and specifically to those of white people raised on a diet of Anglo Texas history and mythology.
Most white people in the U.S. don’t tend to think of themselves as an ethnic group; we assume we’re the default: just Americans. This is particularly true in Texas, where the assumed culture and history is almost exclusively Anglo, even though only 45 percent of Texans are, in fact, Anglo.
Here’s an example. In the Texas campaign against a draconian anti-abortion bill, someone came up with t-shirts that showed a stylized set of ovaries and the words “Come and take it.” The “come and take it” slogan is from a makeshift flag from the Texas Revolution against Mexico. If you took Texas history in school – and it’s pretty hard to get through public school in Texas without it – you would immediately recognize it.
It’s a great t-shirt and a reasonable response to legislators who want to control women’s bodies, but it is rooted in Anglo Texas history, which is not every Texan’s history.
I got to thinking about this question when someone on Facebook asked “Don’t white people know they’re an ethnic group?” It made me think about the issue a little differently.
I recall some years back that an African American friend of mine referred to me as European American. I didn’t like it, because I feel no real ties to my European heritage (regardless of my tendency to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day).
At the time, I thought it was a matter of taste, that he might prefer African American because he does like to celebrate that part of his heritage, while I would rather not be European American because the term means nothing to me. But after giving it some deeper reflection, I realize that use of a modifier before American when discussing white people is valuable, because it reminds us that we’re not the default, that American is a word that includes a huge mix of ethnicities and heritages.
I’m not sure “European” is the best modifier, though it does provide the uncomfortable reminder that European explorers and settlers took this continent from the people who already lived here. However, that ugly bit of history doesn’t include the more recent European immigrants – those who came in the early 20th Century, many through Ellis Island. And those people are likely more tied to their European heritage than I am. Maybe there is no perfect term, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to say something.
When thinking about things like ethnicity, ancestry, even national identity, I suspect we all like to think that our people were the good ones, that when they fought, it was against tyranny and oppression. That’s probably why my immediate response to the ethnicity question is to claim my Irish forebears.
But of course, the romantic vision of ourselves is rarely the whole truth. I don’t know all the facts, but I’m sure some of my ancestors killed native Americans. I imagine some of them owned slaves and, if they didn’t, it was for economic and not moral reasons. There are many unpleasant facts about my ethnic heritage.
I prefer to be fully aware of it. Some years back, there was a movie with Sally Field and Danny Glover called Places in the Heart, set in Waxahachie, Texas, the hometown of writer and director Robert Benton. That movie resonated with me quite a lot, not so much because of the plot, but because it was such an accurate picture of my ancestry. It captured both everything good and everything bad about the white people I come from.
Anglo Texans, one and all.