Thinking About Ethnicity

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.

Come and Take ItHere’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.

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Thinking About Ethnicity — 33 Comments

  1. Interesting ideas! I suppose, if you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would have said that I’m German-American, although my grandfather insisted his family was Irish — but considering he was a young man during WWI, he’d wouldn’t have wanted to be thought of as a “Dutchman”. There is Cherokee in my background (I know, I know), but on my father’s side and during the Civil War, one of my father’s great-*grandfathers married a Cherokee girl (no, not a princess), so I’m only one-sixteenth and it seems hardly enough to kvetch about.

    Some research later, it appears that Feagley was a variation of Vogele, which is Swiss, not German.

    How odd.

    • I want to get my DNA tested to see what I can find out about my heritage. It wouldn’t surprise me to find Native American (though I’m not sure what nation) in there, and I’m sure that, at a minimum, I have African American cousins, given where my family lived. But while that’s fascinating, as is tracing back the history into the British Isles and Europe, the key thing for me right now is that no matter what my DNA or ancestry.com can tell me, I have grown up as a white American (Anglo Texan subset) and that defines my current ethnicity. And for me, it’s important to realize that it IS an ethnicity, because where I grew up it was treated as the sum total of being American. I don’t want to get stuck there.

  2. And there is this whole recent thing about reading ethnicities.
    Is it our duty to read books by other than elderly white men? Probably, but inarguably the greats of our genre (Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Tolkien) and the titans of the language (Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer) are dead white men. If you want to have any grounding in the art at all, you’re going to read a lot of books by old white guys, and there’s no getting around it. If I read books only by persons like myself, I would have nothing at all to read. I am the only person I know of like me.
    And, oh dear, what about writing? If I am not allowed to write about other ethnic groups this is going to be difficult. I would judge that three quarters of all my characters are white men. (It is the fascination of the alien. What is going on in those adorable curly heads? I will never tire of speculating about it.)

    • I’m strongly in favor of reading books by many others. I certainly wouldn’t neglect Shakespeare — I’m inordinately fond of Will — but I must say these days I have little patience for the U.S. male writers of the early-to-mid 20th century that I gobbled up in my youth. I keep stumbling across forgotten women writers, and I suspect there are some classic works of literature from China or Egypt or Persia — just to pick three — that I know nothing of.

      As for writing, I’m in favor of people writing about people other than themselves, so long as they make an effort to make those people real. I find your male characters quite interesting, Brenda, so I think you’re on safe ground.

      • I think writing about people other than ourselves is critical for all sorts of reasons, not the least because of how boring a book would be if we didn’t.

        This doesn’t seem to be a popular notion in some circles.

    • I can’t see how any in your list of dead white men is greater than Le Guin, or Butler. In fact, reading Asimov and Heinlein in the original has been a highly disappointing endeavour, as the prose of some of their Italian translators is definitely better.

      • I’ve never been a huge fan of the white, male, so-called Golden Age SF writers either. As I’ve said before, I got sucked into the genre by reading Le Guin, Delany, and Cherryh, among others.

        • Even if you have not read Tolkien, you probably are influenced by him — you have for instance read writers like LeGuin who were influenced by him. Nearly every writer now alive today is either following in his fantasy footsteps, or deliberately turning a different way. It is similar with Shakespeare and Dickens. Even if you never have cracked a Victorian novel or an Elizabethan play, the very language you use was coined by them. It amazes me, how many terms and even words were coined by the dead white guys. We cannot escape it.

          • I have read Tolkien many times. The Lord of the Rings got me through law school. But the last time I read it — when the movies came out — I enjoyed it less. The prose was dense and I have less tolerance these days for the shortage of women in the books.

            And I’m not sure his influence on the genre was all good. He certainly spawned a lot of imitators, most of whom were not in his league.

            I am not arguing about the influence of Shakespeare. One of my BVC books is a retelling of As You Like ItArdent Forest. Nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t pay attention to the writers who came before us.

            I am suggesting that some of the people we think are essential today may fade away and be replaced by others.

            • I would believe that too, except that I have been digging deeply into Dickens. Not read much these days, you might say. Fading away, perhaps. Oh no — his impress is on the language and we don’t even know it.

              • As irritating as I sometimes find Dickens — as my mother used to say, he needed an editor — I don’t think he’s one of the people who will fade away.

  3. We often overlook the fact that many of our ancestors left their homes to forget the past. They intentionally remade themselves in America.

    I am not sure how to answer the implied question. Because we joke in our family that half of them came over on the Mayflower, and the other half were here to meet the boat. Not quite, but I think the most recent person on the family tree came over around the Civil War.

    When people talk about emigrating, I don’t know where I would go. I would be in exile. This is home.

    • On my father’s side, both my grandparents might well have emerged from the head of Zeus when they arrived at Ellis Island. I know my grandfather’s parents’s names, but beyond that… nuthin’. They were intent on learning the language and assimilating into American culture as quickly as possible, and shutting their doors on the Old Country. On my mother’s side it’s all English, French, German, and Scottish, and documented back to the 1300s somewhere–whatever their feelings about the Old Countries, they were zealous about family history.

      So I suppose European-American pretty much covers it. Of course, my real identity is as a New York-American, but I may be the only one who makes such a distinction.

      • No, I don’t think you’re the only one who makes that distinction. New York, like Texas, is full of distinct bits of culture, especially in NYC. Maybe European-New Yorker?

    • I’m in the same boat, Cat. I’m from the U.S., and angry as I get at some of the things my country and my fellow Americans get up to, it’s still where I belong. Which is also why I feel like it’s important to recognize that my ancestors did some things I believe are wrong to give me that home.

      Of course, if you gave me the chance to go live on another planet or the Moon, I’d probably take it. I do come from Anglo pioneer stock, after all, and I can’t help but be proud of the strong women in my family tree.

  4. When I was a kid, I’d say English and Irish. But somewhere around college, I started saying, “boring white person.” I guess because I consider my background to have melted into the pot so thoroughly, there’s not much to say about it!

    Anglo American works better for me than European American. I like the point about needing the modifier, because there’s no default.

  5. I tend to use “gringo” when someone in California asks me about my ethnic group. Anyone who comes from La Frontera will understand that bit of self-deprecation, or the more formal “Anglo”, but I dunno about the rest of the country.

    • Yeah. Since “gringo” is a disparaging term, I only use it when I’m confessing my ignorance of something. But you do have to explain the use of Anglo most other places.

  6. Would your ancestors have been part of the “Scotch-Irish” migrations out of which came Andrew Jackson’s family, for instance? They landed in the borderlands of what became North Carolina and Tennessee, and AJ is Tennessee’s most favorite famous son, but so was Sam Houston a favorite famous son out of Tennessee to Texas — until he opposed secession. I just wonder since in pertinent ways Texas was a “colony” of both Tennessee and Louisiana, as Kentucky was a colony of Virginia and Mississippi a colony of South Carolina. And until statehood, Louisiana – New Orleans was a totally owned-dominated colony of Virginia, thanks to Jefferson and the Purchase. He appointed all Virginians to run the place — i.e. be in the best, earliest position for land grab and selling it again for lots of money.

    Love, C.

    • I think the Scottish ancestors I know about were not part of that “Scotch-Irish” group. They started out in South Carolina before the revolution, got land as a result of that, moved to Alabama, and then to Texas, I think after the Texas revolution but before statehood. Of course, that’s just one branch of the family and I don’t know who else came in via marriage. I have other ancestry through Virginia, Tennessee, and Massachusetts, that I know about, but I only know bits and pieces of their history. “Scotch-Irish” ancestry of the kind you describe is likely, though one my great-great grandfather — a McCarthy from County Cork — would abhor.

      As I understand New Orleans, there was quite a struggle — both political and social — between the Americans and the French-descended folks during the years after the Louisiana Purchase. I didn’t know about Jefferson appointing Virginians, but it doesn’t surprise me.

      • In fact, in New Orleans, for a while, there were three distinct cities, with their own facilities, administration, policing firefighters, etc., that’s how much the American protestants couldn’t bear the Catholics, and how much the Haitian planter immigrants loathed the earlier free people of color. The Haitian influx got the French Quarter — which is how it got its name; the free people of color got the Marigny, and from the neutral ground, then called the wasteground, uptown from Canal was the American New Orleans (where the most famous and largest slave sale houses were).

        Love, C.

          • In the funeral industry, all across the old South there are Funeral Directors Associations. And then there are similar statewide Morticians Associations, right alongside. Even in death, there was no racial mixing.

            • In New Orleans there were separate facilities, meeting rooms and parties at the hospital for the blind.

              There were separate musicians’ unions too, among other venues and organizations’ segregation.

              • My take on this, from many long conversations about many different subjects with my diverse, converging and separate circles of social and professional life, that one better not try writing about people different from one’s self if one doesn’t have a lot of of friends for quite some time among that group. You can’t help but get it wrong if you don’t actually have personal relationships.

                Just like it’s difficult to get a place right if you haven’t lived there. And New Orleans is one of the most complex and complicated places on earth, in every way, from geography and geology to politics and ‘race.’

                • Though Nisi and I have had conversations I’ve not read her book.

                  However, I’ve also had many long conversations with writers like Marlon James, who also teach creative writing, about these matters. What is interesting is that all this is looked at and approached quite differently in the Caribbean than in the U.S. Not the ‘getting thing right” part, but the whole idea of cultural appropriation, just doesn’t play in the Caribbean and South America in any way like in the U.S., and particularly not at all among musicians and dancers — for obvious reasons — and not among writers and intellectuals either, for other reasons.

                  Love, C.

  7. I suppose it depends on who’s describing me. I’d describe myself as Scottish-American, though I know that my mother’s side of the family is Scots-Irish and my father claimed that his father was a Jew who fled Germany in the mid-1930s and changed his name to something that sounded English. Or I might say that I’m a New Englander, which I am. But to a lot of people, I’d just be a white American–or a white woman.

  8. Constance: Would you elaborate on the Caribbean approach to cultural appropriation? I know it’s a problem. There’s that touchy divide between learning to respect things from other cultures and stealing things from other cultures. It’s a difficult problem.

    I find myself thinking that if most books are by middle class white authors in the US, and if most of the ones that are taken seriously are by males in that group, it behooves those authors to write realistically and inclusively about people who don’t fit into their ethnic/class/gender group.

    OTOH, we need to publish much more work by more diverse authors. But I suspect that not all those authors want to be restricted to writing things that fit their ethnicity. So I’d argue that Nisi and Cindy are right about the importance of learning how to write “the other,” but that that doesn’t mean we don’t need to seek out writers and other artists from many different cultures. And it doesn’t mean we should condone appropriation.

    I’d love to hear more from you on this subject.

  9. I, too, find it difficult to think of having an ethnicity. I’m just American. My dad was 100% Finn so I could latch on to that if I wanted. I’ve done enough genealogy to know that on my mom’s side, I’ve got heritage from just about every part of northern and western Europe you could point to, along with a dab of Cherokee (no, not “Cherokee,” but actual Cherokee). I could adopt any of those ethnicities. I’m proud of them all. But I don’t see the appeal of defining myself by bloodline in that way. I’d rather be defined by what I do.