Rooting Around for Ethnicity


I’ve seen several jokes on the Internet recently to the effect that listing all parts of your heritage is a thing white people do. I guess I have to say I’m guilty as charged, because if I’m ever asked (which doesn’t happen that often, mind you), I’d say I’m German, British, and Czech. Maybe other things as well; I’ve heard that my last name could potentially be German, but also Belgian or Dutch. I guess it’s a European thing. No one is just European, because the countries there have never gotten along very well. The French and the Germans probably have a lot of common ancestry, but do you think they’re going to admit that? I have to admit to being a little jealous of people who have a common culture they can celebrate. Italian-Americans, for instance, seem to be quite eager to point out that fact. I don’t know that there’s too much German-American pride these days. Maybe being German USED to be kuhl, but SOMEONE had to come along and ruin it. Mind you, ethnic pride is kind of an odd concept anyway, because it’s not like you actually DID anything to be born in the United States with ancestry from whatever country. Apparently George Carlin had a bit about this.

While I could be wrong, I kind of get the impression that it’s more common for black people to just say they’re black, rather than focusing on which part of Africa their ancestors came from. Of course, I’m sure a lot of this came about due to Europeans lumping all people of African ancestry together. People who take pride in being white, as opposed to Irish or Russian or Scandinavian or whatever, tend to dismissed even by other people with racist attitudes as closed-minded. I’m inclined to think the Pan-African movement is a good thing, what with racism still being quite prevalent nowadays. Africa is the biggest continent in the world, however, and I think our educational system should focus a little more on different African cultures. I mean, I’m sure most of us Americans know some significant differences between England and Scotland, and they’re located on the same tiny island. Do we know as much about the specifics of the Bantu, the Mande, and the Kanuri? Well, maybe some of us do, but it certainly wasn’t emphasized in the environment in which I grew up. There’s nothing wrong with Europe (well, okay, there are many things wrong with Europe, but that’s not to say its cultures aren’t worth studying), but American society does seem to still be quite Eurocentric for a supposed melting pot.

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8 Responses to Rooting Around for Ethnicity

  1. caelesti says:

    Some sociologists have referred to this as “symbolic ethnicity”- choosing bits and pieces of a culture perceived as “ethnic” (food, celebration of holidays, wearing certain clothes etc) but on a day to day basis it doesn’t really have an impact on your life, people do not stereotype you or treat you differently because you’re Italian or whatever.
    Being “proud” makes more sense if otherwise, the culture you’re surrounded by is telling you ought to be ashamed of your background, sexual orientation etc. Hence, Black Pride, Gay Pride etc.
    Personally I’m into my Irish and Scottish heritage (and starting to explore the German), but I realize it’s entirely a choice on my part to follow those interests. I do not get people questioning my loyalty as a “real American” for any European cultural activity I choose to partake in. I actually became interested in those things after moving to a mostly Black high school (and agreed, if they are not recent immigrants, they generally just say “black” it’s always been part of a multiculturalism for me, not about being better than other people.

    I love Boondocks. Though sometimes the political references get obscure even for me!

    • Nathan says:

      Being “proud” makes more sense if otherwise, the culture you’re surrounded by is telling you ought to be ashamed of your background, sexual orientation etc. Hence, Black Pride, Gay Pride etc.

      Yeah, I think that’s more or less central to the whole issue. Of course, Irish and Italians have been marginalized in American society, albeit nowhere near as much as some other groups.

      I haven’t read much of Boondocks, but that comic came up when I searched for “Eurocentrism,” and I found it appropriate.

  2. Bryan Babel says:

    Take the word “pride” out of Carlin’s bit, replace it with “shame,” and see how it reads.

    • Nathan says:

      I think it makes sense both ways, although it isn’t as funny the “shame” way. But yeah, I think the thing with ethnic pride is that it’s often a response to attempted ethnic shame. It’s like how female and black empowerment are good things not because there’s anything particularly special about being a woman or black, but because there needs to be a counter-movement to sexism and racism.

  3. Glenn I says:

    African Americans can’t list the specifics of their Africanity because those specifics were deliberately erased during the slave era. If they could I suspect they would – I have read accounts of African Americans who have visited Africa and managed to trace elements of their heritage – and felt amazed and gratified to be able to do so. White people can, so they do, although traces of African blood have likely been left out of many family stories. In the book DNA USA, the British geneticist who investigates US genetic heritage also looks into his own – and he finds African DNA. He has no family story about black ancestors; he guesses he had a Roman soldier from Africa among his great-greats.

    • Nathan says:

      That makes a lot of sense. I guess with DNA testing we can overcome some of that now, although that wouldn’t help the people who are embarrassed of their ancestry.

  4. For some people it IS a part of their culture, not just some arbitrary feature like height. My family, even though we had an obscure-hard-to-pronounce eastern european name, never really carried on the traditions of their ancestors, which always made me feel kind of bland in the face of the many Italian-American families we went to church with– and many of the Polish- and Irish-Am families there, too, though not to the same extent. It’d be a shame to wipe their culture away by claiming they’re “just” American, or even Just White Americans. Which is, as Glenn I said above me, why so many black americans DON’T have a specific African culture to identify with, because the slave holders did their best to erase them. But nowadays we’ve had more recent African immigrants who DO have specific cultures they identify with, as well. I’ve learned a lot from following author Nnedi Okorafor on Twitter, because she’s properly Nigerian-American, no, IGBO-American dangit, who’s really opened my eyes to the many cultures of Africa.

    I guess what I’m saying is I approve of people exploring the cultures of their ancestors or keeping alive the cultures of their more recent ancestors as well, and I’m not going to knock them for it no matter what that heritage is.

    • Nathan says:

      I feel kind of bad for people of Polish ancestry, as they seem to be saddled with the stereotype of being stupid when that was probably just a local joke by their neighbors from ages ago. But yeah, most of my ancestry is pretty WASP-y, so even if I don’t fully understand ethnic pride, I do think many cultures have a lot more fun.

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