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Ethnicity.

One of the things that bugs me is the tendancy for people to say "I'm Irish" or similar when in fact only their great-grandparents were from Ireland.

America, I'm looking at you.

Now don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with acknowleging your ethnic or cultural background, there is something wrong with wearing it like a badge, or just plain expressing it stupidly.

The attempt at middle ground by using both cultures just comes across as silly (eg african/irish/italian-american). If you were born in America - that is your nationality. It is also where you are from. You are not from wherever your parents are from. You have cultural ties there and, perhaps, ethnic roots there. But you are not from there.

It is of cource an identity issue. "I'm with that group, see? I have 'my people' now" is the gist of it. Its more prevalent in immegrant cultures like the states, because I guess it helps to feel like there are "your people" around.

I think an Indian girl at my University put it best: "My parents came over on a boat, I grew up watching Bollywood movies, but I'm British, its just my cultural herratage is Indian. Which is pretty cool."

She spoke two dialects of "Indian" (I forget which) before she could speak english properly. But she understood the difference. She identified herself as British because thats what she knew, and where she was born. Its a basic language issue really. There is a difference between nationality and cultural or ethnic background.

Saying "I'm German/Irish/African" is, unless you were born there, just wrong. You are not. No more than I'm a Viking because many many generations ago I had family there. You could get away with Celt, because that describes ethnicity and so instantly tells the other party what frame you are referencing, but where you are from is where you are born. Unless you answer "my parents" because thats correct too.

If you chose to identify with a specific culture in your family background then thats great (say... mexican, or brazillian), but you are not Mexican/Brazillian. You never will be. Sorry. Its about language, and I'm a bit of a tart about language, it needs to be used correctly.

Again, let me say: There is nothing wrong with identifying with a specific culture in your family history. Thats great. But you are not from where that culture is. Its a semantic issue, but semantics means meaning, so semantics are important. Without meaning there is no point to language.

In this case the language is being mis-used and in a dividing manner. Its adding a group mentality to things where they aren't needed. Its amazing what a difference a few words can make.

Comments

( 44 comments — Leave a comment )
shineyquarter
22nd Apr, 2005 12:24 (UTC)
I am Brazilian, English, German and Dutch. However, I don't "wear it like a badge" or anything. But when someone looks at me and askes if I am Spanish I will answer that I am Brazilian. It is the explanation for why I look like I do.

My nationality is American, but that doesn't make me not Brazilian, English, German or Dutch. When it comes down to it the only one I really claim is the Brazilian because it is the only one that really affects who I am. I am different from the majority of Americans in that I know a bit of Portuguese, I know a bit about the country of Brazil, I really like Guarana and can say it correctly.

I'm not saying you could stick me down in Brazil and I would be able to make the transition seamlessly. My point is more... I am both and can say I am both. I am Brazilian. My nationality is American. Unless you offer a better way to acknowledge my Brazilian blood than saying my grandparents came from Brazil, I won't be changing how I say it.

I respectfully disagree with you.
darkcryst
22nd Apr, 2005 12:53 (UTC)
My nationality is American, but that doesn't make me not Brazilian, English, German or Dutch.
Er.. yes it does.

Again, its the confusion of nationality, culture, and ethnicity. They are 3 seperate things. Where you are "from" is the US, where your family tree is from is Brazil/England/German/Netherlands.

I'm more arguing a language issue here though than anything else. It really depends on the context of the statement. If I was to ask someone where they are from I'd expect an American (nationality) to say the US, or maybe America. If I was asking "so where are your roots?", well that could go any way. You might say Chicago for example, or maybe TN, maybe Brazil. Thats a question that has more detail expected of it.

"Unless you offer a better way to acknowledge my Brazilian blood than saying my grandparents came from Brazil, I won't be changing how I say it."
Fair enough, but as I said -- its about context. I agree that in cultures like the US where 99% of the population has a relatively recent imigrant population that the english language does need to stretch a little. Thats an argument for correct usage more than it is relaxed usage though.

"I respectfully disagree with you."
Fair enough, I'm not forcing my opinion on anyone ;) I don't think we disagree as much as you may think though. Like I said, this is mostly a semantics issue.
(no subject) - golfbisquit - 22nd Apr, 2005 14:39 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - darkcryst - 22nd Apr, 2005 14:56 (UTC) - Expand
just another thing to consider... - golfbisquit - 23rd Apr, 2005 23:26 (UTC) - Expand
Re: just another thing to consider... - darkcryst - 24th Apr, 2005 10:00 (UTC) - Expand
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darkcryst
22nd Apr, 2005 14:27 (UTC)
hehe, trust you :P ;)

rethought
22nd Apr, 2005 13:04 (UTC)
I'm an American. I won't be anything else. Even if I move to the UK, naturalize/get married/etc. I'll still be an American. You can't live somewhere for 25 years (especially, or likely always when they are the first 25 of one's life) and not be 'that'.

However, like Avi said...most of my comments about my heritage are in response to someone else's comments about my appearance. Sometimes, it's nice. "You have such lovely freckles and reddish hair." Sometimes, it's not. "Uh, are you sick or something? You are freaking pale." Gee, thanks. Which usually prompts the response from me, "I come by it honestly, my family is Scot/Irish."

Now, this is true and untrue at the same time. Yes, my immediate family is American. We live in America, we hold American passports, we have American accents. But, at the same time, yes, I have family in both Scotland and Ireland, we continue to use slang that I'm just now finding out comes directly from the slang of Northeastern Scotland (though it still doesn't mean anyone here understands it, unless they have the same background), and a lot of us tend to still look like we could have been plucked directly from the streets of Cork.

I'm never going to put down Irish American or Scottish American on a form. I'm neither. However, I'll still claim it. One of the reasons that America works (at least, it should...and often does in the groups that I'm in contact with) is that we have a healthy curiousity about other people. That we can all be American but can cling to and celebrate where we came from.

This can be one of the reasons America doesn't work, I realize. Where does bigotry come from? Judging people on the color of their skin, their accent, or whatever else sets them apart.

I agree with you, Greg. America is made up of Americans, not of hypenated this that and the next thing. But what makes us American is the knowledge that we have a past.

And, there are some Americans that are rightly hyphenated, even when they've been engendered by two Americans. I had a friend who lived from age 3 to 14 in South Africa. She spoke with that accent. Her parents did not. She was African American. (Which was funny to watch her say in a group of mainstream 'African Americans' as she had white blond hair and blue eyes...)

Basically, I agree that it can be somewhat devisive if you decide to look at it as devisive. I choose to look it as holding onto the values that added to another cultures values create hybrid families that create great things.

Just my $0.02. :)
darkcryst
22nd Apr, 2005 14:27 (UTC)
Totally agreed.

Like I said, its about language. I am also dealing in generalisations here, there are always exceptions, and there are times when hyphenated, or claiming parentage are valid.

About the devisive thing... it shouldn't be, and I agree its not always, but its usually treated that way. Sadly I think, but it is. It's aften just a label.

And yes, that is one of things that made America great. Its also one of the things that have, both historically and today, caused the most tension. Not that tension is always bad however...
(no subject) - rethought - 22nd Apr, 2005 23:49 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - darkcryst - 23rd Apr, 2005 10:07 (UTC) - Expand
yndy
22nd Apr, 2005 15:25 (UTC)
I learned this lesson at an early age... when traveling to Ireland at the age of 12, it didn't take long to discover that I was an American of mostly Irish descent...

:)
darkcryst
22nd Apr, 2005 15:38 (UTC)
Yes, exactly.

The true test is if you can get away with saying "I'm X" in that country! If they can, then go for it. Good on them.
transient_poet
22nd Apr, 2005 15:45 (UTC)
There is a difference between Nationality and Ethnicity. America is also tricky because of slavery. Though not nearly as strong, African's in America are in a similar situation as Korean's in Japan, they may have been around for hundreds of years but are still not accepted by the dominant culture.

For African-American's who until recently, and arguable still not yet, were denied full "American" status by the dominant culture, it became a necessary means of claiming identity. 'If I am not American, than what am I" goes the reasoning.

As a country composed of immigrants, one's nation of origin became a necessary marker of identity, because there was no other in this new world. So cities like New York were filled with totally segregated ethnic communities around the turn of the twentieth century. You were not American, or white, but rather German or Italian or jewish. That was and in a somewhat mitigated fashion still is a social reality in this country.

By American standards it actually is the case that someone of Jewish decent is Jewish, of Irish decent is Irish, becuase that is how we as a culture operate. The cultural elite often take it further and there is some implicit if not explicit reasoning that if you can not trace your family back to the Mayflower, you are not truly American. And this in a country of immigrants. Semantics aside, it is a cultural reality.

"Native-Americans" or Indians, live in semi-autonomous nations within the US. Puerto Rico is in a similar situation, a colony neither wholly American nor Puerto Rican.

I think you are right in terms of talking about nationality, I am not Scottish/German/Jewish in terms of nationality, but I am ethnically and it informs my place in this society culturally.
darkcryst
22nd Apr, 2005 16:00 (UTC)
I agree. Thats my point - that there is a difference between Ethnicity and Nationality. Too often they are mis-used.

"By American standards it actually is the case that someone of Jewish decent is Jewish, of Irish decent is Irish, becuase that is how we as a culture operate."
I won't touch the jewish one, because that is an ethnicity, culture, and faith based issue. However if someone is of Irish descent they are not irish. Thats the point of the descent part. I would say that is is common to confuse the two, but that doesn't make them Irish. IT quite simply doesn't work like that.

If they can go to Ireland and not have the Irish laugh in their face when they say that, then fine. However I think you'll find they won't be able to. I can claim I'm a viking by that logic, its so flawed its not even logic anymore.
(no subject) - transient_poet - 22nd Apr, 2005 16:28 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sisiphus - 22nd Apr, 2005 18:51 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - darkcryst - 22nd Apr, 2005 20:42 (UTC) - Expand
elsh
22nd Apr, 2005 17:25 (UTC)
I agree with you to an extent. I don't think that you know how Americans are because while people might do that here and there, I so don't see that happening except for maybe once in awhile and of cource with black people. I have always thought it quite stupid that they call themselves african-american and want everyone to call them that to be respectful. Most of them are not even close to being from Africa! I have called myself Irish, but only in fun near St.Patrick's Day because it is cool to me that I used to have an Irish last name and that I'm partially (ethnically) from Ireland and because my skin is so light - something I can now appreciate which I was made fun of for most of my life.

The occasional person who calls themselves 'German' or whatever when they are born and raised in America... I believe they do that because of pride for their ethnicity and where their family is from. You make it out much different than it truly is. Americans are not that deluded. We know we are American. It's sometimes hard to accept because everyone seems to hate us and/or pick on us, but we know we are. We probably reach for what we have ethnically because we are not fortunate enough to have a culture. It's rather depressing, actually. We are too diverse. Which is cool, but I have always wished I'd been from Japan or somewhere like that where the culture is something very prevalent. If I were to truly do what you are saying, I'd have to call myself French/Irish/German American. Obviously silly. Most of us here have many ethnic backgrounds. The only epidemic of what you're speaking of is really the black people and what they call themselves.
sisiphus
22nd Apr, 2005 18:44 (UTC)
We probably reach for what we have ethnically because we are not fortunate enough to have a culture. It's rather depressing, actually. We are too diverse.

I think you hit the nail on the head.
(no subject) - darkcryst - 22nd Apr, 2005 18:52 (UTC) - Expand
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anab1
22nd Apr, 2005 18:06 (UTC)
For a change, I think I have to disagree with you as well. This comes from being a US citizen (not an American.. if you say that at to border patrol, they'll wait for you to tell them you are from the US, not America) who is half-Lebanese (with the cultural, ethnic AND national identity to prove it) and half-US citizen. Now having lived in the UK for a year and having lived abroad for nearly half my life before moving to the US, I've discovered that the US does and doesn't have it's own identity. There's no denying that there is distinctly American "stuff" but for a country that's only been around for say 8 generations, the memory of the "old country" is still somewhat fresh in the minds of the majority. I am both first generation American as well as old as the Mayflower because of my parents. I'm probably a poor example to use, but I'm sure I"m not the only one. America was settled by people from other countries.. either forced to move due to slavery, religious persecution or what have you, perhaps they didn't really want to leave but there they are.. in the USA. They're gonna teach their kids about how great the 'old country' was.. they're gonna continue to engender national pride for that other place. and it's still going on today. The US is still young, and yes, this thing you're talking about is language but it's also a lot deeper than that. The identity of the US is all about where you're from. I mean ask me where I'm from.. I was born in Saudi Arabia, I spent my first three years of life in Lebanon, then 2 years in Oman, then 2 years in Yemen then 2 years in the USA then 2 years in Oman again, then 12 years in Michigan, USA, then 8 years "around the USA", then 1 year in the UK. I have both a Lebanese and a US passport.. where am I from? Where you're from is where your roots are, where you are in your family, the cultural and ethnic aspects of your home, family, place in society. It's all where you're from. Yes, there's that legal and technical aspect of what's on your passport.. but that's not always where you're from. Based on your language ideals set out above, I'm FROM Saudi Arabia because I was born there. But I'm no more from there as I am from Timbuktu. Language is tricky, it's not didactic or binary or a statement of if-then. It's far more mutable than that.
darkcryst
22nd Apr, 2005 19:06 (UTC)
Totally agreed. I think I've already admited I'm talking in rather general terms in the post. They aren't my language ideals, they are about semantic meaning. Ethnicity, culture, and nationality are different things. You have a mix of all of them, which is pretty cool actually, but that doesn't invalidate the point.

Each case is different, but there are general language rules to follow. You are a particularly pain-in-the-ass case to work out tho ;)

The advantage of language is that its flexible, but there is a difference between using it flexibly, and using it wrongly. In your case it would be flexible, because the establist conventions don't apply specifically. However when they do - and they usually do - then other usages can be called incorrect.
sisiphus
22nd Apr, 2005 18:38 (UTC)
There is a difference between nationality and cultural or ethnic background. ...Saying "I'm German/Irish/African" is, unless you were born there, just wrong. You are not. ...Its a semantic issue, but semantics means meaning, so semantics are important. Without meaning there is no point to language.

I agree that without meaning, there is no point to language, because communication becomes ineffectual. I agree that there is a difference between nationality and ethnic heritage. However, you fail to delineate how one should differentiate between the two. If my family practices German cultural traditions, and even if my family speaks German, you assert that I cannot claim my German heritage merely because of my jus soli birthplace. If heritage and nationality are two different concepts, then one cannot replace the other. If I am discussing my nationality, I am an American, not German. If I am discussing my ethnic heritage, I am German, not American. To say that I am American expresses nothing about my cultural and familial traditions, given the vast array of ethnic heritages that are engendered in this country. How else am I supposed to describe my ethnic heritage if I am forbidden to use any descriptive words that are also used to described nationality? In my case, it is easy for me, because I have the alternative of Pennsylvania German, but that does not rectify the issue for, say, Italiens, and does not address the semantical point in the first place.

If I say that I am a German-American, then I am addressing both my heritage and nationality, which makes it a useless descriptor when discussing solely my heritage. When I am discussing politics or if people ask me where I am from, it rolls off my tongue that I am an American, plain and simple. My nationality refers to the political institutions and borders which govern me, but my ethnicity refers to the cultural and familial traditions that I follow. If I am forbidden to describe my ethnic heritage as German when it is, in fact, German, merely because I am an American national, then again, I ask, how am I supposed to describe my heritage?

"I'm with that group, see? I have 'my people' now" is the gist of it.

Perhaps a few decades ago, this group tendency would be a reality, since the U.S. was very divided by race, ethnicity, and religion, but most people are just interested to know their cultural and familial roots. There is nothing wrong with having an understanding of your own history. In fact, I think it's important. I never identified with the idea that I should inherently be proud of my heritage, but I am certainly interested to know why my family practices the traditions that it does, why we eat certain foods, who our ancestors were (which can only be known by reading German), etc. It is disingenuous to describe my heritage as American, because it is not; it is not a medley of various cultures all rolled up into one; it has distinct and overwhelmingly German charactistics, especially because I hail from a centuries-old insulated Pennsylvania Dutch community.
darkcryst
22nd Apr, 2005 19:16 (UTC)
You can describe your herritage as German, sure! I'm not saying you can't.

But saying "I am German" isn't discussing your herritage. "My herritage is German" or "Originally, my family was German." or "I am of German descent." or even a basic "I have a germanic background" those all talk about your herritage.

As you said, meaning is important, and the meaning is different between the first statment and the rest. This is perhaps the phrasing equivilant of being a grammer nazi, but still... it bugs me.

I also agree that it is becoming more about roots, and less about groups, but that dynamic is still, to an outsider, very very much there. It really shocked me actually how much it was there the first few times I was in the states.

To be perfectly clear: I wouldn't even think of describing your herritage as American (at least completely - there will be some of that in there) but I would describe you as American. I see the difference there, I hope you can too.
aprilia27
22nd Apr, 2005 18:40 (UTC)
I agree with what you say about the importance of differentiating between your ethnicity and your nationality. But I think in America for the most part, when people say "I'm Irish" everyone just KNOWS that they mean that is their ethnicity. For example I have a rather unusual last name. People always ask me "what background are you?" they know that I'm American so therefore, I know that what they are asking me is for the nationality of my ancestors. I guess it's different in American vs the majority of the rest of the world because we're such a young country. People have pride in the "old country" hammered into their heads from a very young age. I think as time goes on this will be minimalized a bit. Anyway, great post though, and very interesting to read everyone's thoughts on this. : )
darkcryst
22nd Apr, 2005 19:02 (UTC)
They may "know" it, but the terminology is still wrong and, like my liberal post a while back, this is about correct usage of terms.

And yes, I think it is more common in the US because of its age as a country - aside from the cowboy and indian wild west there is very little overall cultural background. Plus that doesn't really apply to most of the country anyhow.. its a white anglo-saxon past really.

It is interesting reading other peoples opinions on this actually, I'm open to being wrong -- and there are exceptions to this anyhow, I can think of some good reasons to hyphenate your background for example. I mostly hope I don't stir up any ill will.. because thats not what this is about.
sisiphus
22nd Apr, 2005 18:42 (UTC)
topi posted in his journal: "White students have come to think that they have no culture." -- Laurie Mulvey Ph.D. Anyone care to offer an explanation on why?

I responded: Perhaps because we are lumped into the category of "white". Not too only ago, those with light skin held their allegiance to their ethnic heritage. Now to be white is to be an all-pervasive oppressive demon with the staff of capitalism and the orb of materialistic pop culture; white people are not allowed to be proud of their heritage, or if they are, it is not to be celebrated publicly.

Of course, I speak in general terms, since there are enclaves that exist today where Irish get together and have their St. Patty's Day parades and eat corned beefed and cabbage for the New Year, that sort of thing.

Here in Pennsylvania, even if you live in a tiny Pennsylvania Dutch community, the Pennsylvania German heritage has not been transmitted to the next generation. Our family has its sayings and we eat Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine and we know a bit of German and we enjoy the folk art, but it has been suppressed from the mainstream for so long. Ethnic pride parades are just not held, and I venture to guess it is because certain white groups have been marginalized since WWII -- the Germans for example. Who should be publicly proud to be a German when the Nazis did what they did? Ergo, the culture was suppressed and eventually lumped into this mass of "white" culture or absent culture.

It is similar to the Hispanic culture, but they at least are credited with aspects of a real culture, as opposed to whites [who] are considered to lack any ethnic understanding and are just political money-makers or religious whackjobs. There is a world of difference between the various Latin cultures from Mexico, the islands, and South America, and I find it just as distasteful that they are all thrown in the same pot because of their race.

Why do white people believe they have no culture? They were denied their culture when they amassed into one white body of people.
darkcryst
22nd Apr, 2005 19:21 (UTC)
I'd love to answer that, but the question is more:

"Why do white people, living in the US, believe they have no culture?"

because, trust me, the statement is not true in Europe at all. I think there is a lack of acknowlegement of US culture, I mean I could point out "american" culture, and that culture has been (until recently) mostly white infulenced. The Americana of the 50's-60's, the Wild West, musical culture abounds. It is a question of belief, because the culture is there. Perhaps its also shame, because some people seem to think that the Wild West's conquering frontier aspect is somehow... wrong, as well as the consumerist 50's outlook. I don't know, but its not an issue with white people here.

I'm sure someone far more capable than me could write essays on it, and they probably have.
redthought
22nd Apr, 2005 19:06 (UTC)
To quote a famous American comedian:

"I'm not proud to be Irish. Just glad. Goddam glad to be Irish."

I'm not about to answer Ireland or Scotland when people ask where I'm from, but I will answer such if asked where my relatives immigrated from. Its important to Americans, because none of us belong here. The only true 'Americans' are the native ones, you know, the ones that speak cree, navajo, cherokee, etc. We don't have a culture as Americans, really. It can all be traced back to European customs. Hot dogs>Germany. Apple pie>Germany. Out flag's colors>Britain. We just don't start 'American' traditions. They all come from Europe, South America, Africa, etc. Its hard to embrace a culture that's not really a culture.

On a different note, I believe that we embrace things from our relatives heritage - my siblings and I love almost everything about Scotland and Ireland, we feel comfortable in those countris, we vaguely look like the people there. A lot of this business about saying, 'I'm Irish' or 'I'm portuguese' is that we just don't do our own thing in America.

Anyway, enough of my semantics. You're probably sick of all the over-explaining being done by Americans. :)
darkcryst
22nd Apr, 2005 19:25 (UTC)
No I agree ;)

Thats my point - what you are doing is perfect acceptable to me. It is in fact exactly what I was suggesting in the post. I'm complaining about the number of people I see NOT doing that.

I'm am intregued tho and your (and many other Americans) percieved lack of US culture, its there... in spades. Its almost denied. Odd that...

random, but related point: Anyone know what Native Americans called their land? Usually people have a name, even if its just a dialect of "Our Land" (which is what China translates to).
neo_prodigy
22nd Apr, 2005 21:21 (UTC)
and i thought i was the only one who thought that way
it always irks me when people identify me as african-american.

i'm not. i'm black. i'm a negro. i'm an american. my ancestral roots may be traced back to africa (and probably so does everyone else's ultimately), but i was born here in america and identify myself as both a black man and an american.

great post.
miriammiriam
23rd Apr, 2005 05:34 (UTC)
i'm starting my own ethnicity rules
from now on, people who have freckles will be known as "spotted" and those without are "non-spotted" afterwards, the region where you have lived longest out of all the years of your life will be tacked onto the end, thusly:
i am of the spotted northern california variety.

in such a case that the said person has lived an equal amount of years in some places, they can have two regions. for example:

i am of the non-spotted new mexican and oregonian variety.

titles can become more complex due to the number of freckles one has. for example:
i am of the tri-spotted canadian variety.

or partially spotted, what have you.

much simpler than all this complicated skin color regional hoo ha.
darkcryst
23rd Apr, 2005 09:56 (UTC)
So you are the Greater-Spotted Miriam then? ;)
(no subject) - miriammiriam - 23rd Apr, 2005 17:32 (UTC) - Expand
whiskeygirl8
23rd Apr, 2005 17:04 (UTC)
It's interesting. If you look at the history of the US, when immigration was at it's peak (and pretty easy to do) people would come here from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, England, France, you name it, and once they got here and found a place to work and a place to live, they said, "I'm American." They WERE born in those places, but they came here and threw away their previous nationality. Because it was a MELTING POT. This happened for a long time. When people would come her and become citizens--as recently as the 50's--they would, from then on, refer to themselves as American.

It's only in recent times that people have started to identify themselves as seperate. This country has gone from solidarity and being a melting pot to division and wanting to be different. We don't want to work together anymore. We don't want to be a team. We all want to be different. We all want to be individuals.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting to stand out in a crowd. That used to mean putting your all into whatever it is you chose to do. Being a stand-out used to mean doing something to better yourself and society. Now, it just means being different. Unfortunately, the new way divides us and it will eventually be our downfall.
( 44 comments — Leave a comment )