American Identity

American Identity

The Radical Genealogist has an interesting article about American ethnic identity. Anyone who has traveled to Europe knows that Europeans are puzzled when Americans claim to be English or Scottish or French or whatever. A friend who had this experience told me that her hosts asked, “Why do Americans always claim to be something else? Don’t they know they’re Americans?”

This disconnect highlights the American habit of identifying with ethnic origins. Personally, I’ve never been so aware of myself as an American as when I traveled abroad. Somehow, the labels “Swedish-American” or “Anglo-American” dissolve into irrelevancy.

I was fascinated to learn from this article that the American South might be an exception. The 2000 Census asked respondents to identify their national origin. Mapping the responses shows a clear preference in the South for identifying simply as American.

The author explains: “[W]hat we are really dealing with here is maps of memories, not of ancestries. Ethnic identity in the United States, just like clan or tribal identity elsewhere, comes from a kind of folk genealogy, the memories of our grandparents. Whether we are dealing with Alabama or Maine, what the counties in the first map have in common is that they have received relatively little immigration from outside the United States since 1760, having been settled primarily by internal migration from earlier populated centers where ethnic mixing had already occurred. Other than the grandfather whose parents immigrated to Missouri from Poland and the great-grandfather from Scotland, my own stock is this kind.

“My grandparents’ grandparents were already mutts of Manifest Destiny, their identity tied primarily to their own republic, not primarily because of any kind of personal ideology they held about Americanness, but because their particular mix (the British Isles, a bit of the whitest, north-westernmost parts of Continental Europe, and maybe some Indians and Africans they were ashamed to talk about) is precisely the ethnic identity that the young republic had assumed for itself. They were Americans in the way the newcomers from Silesia and Sweden were not, because telling what they were would be too long of a story.”

Interestingly, the numbers in 2000 were up dramatically from 1990 — up 63%. The increase might have been due to increased assimilation, increased complexity due to mixing, or perhaps the death of an older generation that had a stronger ethnic identity. Expect another sharp increase in 2010:

“Some will, when asked, pick the one of their ancestries they like, that they are more comfortable with, or, for people who think about their father’s side alone, the place their last name comes from, but many more will decline to answer or put something like “American”. Expect the answer “American” to increase greatly again in 2010 and thereafter as a percentage of the population who identify themselves as white, particularly in those states where “German” and “American” currently co-exist at a high level.”

I know this feeling. My parents’ and grandparents’ neat percentages don’t match their actual ancestries. My grandmother, for example, claimed to be half English, a quarter Irish, and a quarter Scottish. Close, perhaps, but not really. She thought of her dad as English, ignoring his Scottish, Welsh and French ancestry. And, she thought of her mother as Scotch and Irish, instead of Scotch-Irish with a hefty dose of English.

For many of us, the truth is far more complicated, and our ancestries far more mixed, than we “remember”. I try to figure out my ethnic origin from time to time, but there’s no clear place to draw the line. If I try to reach back to every immigrant in my ancestry, the resulting fractions are so cumbersome there would be no way to remember them. The last few years, I’ve had an uneasy peace with the truth. I’ve claimed myself as a mixture of English, Swedish, Scottish, German and Indian, ignoring the small percentages of other ancestries. On a pedantic day, I’ll toss in French. On a careless day, I’ll just answer Swedish, because that’s where my last name originated.

I don’t remember what I answered in 2000; perhaps Swedish-American and Native American. In 2010 I think I will identify simply as American. It will be easier and more accurate.

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