I ‘m not sure why the particular theme of invented identity plays out so often in the world around me. Maybe it’s that I’ve overly sensitive to it. Or maybe it’s that I’m out of touch with America.
This is not the thing where Americans confuse identity and ancestry— they’re German (or whatever) because they have German ancestry. And this is not the thing where ethnic ancestry gets garbled over the generations because there are too many pieces to remember. I’ve touched on those topics before.
No. What I’m thinking about now is the way meager pretexts lead some people to try for a kind of culture theft. I wrote just a bit about that as it relates to religion a few weeks ago.
Over on Geni, some of my chums are spinning rhapsodies because they can add Scarlett Johanson to the Danish-American project and Kyrsten Sinema to the Norwegian-American project. Objections that Scarlett Johanson’s ancestry is more accurately Swedish and that Krysten Sinema’s ancestry is more obviously Dutch are majestically swept aside. Not the point. The goal there is to create a narrative not to just explore and document complexity.
I think the first time I really understood that genealogy can be co-opted to invent a new identity was back in the early 2000s. Genetic genealogy was moving cautiously from STR analysis to SNP analysis and haplogroups.
(I got thrown out of one online group for daring to suggest SNPs might be the future—STRs are perfectly adequate for phylogenetic analysis, thank you very much. Take your SNPs and quack science somewhere else.)
So, what happened is that it took some work to determine my haplogroup. Back then my STR values might have fit with either haplogroup G or haplogroup I. Turned out I’m haplogroup G.
And that threw me into a cultural turmoil I didn’t know could exist. It was already clear haplogroup G came from the Caucasus region, and that it’s a minority (say 2 or 3 percent) in Europe. The general thought at the time was that it might have been brought to Europe by the Alans, a barbarian tribe. There were also some folks who thought it might have been spread by Roman legions. And others like Ray Banks who thought it might have been spread by Jewish Radhanite merchants.
Interesting theories but no sense getting too invested in any of them. The evidence would keep accumulating. We’d get closer and closer to the truth. Because science. (The experts, like Spencer Wells, were already saying G2 came to Europe with the spread of farming in the Neolithic. The other stuff was just romantic nonsense. As indeed it turned out.)
But some people in our group took it further. The U.S. was right then in the middle of betraying the Kurds (as we do every so often and we’re doing now under Mr. Trump). Because we were all Haplogroup G, which originated down there somewhere, and the Kurds have a concentration of G, they were taking up a collection to send money to help our Kurdish cousins.
Wow. Just wow. A quirky correlation DNA with culture. Creating a new identity.
It wasn’t an isolated case. Since that first time, I’ve watched it happen over and over and over. The guy on the commercial goes from being German to being Scottish. He turns in his Lederhosen for a kilt. Because of a DNA test. And it doesn’t even have to be a strong result. Over and over on Geni, someone’s DNA test tells them they’re 1 percent American Indian or Jewish, and suddenly they have a new ethnic identity.
The way I explain it to people is this. My ancestry is Swedish but I am not Swedish. I have a Swedish last name. I have some Swedish DNA. And I keep up some Swedish customs (like the tomte). But I’m not a Swedish citizen. I don’t have a Swedish passport. I would not go to Sweden and expect anyone to take me seriously if I decided to tell Swedes I’m Swedish.
Yet, that’s exactly the situation of many Americans who seize on bits and pieces of science and perhaps also tradition to invent a new ethnic identity for themselves. It’s just another form of cultural appropriation.
- 10 People Who Faked Their Race And Ethnicity by Robert Grimminck at ListVerse, June 22, 2015, visited Feb. 8, 2019.
- Cultural Appropriation 101 by Hannah Klemme, at The Flightline, Student News of Skutt Catholic High School, Oct. 5, 2015, visited Feb. 8, 2019.
- Ethnicity is not something dictated by people’s genes by John Collins, et al., at The Guardian, Aug. 14, 2017, visited Feb. 8, 2019.
- Going ‘Native’: Why Are Americans Hijacking Cherokee Identity? by Cecily Hilleary, at VOA News, July 23, 2018, visited Feb. 8, 2019.
- Race v ethnicity: the curious case of Rachel Dolezal, explained (sort of) by Guardian Staff, at The Guardian, June 12, 2015, visited Feb. 8, 2019.
- The US Census Bureau keeps confusing race and ethnicity by Nancy López, at The Conversation, Feb. 28, 2018, visited Feb. 8, 2019.
Revised to update link.