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15.3.08

My Ethnicity Is Mid-Atlantic White American

Maria Brumm makes a good point about the tendency for white Americans to treat "ethnicity" as meaning "where my ancestors were living in 1492":

Now, so far in the responses to Alice's prompt [for white people to address the fact that they have an ethnicity], and in other situations where this sort of thing comes up in conversation, I have noticed a tendency for white Americans to talk an awful lot about their ancestors. Some of them also talk about their multicultural childhood neighborhoods. But even though a majority of my ancestors came from Germany, and I can sort of mumble along to the Schnitzelbank Song, I am not German. Neither is my grandmother, despite the fact that that is her first language, or the rest of my family, despite the kitschy signs that proudly announce "You can always tell a German, but you can't tell 'em much!" to the users of our various spare bathrooms.

Having ancestors who immigrated from Northern Europe means that I saw my own genealogy reflected in the main narrative thread of the history textbook, while others got the "diversity boxes". There is absolutely no ducking the fact that my ancestry has granted me full membership in the institution of white privilege, but quite a lot has happened in my family since those cholera-ridden steerage-class Atlantic crossings. If I use stories about Germany or Scandinavia to give myself some culture, I'm not so much critiquing the way the cultural construction of whiteness has separated me from my heritage as I am perpetuating the idea that the North European-American whitebread mishmash culture I've got either doesn't exist, or isn't "ethnic".


I fall into much the same boat* as Brumm. My ethnicity -- in the sense of the cultural complex that I was raised to participate in and find meaningful -- is white American (of the mid-Atlantic rather than Midwestern variety**). Though a majority of my ancestors came from Sweden, the additional information you'd gain from me describing myself as specifically "Swedish" is mostly either wrong (I've never even seen lutefisk) or trivial (we always had a blue bird ornament on our Christmas tree). My three Swedish-descended grandparents could usefully be described as Swedish-American, but the specifically Swedish aspects are rather attenuated by the time they get to me, such that my cultural roots run as much back to England, Scotland, France, and Germany as they do to Sweden with my genetic roots.

This is not to deny that understanding where your ancestors are from and how they got to you isn't relevant. It's rather to point out that the cultural context into which their peregrinations and struggles thrust you is in fact a cultural context in just the same way as the one they started out from at whatever time you choose to treat as the beginning of your history.

*Pun unintentionally made but intentionally left in.

**Which I think mostly means that I grew up saying "soda" and "casserole" rather than "pop" and "hotdish."

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