Feminism: The Allure of Appropriation

[Content Note: Cultural Appropriation, Oppressive Religion, Infertility]

I took a DNA test last year. 

I credit even knowing about the test to Justine Larbalestier. You see, a few years ago I read her absolutely phenomenal Liar, and major plot point in the book (which features a mixed-race protagonist who may or may not also be supernatural in origin... and it only gets weirder from there) revolves around everyone in her high school class getting their genealogical DNA tested. (So it's basically like the blood type test in Twilight, but with permission slips and teacher responsibility and meaningful social commentary.)

I'd never heard of genealogical DNA testing before this, and here Justine Larbalestier was explaining it in all its awesome science-nerdliness glory. She explained how science could supposedly tell us everything about our ancestry -- where we'd come from and who our forebears had been -- without all that tedious need for unreliable records and moldy old documents. And then just when she had me hooked, she turned around and explained all the drawbacks and controversy surrounding the practice -- and all the reasons why geneticists are still sounding strong notes of caution over early adoption and full-scale embracing of the technology:

Yayeko held up her hand. "The test's ability to identify your DNA is dependent on what DNA is available to the company."

She turned to the board and started drawing a DNA spiral. The light caught particles of chalk floating in the air. I could smell it, taste it on the tip of my tongue.

"This test was done," Yayeko said, "by comparing your DNA" -- she pointed to the spiral she'd drawn -- "with the DNA in that particular company's database. What percentage of the world's DNA do you think they're likely to have? Five percent? Ten? Fifteen?"

Brandon looked at Will. No one said anything. I couldn't imagine it would be a very big percentage. The world is so big. There are so many people in it.

"Less than 1 percent," Yayeko said at last. "Considerably less. So they have a very small database of DNA. A database that does not contain the DNA of everyone in the world."

She waited a moment as we digested that. I was wondering how they could tell us anything at all about ourselves if they had so little data. I still wasn't going to open my results.

"They take their DNA from ‘pure' sources -- African, European, and Asian groups where there's been relatively little marrying into different groups. But there are very few ‘pure' people left in the world. Many people argue that these tests work from a faulty premise."

The class was silent. What was Yayeko saying? That the test couldn't tell us anything? That there was no such thing as race? I looked around the room and saw lots of frowning faces. All except Brandon, who was doodling on his hand.

"The company looks for markers in our DNA that they have identified as African or Asian or Europe an or Native American. But with so little of the world's DNA mapped, the odds that they are correctly identifying the markers in your DNA are not high. Say they identify one of your markers as African. It may be that they are identifying your unmapped marker from another part of the world with their mapped marker from somewhere in Africa."

"Does that mean if the test says you've got no African DNA, it's wrong?" Sondra asked. She's very light-skinned. Lighter than Chantal even, several shades lighter than me. White people usually think she's white, despite her relaxed curls and full lips. She'd been still since reading her results. Like me and Zach she hadn't said a word.

"Definitely," Yayeko said firmly. "If we did the test with a different company using a different database your results would change. Biologically speaking, the so-called races have more similarities than they have differences. There is only one race: the human race.

My hopes, so quickly raised, were dashed. There wasn't a scientific magic bullet to instantly tell me where I was from and who my people were. It was back to the moldy old documents dug from the attics of deceased grandparents and to sifting through historical records on Ancestry.com where everyone's name is spelled at least three different ways: once for their birth certificate, once for their marriage certificate, and once for their death certificate. Illiteracy, creativity, or indecision: I wasn't sure which, but my ancestors hadn't made it a priority to make things easy for me.

I'm interested in genealogy because my family doesn't quite know where it's from... and we don't quite know where we're going. We're not a close-knit family by most definitions of the word; the family reunions on Mom's side petered out after the catastrophic incident where Grandfather led a rambling group prayer over a rapidly cooling dinner where he opined that it was a shame that my mother's son -- my half-brother -- went to Hell like he did after that fatal motorcycle accident. The family reunions on my father's side lasted a little longer, but were ultimately broken up after a falling out over whether or not the gay members of the family could bring their life-partners to Grandma's funeral.

(I'm not one of those people to reflexively say that all religion is evil, but it's not brought the best of joy to my extended family, I'm afraid.)

As for where we're going on my paternal / maiden-name side, a surprising number of the folks in my generation and the one just before just aren't procreating, either because they can't or they won't. With each passing year, it looks like our branch of the old family tree is going to be a dead-end and it'll be up to some very distant cousins to carry on what was once my name.

And the funny thing is, we have lots of genealogical records. We've got stuff going through the paternal line back to before the American Revolutionary War, and we still can't figure out where we crossed over from Somewhere to Here. We're European American, through-and-through, brought over in the mists of the early 1600s -- possibly even earlier -- and were apparently deeply committed to marrying only other European Americans with similar pedigrees because it's been almost impossible to find any non-European Americans to put into the family tree so that we might say "here! here is our heritage".

I suppose you could say our heritage is "American" (or at least "European American") but there's something about that which has always been vaguely unsettling to me. I suppose being here in America for 400+ years makes it my home, but I still can't shake the feeling that I'm not from here, that somewhere and sometime my family immigrated here from elsewhere and that elusive elsewhere has been bothering me for years.

Last year, Ancestry.com announced that they were jumping on the genealogical DNA bandwagon. But they wouldn't have the problems that Justine Larbalestier and the other scientists kept pointing out, because Ancestry.com wouldn't just be relying on 'pure' markers; they'd be cross-referencing member DNA with the DNA of all the other participating members. This wouldn't be a system built on guesses and attempts to isolate racial purity, but rather a system that would grow organically as more and more members participated. The sciency awesomeness of the project was too much for me to resist, and after a thorough perusal of the site's privacy statement, I signed up and got my cotton swab in the mail.

What was supposed to take a few weeks at the most took months. More people had signed up than Ancestry.com had, apparently, in their wildest dreams imagined. And as the months dragged on with no results in, I tried not to get my hopes up.

But -- gods' help me -- I'll be honest: I wanted something cool. I'm going to admit that, even though I'm ashamed to say it. Specifically, I wanted my results to come back with Native American DNA, and then finally I could maybe feel some kind of connection with the country my family has inhabited for 400+ years. Failing that, I prayed, let me come back with something interesting, exotic, and above all unexpected.

I knew these weren't appropriate feelings to have. I knew that even if my DNA did come back with Native American markers or African DNA or any number of "interesting" locales, that wouldn't magically imbue me with a brand-new shiny heritage that was more exciting than the one I'd ended up with. I certainly knew better than to go out and redecorate the house with "tribal" knickknacks from Hobby Lobby, as that would have been the cherry on the cultural appropriation cake.

But for the first time in my life, while I was waiting for those DNA results, I really truly understood why someone would. I understood the allure of appropriation, the desire to set aside the crummy (or even just bland!) heritage you were given, and pick up a newer, better one while you were down at the corner store. I understood, basically, being Privileged Prince Caspian feeling that being a pampered prince with white privilege was the pits, and couldn't he please have something a little more interesting and exotic and Other for the taking? I got that, on a very personal level.

I didn't, as it turns out, get my wish. My results came back to confirm what anyone looking at our extensive family records could have guessed: we come largely from the British Isles, with a smattering of Central European DNA thrown in.

I can only guess why we came over to America so early and so quickly -- Adventurers? Prospectors? Criminals? Wealthy opportunists? -- and I can raise my eyebrow at my ancestors' insular unwillingness to chose their mates a little more creatively, but in the end none of this was really a surprise. We'll see if my results are "refined" as Ancestry.com fills in more profiles, but it looks like my dream of being magically made more interesting through the discovery of "exotic" DNA dies here.

And I think that's a good thing. But it was interesting for me to note, when I was digging through Liar for the quote way up at the top of the post, that Justine Larbalestier seemed to understand and anticipate my impulse for cultural appropriation. When her fictional high school children open their results, there is this exchange:

Brandon didn't believe it. Or said he didn't. But his 11 percent African made him happy. He started joking about basketball. As if a drop of African DNA would suddenly give him a crossover dribble.

"Oh, please," Tayshawn said, looking at Brandon as if he were something foul stuck to the bottom of his shoe.

"Eleven percent!" Brandon said.

"Which makes you 89 percent dickhead," Tayshawn said.

Everyone laughed. Brandon started to respond but Tayshawn was louder. "Says here I'm 23 percent white. That mean I'm gonna be a stockbroker who can't dance? Please."

Brandon laughed like it didn't bother him. But it did. The look he gave Tayshawn was savage.

Maybe genealogical DNA is something that some of us -- people like me and fictional!Brandon -- just aren't ready for, yet. Maybe we're still too stuck on the Nature side of the debate to forget that "Nature" means a lot more than just the sum of our DNA and that Nurture isn't something to be snubbed as unimportant, either. Maybe it's just too tempting for some of us to want to wake up tomorrow as something Old and something New: the same DNA we always were before, but with a brand new understanding of ourselves that makes us suddenly so much better -- better at basketball, better at feeling connected, better at whatever stereotype you want to reach for.

I'm not proud of the fact that for a time I was -- with the best of intentions -- Othering other cultures in the hopes that I might win the genetic lottery and become a part of that better Other that I had built up in my mind. But I understand now why the allure of cultural appropriation is so strong, because even knowing what I know, I was susceptible to it too.

Ana's Note: Please be aware that this article was written with regards to the "traditional" romanticization and appropriation of other cultures in the sense that we've been discussing in Narnia, with Prince Caspian being implied to be a "True Narnian" because he has built the Narnian culture up in his mind as a fantasy preferable to his current reality, and he is subsequently absorbed into this position of "True Narnian" without having to alter his lifestyle or be meaningfully challenged. I understand wanting to be able to do that via swapping-and-switching a few ancestors and voila! new cultural background and completely different heritage.

This post is not in response to the existence of Trans-Ethnic persons, which I was unaware of while writing this piece and about which I have little information and no opinion. (Since informed opinions require information and I have that in short supply.) What little information I have about Trans-Ethnicity tells me that it is a whole different kettle of fish than what I am attempting to address above, so when linking this piece please be aware of that -- my words and thoughts are meant to help illuminate people with Privilege (like me), but not to cause harm or hurt to the Marginalized.


Michael Mock said...

My own heritage looks a lot like yours; I'm not sure about the Central European part, but from my understanding I'm probably about 80% Scottish and Irish in ancestry; one of my uncles has traced my father's side of the family back far enough to find a story about why we left Ireland. (I can't recall the details offhand, partly because I don't believe it; it sounds like exactly the sort of mildly self-aggrandizing romanticization that someone would make up if they didn't care to admit that they were a young man with no prospects and there was potato famine going on.)

But, I kind of like that. Okay, so I don't get to appropriate Mystically Inclined Noble Savages. [1] But, I can point back to castles and kilts and rebellions. (If you feed the family name into those name-origin sites, we're apparently a branch of Clan Campbell.)

[1] I'd be a lot more interested in having an exotic origin if I got supernatural powers to go along with it.

Smilodon said...

I wonder if this is partly a North American thing. Even knowing some of my ancestors were among the first people to colonize Canada, and we've been here hundreds of years, I still feel rootless, and like I have to forge my own ties to this land. I wonder if a European who can point to the rock that their grandmother's grandmother's grandmother was born on has this same feeling of wanting a story that ties them to a people and a place.

Smilodon said...

In case it wasn't clear, my ancestors colonized, not inhabited. The land was not empty when they arrived.

Bificommander said...

I know little of my ancestry, and personally I really don't care. Two of my grandparents were dead long before I was born. The grandfather on my father's side was Dutch, or more specifically Frysian. My grandmother from my mother's side comes from a French family. The other two were both, to my knowledge, Dutch. And that's the extent of what I know.

Content warning: Adoption

I know many others are interested in their ancestry and family line. But I've never minded. When I hear about adopted children who never knew their biological parents and are feverishly searching for them, I have trouble identifying with it. I grew up with my biological parents so I can't say this from experience. But I really think that if they were to suddenly say "Son, we never told you but you were adopted." my main reaction would be... well, confusion that they didn't tell me for 28 years for starters, but otherwise no more than a mild curiousity for who my biological parents would be, nothing more. The parents I grew up with raised me, they are the people I've known all my life, whether or not they're biologically so. I would probably meet with such a biological parent if it is their explicit request to see me, but otherwise I don't think I would feel a strong emotional attachment to people I've never known. So I feel even less conection with unknown ancestors who are far more generations removed from me, and whom I (just by being a 20th-21st century atheist) I probably couldn't hold a reasonable discussion with for long.

Just to be clear, this isn't an attack on other people who are interested in any of the above. It's just my personal view that my geanology has little to do with me and holds very little interest. As this is, to my knowledge, not a very widely held viewpoint, maybe I'll just appropriate THAT particular quirk for myself as distinguishing feature. At least I know I've earned that one ;)

Makhno said...

> so I don't get to appropriate Mystically Inclined Noble Savages

The Gaels have been portrayed that way often enough, even by their Anglophone neighbours.

> I wonder if a European who can point to the rock that their grandmother's grandmother's grandmother was born on has this same feeling of wanting a story that ties them to a people and a place.

Can't speak for others, but while I do have deep roots in the corner of Scotland where my paternal ancestors have always lived, I've still always been eager to investigate my other ancestors; and I still feel that my failure to find out anything much about the Irish side leaves a gap - a small gap, but there nonetheless - in my sense of who I am.

I think there is something of a need to trace "how did we come to be here?", and if the answer is "we don't know because we came here before Year X, which is when the records peter out", that'll be dissatisfying whether Year X is three generations ago or thirty.

Loquat said...

That Ancestry.com DNA stuff looks fascinating; I'd be tempted to do it myself, but I suspect my map would pretty much look like yours, with a higher percentage of central European. The most "exotic" ancestor I've found so far is a Portuguese woman who married an Englishman in the 16th century.

Which is not to say one can't turn up interesting stories about one's British and Central European ancestors - one of mine that I'm particularly curious about, the truth of which may be lost to history, concerns a 19th-century ancestor who came from rock-ribbed-Protestant Scotch-Irish stock, married a woman with a very Irish-Catholic name, and named their firstborn son Luther Calvin [lastname]. Was he being a controlling asshole? Was his wife eager to prove her Protestant bona fides? I have no idea. Their marriage did apparently have problems, since they got divorced right around the time of the Civil War and he subsequently married a German woman (religious background unknown), but nobody on Ancestry.com has any details.

Will Wildman said...

I don't generally have much interest in ancestry/genealogy in terms of my own identity, although I do have an interest in it purely because I think historical grounding is a good thing. "Why is this here?" is always a good question, including when I'm the This.

So over the years I've paid attention to the few bits of history that I've picked up (my mother's side is probably all Irish, my dad's side is English/Welsh, both families came to Canada around 1900ish), and I have more affection for some of my heritage than others - I love the sound of the Welsh language and accent, and I am often delighted by mythologies from the British Isles.

In a way, I think maybe it's an inversion - where I come from genealogically doesn't influence my identity* so much as my identity is reflected in the parts of my heritage that I like best. I don't like Irish myth because I'm part-Irish, but looking at myself and my history, and noting that I like Irish myth and I'm exasperated by some of the semimodern typically-English traditions that have remained in the family, can maybe tell you about me.

(On the matter of nature vs nurture, I feel like I have a pretty relevant case study right in my family - I have a brother who is technically a half-brother (this never comes up except in discussions like this one), with the shared bio parent being our mom. Regardless, we've both got a lot in common with our dad, but often in radically different ways - the losing-all-the-details summary might be to say that I'm emotionally a lot like dad and my brother is mentally a lot like him. I scoff at claims that either nature or nurture completely overrules the other.)

*Excepting privilege. Because I'm a well-off white dude and that sure as heck influences my experiences and perspectives in the world, and I'm pretty sure I got that from my ancestors.

Brin Bellway said...

My mom's been into genealogy since before I was born. I never understood why. Sure, I wonder what the lives of, say, the snake-oil salesman or the scare-quoted "Spaniard" who was once a slave in the Caribbean were like, but they're not really more interesting for being distantly related.

The idea of having roots kind of creeps me out. It reminds me too much of those neighbours who think that living near you makes them your friends.

chris the cynic said...

I've never really understood the idea of reaching back to whatever not-America place one's ancestor's came from to stake their identity there. Their ancestors, if one goes far enough back, didn't come from there either. In all likelihood the ancestors they point to weren't even descended from the first people in that land but instead from invaders who killed off, kicked out, took over, or integrated with previous invaders who did one of those four things the invaders before them, who in turn did one of them to the invaders before them, and so on.

If you're looking for the original home of any human being then it's somewhere in Africa, if you focus on the "human being" part, or the ocean, if you focus on the "original" part.

I understand wanting to know where one comes from, but if home is where your ancestors are from then no one has a home because if human history has taught us anything it's that people move. A lot.

jill heather said...

I know my history, well enough: Eastern European Jews, only a few generations in Canada. The Jews married among themselves a lot -- especially the mostly poor rural Jews, like on my maternal side (both those grandparents were, however, born in Canada) -- and no doubt there was the occasional pogrom, but I cannot imagine I'd find much of interest.

It's funny, because I'd say that I am Canadian, that I am from here -- and I wouldn't have some sort of feeling that this is fake. I have another heritage as well, but it doesn't make me any less Canadian.

That said, there is a huge problem in Quebec about that -- people are defined as Quebecois only if they have a francophone name . . . so I never get to be Quebecois according to the media or the government here.

Laiima said...

Spouse's family is a lot like yours, Ana, in some respects. His paternal Scotch-Irish ancestors and his maternal English ancestors arrived in America in the 1600s. When asked their 'ethnic' heritage, they always say "Kentuckian". They're very clannish. Someone who 'marries in', even if that person parents the next generation, is never considered part of the family. Someone like me who is *not* a parent - even despite my extensive knowledge of their genealogy! - will always be an outsider. And since I'm a 'city girl', who isn't nostalgic for my grandparents' hardscrabble childhoods on farms, I'm incomprehensible too.

Both sides of my family have been in the US less than 100 years. My father's family is from (the Republic of) Ireland - his father fought for the IRA, then escaped to the US, in the 1920s. My mother's family is from Lithuania. Somewhere back in their distant past, there was a Jewish ancestress. I wish I knew more about her.

Part of my personality deeply hungers for feelings of connection. But I mostly haven't realized them. If someone in my family of origin were to tell me, "you were adopted", I think I would feel relief. Because finally something would explain why no one seems to like me very much. And that's why I eventually gave up on genealogy - why spend years researching blood ties, when the reality is that when I show up at a family reunion, no one is happy to see me.

chris the cynic said...

Part of my personality deeply hungers for feelings of connection. But I mostly haven't realized them.

Then I shall feed this hunger. (Not seriously.)

My mother's family is from Lithuania.

My Lithuanian ancestry is also on my mother's side. Clearly we are deeply connected. Feelings be fed.

The first sentence of the above is true, I do have such ancestry and it is on my mother's side. Somehow I doubt that means we're deeply connected though.

Michael Mock said...

"The Gaels have been portrayed that way often enough, even by their Anglophone neighbours."

Hm. Point. And there's that whole "can't die unless another immortal cuts off your head" thing - though I suppose that isn't really a characteristic of Scots in general.

Laiima said...

True story: When my mom was little, no one in her ethnic Chicago neighborhood knew what 'Lithuanian' meant. So she told people she was 'Hawaiian'! Despite her blond hair and blue eyes, apparently they believed her. o.O

60 years later, I quite frequently run into people who have never heard of Lithuania. I have tried saying, "it's sort of like Polish, or Ukrainian", but really, that's not true except geographically. Culturally, those people are Slavs; Lithuanians are Balts.

But because hardly anyone has heard of it, functionally it's an Exotic Other. Which is probably why I identify with that side of my heritage more than the Irish side. (Despite the icky patriarchal-ness) True fact: Lithuanians were among the last, if not the last, European pagans to convert to Christianity - which didn't happen until the late 14th century CE. Go Pagans!

I will now start thinking of you as a (very) distant cousin. Hey, it *could* be true! :)

graylor said...

I'm odd man out with my living relatives: I don't feel any connection to the dead ones, though they are fun to gossip about.

Still, every now and then somebody gets bitten by the geneaology bug. On Mom's side, they can't shut up about their research until one day they clam up completely. Mom confided to me when I was a kid that it was because 'when you get far enough back down at the coast (of SC) you start finding kinky hair.' Considering how racist my older relatives on that side are, I wouldn't be surprised.

On my father's side, it's just a mess. Great-great grandpa was a polygamist--not a Mormon, goodness no, we've been Baptists since the Crucifiction--but a polygamist. Nobody can agree at the number of wives (define 'wife'), nobody wants to talk about 'that Cherokee woman he kept up', etc. My grandmother on that side claimed variously to be descended from Native Americans or Gypsies and there's a distinct resemblance to people in Cherokee in some of my siblings and cousins. Hell if I know.

I don't feel a need to culturally appropriate because the family members I know about are quite colorful enough to do. We've got murderers, faith-healers, midwives, adulterers, bigamists, polygamists, addicts, rum-runners, perennially down on their luck con artists, gamblers, religious extremists, and even a few folks who seem perfectly normal. ... One of these days I'm going to write some southern gothic and get thrown out of my family once and for all.

Maartje said...

I'm Dutch. My ancestors are probably all solid Dutch borderland folk: my maternal grandparents grew up on farms there, I don't know what my paternal grandfather's background is but I suspect nothing particularly interesting, and my paternal grandmother is mixed with German borderland stock - her mother grew up three kilometers to the other side of the border than her father. And so on, probably, for a very long time.

Still, when I was a child, I had this secret hope that I was somehow Native American. Even though there's really no way that could be true. In retrospect, it's not so much about Native Americans in particular (although I did go on a research bender when I was 8-12 or so) but about tribe + far away. I had a lonely and frightened childhood, and what I really wished for is for SOMEONE who would claim me as theirs. Someone who, upon learning that I was related to them, would say 'That's awesome! If I could pick anyone to be related to, I would pick you.' Preferably on the other side of the world, so I could leave everything I had behind and live with people who DID like me and appreciate me.

Now that I've sort of accepted that I know all the blood family I'm ever going to have and they're not magically going to sweep me up in their loving embrace, I'm pretty uninterested in genealogy. My birth province has some pretty awesome myths and legends, and I like those, but I'm not very interested in summaries of the people who I'm descended from. If I could focus on a specific person, maybe they'd turn out to be very interesting (I generally like people a lot once I get to know them), but I don't specifically feel the need.

I like my surname, though. I'm one of only 50 or so with that name in my country, all of whom must be related to me but none nearer than 4 generations. I do hope my brother has the procreating instinct so there'll be some with my name, from my side of the tree.

Samantha C said...

LONG COMMENT IS LONG and contains bitter ramblings about Passover

This is definitely an interesting read, because it's an impulse I've never felt. All four of my grandparents were born in America, and for all I know many of their parents. My dad's family is a mutt-mix of the various Protestant nations in Europe, and my mom's family is the same but for Jewish places. No one in my family has ever bothered to find out more - we're American, why should we be anything else at that point? If the most percentage from one country might be less than 20%, it really doesn't feel like it matters.

Side-story. my elementary school did a unit every year where each student investigated their heritage; I remember having to interview a relative of that heritage, and bring in a plate of food from it. My year, I ended up interviewing my aunt-by-marriage, who was born in Russia and has no blood connection to me (nor, frankly, much of a social connection; my mom and her brother don't get along well). I forget what my middle brother did, but by the time my youngest got to it, my mom insisted on baking an apple pie to bring in. She was so pissed off at that point that the school was still assuming all the kids had something to say during this unit, and American didn't count as a heritage.

But on a deeper level, I've never felt like i needed to be anchored to the past. The people I share a bloodline with have little or nothing to do with who I am. My parents certainly do, my brothers do, but my friends have a great deal more influence on me than my uncle's family, or the grandparents who live in Washington State so I never see them, or whoever might have been my great-grandmother's great-grandmother.

I remember an early protest during a Passover seder, when I was first starting to leave Judaism - i got angry at the book of the four curious children. The petulant child who asks "what does this have to do with me?" is supposed to be told "because God saved you from Egypt and we're thankful." I tore that argument apart, and I was only 11 or 12. I was never a slave in Egypt. I'm not a slave in America. I've never known anyone in my life who's known anyone who's been a slave. (These days I know that in itself is something to be thankful for, but.) This story has nothing to do with me, personally. It has to do with traditions and heritages and lineages and stories but not me, specifically. Nobody had an answer when I put it like that. It's just not something that vicerally matters to me, and it's not something anyone could make feel important.

And yet the trope of Like Father Like Son exists for a reason. So clearly it's important to most people. But if I found out, say, that my father was a murderer, or that my real mother was a tyrant in another land, or I was switched at birth and don't know who my biological parents were, it would make me curious. It might bring up all sorts of things, but it wouldn't change who I saw myself as. It wouldn't identify me any differently.

storiteller said...

I love to hear about and retell stories of my family, but I have no desire to dig from before when they came to America. Perhaps it's in part because they were running from pain - neither Poland or Czechoslovakia were pleasant places to live when my relatives left. Perhaps it's because I have such fun stories from when they got here - I have colorful characters in my family, in a good way. I have a desire to make perogies, but that's more to please and honor my grandmother and her personal tradition than my ethnic background. In some ways, I identify with the immigrant experience more than where they were before my relatives came over. The stories of coming over are the ones I always heard and was proud of. Ellis Island moved me in a way that I don't think anywhere in Eastern Europe ever would.

Asha said...

Like several others here, I've never felt much of an urge to know about my family tree. I've looked up the meaning of my family names, and after that, I've not had much interest. This makes me an oddity where I live; most people here are kin, however much removed, and carry their personal geneologies in their back pocket. I'm mostly Irish, with some French, Cornish and German mixed in for good measure. If people ask, I usually tell the location of the name and its meaning, make up some bull, and then say "Nothing to do with me, but it's a good story, isn't it?" Then I say it is also the name of a location.

I can understand the appeal. A friend of mine has done a lot of genealogy, but her reason for it is a search for connection, as well as trying to find something 'special.' I've seen pictures of her family, and you can see some American Indian features there, but she's the whitest of the bunch. She claims to be training to be a shaman, but she then jumps to be a christian psychic. She is intelligent, and her life has been very difficult, but she also refuses to take any responsibility for the choices she's made in her life and talks trash about everyone. That last one is why I stopped being friends with her; she will continuously talk badly about people who have taken her into their home. Everyone mistreats her; everyone takes advantage of her. She needs to be a Mary Sue, basically.

I can understand why she does what she does, but it still ruined our friendship. She tried to get me to be friends with the people she talked so badly about; she had no idea why that made me so terrible uncomfortable. Because if she talked bad about them- what did she say about me?

Harmaa Rakka said...

Not all Europeans are deeply connected to their ancestry, sadly. I'm feeling very much that I am flapping loose, in a way, because I have yet to dedicate time to finding out about my Karelian roots. After the war the evacuees from Karelia settled down in different parts of the country, and I never got to talking about that with my paternal grandmother before she died. It bothers me a lot. I should talk to my maternal grandparents before they die but we don't meet face to face often, and I dislike doing stuff over the phone. So I can understand the desire to know about your roots and finding something "interesting" - I'm physically pretty west Finnish looking, not much slavic influence, and I think my maternal grandparents are from around my birth town... but I'm still more interested in the part that is on faraway lost ground. People are funny that way.

I wonder how much this desire for approriation is behind the silliest of the SCA persona stories. As Attack Laurel puts it, rife with pirates, gypsies, courtesans and vampire ninja Cossacks* - TW: references for all the stuff that goes wrong for women and minorities in medieval life behind the link. It's fun to pretend, for a while, in a safe environment, that you're a part of some cool and special and meaningful group, and not "a subsistence farmer who barely had enough money to feed my family and cow".

Ana Mardoll said...

I'm sorry, with that line about creativity I was trying to be factitious and tongue-in-cheek. My husband and I are of the same race and very similar ancestry, but though I believe I've mentioned that before, I forget that not everyone has the time to memorize every detail of my life. :)

I apologize for creating the impression that I was judging other peoples' choices or creativity.

Ana Mardoll said...

And if I've offended anyone else with this post, I apologize to them as well. This seems to be a recurring thing that I do, and one reason why I really struggle with feeling like maybe my blogging causes more harm than good.

Kit Whitfield said...

My husband and I are of the same race and very similar ancestry, but though I believe I've mentioned that before, I forget that not everyone has the time to memorize every detail of my life. :)

I did know that, actually; I didn't think you were calling me uncreative. And hey, if you did think it was uncreative to marry a white guy, I don't think I'd much care; after all, I know why I married him and it'd be pretty silly to get upset somebody who never met him suggesting other motivations. I was just using my own family as an example of the point I was making because, well, I know them.

So if that came across as accusing you of judging my choices, I'm sorry, that's not what I was trying to say and not what I thought you were doing.

But seriously - I don't want to be a 'Geez, don't be so sensitive!' type, but at least on my part, it wasn't that I was offended. It was just that I had an observation that seemed within the purview of the conversation - I mean, you brought up the subject of seeing some DNA as cooler than others, so I thought it would be a relevant observation.

And while I haven't been following all the other conversations that seem to be worrying you, I do think there's a line between disagreeing with or objecting to a particular thing you said and objecting to the whole blog. I mean, the subjects you write about are controversial, so a certain amount of disagreement in the comments seems more or less inevitable. And - I say this sincerely, not sarcastically - if it bothers you then that's fine. It's your blog paid for by your money and created by your efforts and you can make whatever rules you want. For instance, I recently banned nitpicks on my own series of posts about famous novels' first sentences, because they bore and irritate me and I don't see why I should pay for people to get up my nose. And it took thought, and some perfectly nice people probably felt excluded by it, and I've also copped some very unpleasant flak for it because women aren't supposed to set boundaries and exercise authority, but hey, my blog, my life, my rules, and the kind of person who objects to that is someone I don't want to cyber-hang with anyway.

It's just that the posts you write seem to encourage discussion, and discussion often involves disagreement, and I'm not sure where you're ruling the line. I absolutely respect your right to rule it wherever you see fit, but I'm having trouble seeing where it is. I mean, I've read your new commenting rules, but I didn't think that my post transgressed them - I took issue with something you said, but I did my best to do it in a spirit of respectful disagreement. Not a 'How dare you say this!', but more 'Hey pal, think you might have missed a trick there, what do you think of this counter-example?' Now, you may not want that kind of post: I'm not your editor and you may want that kind of comment to be confined to remarks made by other commenters, but at the time of commenting, I was under the impression that what I posted was permissible under your policies. So did I misinterpret and transgress the comment policy, or is there something the policies don't cover? Or what?

I really am asking this in the spirit of trying to cooperate here. Right now I'm just not sure what is and isn't acceptable, and am worried that there's no way I can take issue with something you say without upsetting you. And if that is in fact the case, like I say that's absolutely fine - you're under no obligation to put up with anything you don't like - but I'd at least like to know where I stand.

If you want to take this conversation off-board and into e-mail, including cutting this comment, feel free. :-)

JonathanPelikan said...

I can't promise that you'll never hurt people, since that seems to be a trait common to every member of our species to some degree. I say this from personal experience, given that my mother passed down the 'insert foot firmly into mouth' gene or something and we've both got it bad sometimes.

That said, I'd put all my money on your net effect on blogging, the internet, and the world being very, very positive, Ana.

Rowen said...

England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (Northern Ireland) . . . I must be missing something. What's the fifth/sixth?

I think there's something to be said about feeling a disconnect from ancestors, but it's really interesting to hear people who's families have been in America since the 1600's say they don't feel like they're "native" Americans. My dad's Comanche, and digging around, there's some really cool stuff, but one thing that struck me is how much the Comanche didn't care about "ancestry" or at least things like "pureblood" or however you want to call it. They themselves were a mix of white, Spanish, Shoshone and a few other tribes, and basically anyone who could stick around (or, um . . . was kidnapped and didn't die) was Comanche.

When I was younger, I felt a strong connection to my Celtic ancestry, but as I got older, I found a lot more literature that wasn't so "romantic" and I feel less "CELTIC/IRISH PRIDE" and more "huh. That's interesting!"

Kit Whitfield said...

England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (Northern Ireland) . . . I must be missing something. What's the fifth/sixth?

(I shall assume complete non-knowledge here, not because I think you're necessarily ignorant but just for the sake of clarity, because it's horrendously complicated and I myself might get tangled up if I don't start with the basics. Hope that doesn't offend.)

First point: as you say, the island of 'Ireland' is divided into two political entitles, the Republic of Ireland, also know as Eire, and Northern Ireland. And Eire and Northern Ireland are both counted as part of the 'British Isles' - the different names all denote different things, and it confuses us residents never mind anyone else, but basically:

British Isles - England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Eire
Great Britain - England, Scotland and Wales
The United Kingdom - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

ie 'British Isles' and 'Great Britain' refer to geographical land masses, and 'the UK' to a sovereign state that excludes the Republic of Ireland.

So the British Isles constitutes both Eire and Northern Ireland, which makes five countries. Whether or not Northern Ireland is a full country is a question of literally murderous difficulty, but while it was officially under Westminster rule when I were a kid, it's now largely self-governing, and that compromise has led to a reduction of terrorist attacks on all sides. So seeing it as an independent nationality is, well, the viewpoint least likely to lead to people killing people.

But within Northern Ireland, there are two very distinct ethnic groups: the Catholics, descended from the original residents of Ireland, and the Protestants, descended from mostly Scots and English settlers who came in after the conquest. Hence all the killing, because historically the Catholics have had stronger ties to Eire - in fact, Northern Ireland was part of Eire until the partition of Ireland in 1920, giving home rule to the Catholic-majority states and keeping the Protestant-majority states part of the United Kingdom, and a bitter civil war was fought about whether or not to accept the partition - while the Protestants historically have ties to Great Britain. It's two different ethnic groups living in the same piece of territorially disputed land with a history of ethnic oppression - as the historian Robert Hughes remarks in The Fatal Shore, in eighteenth-century Ireland the Catholics were 'legislated down to helotry.' And while most Northern Irish people of either side are perfectly nice, normal people - at least, the ones I know are - it's not an easy mix and there is long and bloody history of division between them. Which seems to be getting a bit better, but it's going to be a long time before people forget.

So in terms of ethnic descent, and often in terms of political affiliation, the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland could be classed as two different nationalities living in the same country - or, if you weren't talking about white people, you could use the more accurate term and call them two different tribes.

So by that logic, five countries, six nationalities. Or maybe five if you consider the Northern and Republic Irish Catholics as a single nationality.

Like I say, horrendously complicated. And with an Irish Catholic mother and a middle-class English father (though also Catholic, or at least lapsed), you can imagine the dinner-table discussions round our house when all the violence was going on. :-)

Smilodon said...

This. Plus tone is so ridicuously hard to convey in text. Seriously, a medium without body language, facial expressions and tone, and where you can't observe your listener in real time to anticipate misunderstandings. There will always be some mistakes. On balance, the good you write far outweighs the bad, IMO.

Rowen said...

hrm. I had been thinking of Northern Ireland as . . . well one entity with a divided population, and was more wondering if the sixth nationality you mentioned was something like the Isle of Man, or something else.

Makes sense, though. Thanks for the info!

Kit Whitfield said...

Well, the Manx population do have their own culture and language too, so you wouldn't really be wrong. And if we're going that way, we might include the Cornish too - Cornish is a recognised minority language as well...

...Yeah. Live outside Europe, it gets called 'tribes'; live inside Europe, and it gets called 'regions'. Go figure.

Kit Whitfield said...

On the subject of feeling one's roots, I shall attempt to talk about personal experience without, hopefully, making anyone feel bad...

I do feel fairly connected to my home country, but in a way that's informed by having lived with uncertainty. My mother was the child of an Irish father and English mother who had lived in both countries and firmly identified as Irish; I grew up almost entirely in England bar some holidays with the Irish side of the family, so I was always aware that there was a half of my heritage that I was somewhat disconnected from.

As I got older, though, I simply grew into it. I am, now, an English woman: wherever I came from, this is the country that has raised and shaped me.

But in a way, I feel more secure in my nationality knowing that nationalities can intermingle. I feel English, but I also feel strongly European, something that many English people don't feel. I had a mother from a different European nation; when I was growing up with had foreign students living as au pairs in the house, and they'd be from Denmark, Spain, the Basque country (and don't call it Spain!), France, the Netherlands, Italy, all over the continent, and many of this young women became family friends we're still in touch with - my first Danish au pair became my godmother and did the decorations for my wedding - so I was raised by women of a variety of different European nationalities. So that's a comfort zone for me: I can identify myself as English precisely because I know from experience that other nationalities are an equally positive thing to be. It's not a competition, but something that enriches everyone.

So I definitely feel English - but on the other hand, I'm at my most comfortable in groups that include a reasonable variety of backgrounds, simply because I grew up in a house with a fairly constant interchange between countries (and my parents still have friends and colleagues from all over the place staying with them all the time; they're a sociable couple and the house is like Piccadilly Circus), and too much homogeneity feels confining to me. As I mentioned, my best friend has one parent from a different country, and I married a man who, like me, was what you might call mixed-race-white (Welsh-Canadian, in his case). In all-English groups, I often suspect something's being missed: in groups with a little variation, I feel more relaxed because there feels like there's, I don't know, a window open and some fresh air around.

Of course, the other thing that cements nationality is opposition, and having seen Blair sell us out to America cemented my patriotism pretty hard and fast....

jill heather said...

Kit, thank you so much for that enlightening lesson in terminology. I have often wondered what to use when describing various subsets of the British Isles. Now I know. (That sounds possibly sarcastic. It is not.)

(Funny: seeing Harper sell Canada out hasn't cemented my patriotism at all. If anything, it has done the reverse.)

Fluffy_goddess said...

Oddly, I have a certain interest in my ancestry, but I don't tie it to place, so this doesn't map all that closely to my experience of it. (And this is leaving out my interest in about the last three generations of my family, because that is basically my gut going Tell Me When People Died And What Of And Who Had What Disease When, as this factors into my own risk levels for a lot of things.) I know I have celtic ancestry, which is definitely tied to my interest in old celtic cultures and mythologies. I probably have some german and french as well, but my interest there is much less -- probably because I *look* Irish/Scottish, and that has let me see myself in that cultural tradition very easily. The English in my ancestry -- well, let's face it, I grew up in a fairly WASPy Canadian neighbourhood; I can and will argue that it matters whether you warm a teapot before brewing tea and that an english pub is distinct in its characteristics from an irish pub. But I also feel strongly connected to the maritimes, and as far as I know the only connection there is that my grandfather was posted in Gander during WWII. I feel no interest whatsoever in the family history out in the prairies, or in specific branches of family far off from my own, no matter where they live. I feel a racially-inexplicable comfort in Welsh accents, and the architecture of Japan.

But then, as I said, I'm not all that interested in where my bloodlines have *been* -- I wasn't raised with a strong sense of tradition or religion, so to me picking and choosing which elements of what I like isn't so much "oh, I shall have a bit of this, and a bit of that because that is so cool" so much as "these are common threads I see in lots of different cultures, and I like how they're all a little different but they're all also very much the same". I don't know how to articulate the difference between what I feel I'm doing and what gets described as cultural appropriation -- but if there isn't a difference, then I don't see the problem, and I know there is one. Possibly because I'm looking for similarities?

Timothy (TRiG) said...

Like Kit, I feel quite European.

I'm Irish. I was born in Ireland. I have lived here all my life. I now have an Irish passport (I originally had a UK one, as it was cheaper: I qualify for both and indeed did carry both for the four days their validity overlapped).

My parents are English. I was brought up on BBC Radio 4. I have a very English sense of humour. I have an English accent, which means I have this conversation all the damn time. (Somehow, my siblings escaped the English accent.)

My dad's English as far back as we know. No one in the family is that interested in genealogy, though, so there might be something different there.

My mother was born in London. She's English. But granddad was a Greek Cypriot from Famagusta. He was already living in England at the time of the Turkish invasion, and never went back. He did take us on a family holiday to Greece once, though.

My granny, my only grandparent still living, was the one my sister interviewed when she was asked to interview an older family member for a school project. The Red Army invaded when she was two. She, her parents, and her older brother were taken to Siberia. I don't know the full story, but somehow her dad became a cook in the Russian army. Meanwhile, her mother, with the two small children, left Siberia, walked and hitch-hiked to India (!), and took a boat across to north Africa. My granny grew up in a refugee camp in Northern Rhodesia.

The Red Cross did a lot of work after the war reuniting scattered families. Somehow my great-granddad had ended up in Yorkshire (Russia and the UK were, after all, allies), so the Red Cross brought the family there. I've seen the family home. And the plot of land he worked is still owned jointly by my granny, her older brother (who moved when quite young to the States, and has a family over there), and her younger brother, the baby of the family, born after the war, who lives in London.

Borders were changed after the war, and the part of Poland they came from is now in Ukraine.

My affinity with different parts of my background fluctuates. I know a few of my Greek Cypriot relatives, and visited some in Cyprus once. So sometimes that part is strong. I've never been to Poland or Ukraine, and that part of me has never been too strong. I still consume a lot of British media, and sound British, so I do have a British (not English: that's too specific) identity. I'm more Irish than anything else, even though I have no Irish ancestry. This is my country.

Yeah. I think I'll go with European.


Makabit said...

First, this whole thread is fascinating and hilarious. NEVER ask an American of European ancestry about our heritage. Because we will TELL YOU.

I assume I know what would turn up in any test. I'm an Ashkenazi Jew on one side, so, following the pattern that research has established, basically 70% Middle Eastern blended with 30% whatever was around on the two-thousand year road from Jerusalem to California. On the other side, mostly Irish, English, dab of Scottish, dab of German, dab of Dutch.

Of course, until two years ago, I thought that no member of the family had come to the States any earlier than 1890, but now I find that my grandfather's people--the mostly disregarded English quarter--actually go back to the 1580s on the East Coast. Which opens some possibilities, I suppose, for a dab or two of Native American or African to have made its way in there. Plus, now I'm considering trying to join the DAR, which I find the thought of me in very amusing.

I'm vaguely curious to know what it all looks like added up, but basically, I know my family. I know the peoples and histories I claim culturally, Jews and Irish. I'm only mildly interested in genetic ancestors of whom I can really know nothing. Tell me that I'm a smidge African...that's interesting, but without a story, a date, a name...it's only vaguely interesting.

kd15 said...

I'm Canadian-American, I have both passports and routinely get asked where I'm from because of Canadian influence on my accent. I've always been fascinated by genealogy and wanting to know more about my ancestors (I've always been a history geek). About a decade ago, I did a bunch of research on ancestry.com and traced my dad's lineage back to England in the mid 1700's, but I haven't gone any further back or really fully explored the genealogy on that side. But in all that I did learn that my last name dates back to a knight that went over to England with William the Conqueror. I found that so fascinating and cool to have that link to history.

On my mom's side, it's been harder to trace out. My mom was born in Canada but my grandmother was a German who was born in Russia in an area that's now part of Ukraine. At one point, I actually interviewed my grandmother and asked her about her family (which reminds me that I think I still have that recorder and should transcribe it already), and apparently they had emigrated from Germany to Russia when Catherine the Great moved to Russia. And even though they had been there for several hundred years they lived in a German town and absolutely considered themselves to be German and not Russian. I've always had an interest in Norse mythology as a connection to that German heritage. One interesting story, my great-grandmother and great-grandfather got separated during WWII, he ended up as a POW in Russia. She tried to find him after the war and wasn't able to, eventually she ended up in Canada. Twenty years later, the Red Cross reunited them, after they had both re-married (they each thought the other one had died).

Inquisitive Raven said...

I actually have famous relatives on my father's side of the family. You might have heard of one of them. Thomas Kuhn of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions fame was a second cousin.

The people most likely to know who my paternal grandfather was are a) Harvard alums, and b) art historians. He was the curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum of Germanic Art for many years and was responsible for getting a lot of banned artwork out of Nazi Germany before World War II. During the war, he served as an interrogator for the US Navy. Toward the end of the war, he was reassigned to a group that came to be known as the "Monuments Men" which had the job of recovering artwork stolen by the Nazis.

My father's kin were Jews from Germany who came to the US in the mid-Nineteenth Century. At least one of them was prompted to immigrate in 1849 by the San Francisco Gold Rush, although AFAIK, he never got to California. Members of my father's family, however, did go into that most traditionally Jewish of businesses, banking. The bank, Kuhn-Loeb, no longer exists. I did not have any kind of religious upbringing, and AFAIK, my paternal grandparents were not religious.

My mom's parents immigrated to Hawaii from Japan. Her mom was a mail order bride. I'd like to know where her side of the family got wavy hair.

Caravelle said...

I love exoticism as much as anyone else, but it's really in the eye of the beholder. Kit's already pointed out that "British Isles and a bit of Central Europe" isn't very precise as far as heritage goes - were your ancestors from the British Isles all from England ? Of from a Celtic nation, and which one(s) ? And Central Europe is even more varied. All that history and culture comes across as bland to many because it's the dominant culture, the one most of us grew up with and learned about in school, but there is nothing intrinsically bland there at all - if you imagine yourself to be an alien studying human cultures, the cultures and history of the British Isles would be as interesting as any other. And in fact is isn't that hard to be that alien, because while unlike with "exotic" cultures British and European history is something most people in the West are familiar with, the fact is there is SO MUCH history and SO MUCH culture to know and learn about that you can always find out more, and if nothing else knowing obscure details about your "bland" ancestry can be interesting in itself. I'm already really impressed that you can trace your genealogy back 400 years honestly.

I'm reminded of some Disney Channel film that involved a boy trying to find out about his ancestry for a high school project, and being really upset that he didn't "have" any ancestry (cue all his friends doing projects about their Interesting and Exotic Native American heritage...); as far as anyone in his family could tell him they were from Cleveland. It turned out however that he had some kind of Irish heritage on his mother's side, and then there's a whole plot involving ancient magics and a turns-out-to-be-evil Irish ancestress or leprechaun or something, all I remember is the final confrontation, where the boy fights the evil woman and she's like "why are you doing this ? You're one of us ! Your mother was Irish" and he responds with "But! My! Father! Is! From! CLEVELAND!".

Caravelle said...

The role of DNA in determining genealogy doesn't only bring up the question of sample size and how we define markers though; I wonder, how far back can it go ? We each have half of our parents' DNA, one-fourth of our grandparents', one-sixteenth of our great-grandparents' and so on so forth; how far back would an ancestor have to be to have decent odds of not showing up in our DNA at all ? On the one hand we have A LOT of DNA so I think it must go far back, but on the other hand I think genealogists only look at certain parts of it.

storiteller said...

TW: Prejudice, Rape

I think it's very easy for Americans to drastically overestimate the homogeneity of the British Isles and continental Europe. We forget that racial diversity and geographic size don't necessarily communicate much of anything about cultural diversity and historical animosity.

Although Ana is talking about non-European cultural appropriation here, there's also a big issue with European appropriation. I had an Irish friend in grad school who was infuriated with Americans calling themselves Irish despite the fact that they had at best visited Ireland on vacation. She took it very personally because she was Irish but wasn't considered "Irish" in many people's eyes in her home country because her mother was English.

Also, I know Ana was being a bit jokey with that line, but I suspect a lot of people having Native American or African DNA in their bloodline is less likely because of "creativity" than sexual assault. Certainly a lot of people in the South have "African" ancestry because of the horrible abuse of slaves.

Ana Mardoll said...

You are, of course, correct that African or Native American DNA in my system could mean many bad things that I didn't address in post for trying to keep it light. (I'm glad you brought it up though, as it needed to be said.) I do believe that for all our 400 years here, we don't seem to have any known slave holders in the family as we seem to be on the lower scale in terms of wealth (although it's harder to be sure about families that may have owned a small number of slaves). We're fairly wealthy now (by American standards of owning a home, a car, and having health insurance), but that stems from my father's unusual talents with electricity, a newish trade all things considered.

As for why I romanticized those and not European cultures, I facetiously blame the American Girl dolls. We could never afford to do anything more than read the catalog, but I always thought the African girl and later the Native American girl had the most interesting stories, while the European girls had stories about, I dunno, the hardships of being rich or of wearing glasses. I was bullied about my glasses, actually, but I didn't feel drawn to stories like that for some reason.

(I wonder what my Mom thought of the fact that I wanted the African girl the most? She never said anything disparaging about my choice; I wonder if she thought it acceptably progressive.)

Timothy (TRiG) said...

No one ever asks where I'm from. They just assume I'm English.

Which I've learned to laugh about.


kd15 said...

Most often, people think I'm English. A good sized minority (especially recently) think I'm Irish, a smaller minority think I'm Scottish. Still waiting for someone to guess Welsh. But somehow they never guess Canadian.

I laugh about it too, I've been dealing with it all my life.

Ursula L said...


I'd not heard the term "trans-ethnic" before. But on seeing it, my first thought was "so that's what it is called."

I was thinking of a young man I knew in my teens. His parents were missionary doctors sponsored through my parents church. US citizens. He was born in the US, but they moved to India when he was very small. He lived in India until he was in his late teens or early 20s, when the family lost their work visas and had to return to the US. He went to Indian schools, all his friends were Indian, considered Indian food "home cooking", thought in the local Indian language etc. And not generically "Indian" but very much the culture of the specific state and town he grew up in.

His looks, (blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin), his passport and birth certificate, the assumptions of all the people around him when he had to move to the US was that he was American, part of US culture and ethnicity. His parents were the sort of missionaries that split their focus between providing medical care and religious evangelism, and they weren't comfortable with the comfortable way he was part of the community they lived in. But his life experiences, thoughts and and tastes, social connections were those of a native of the town in India where he'd lived his life.

And trying to adapt was extremely difficult for him. The ethnicity which everyone around him assumed he was in no way matched his own experience of the culture he came from.


But then, from googling, it seems that "trans-ethnic" isn't a term that explains his life experience at all.

Ana Mardoll said...

I don't know much about trans-ethnicity, but if your friend (as described) were to use that term to apply to hirself I would feel that was a perfectly natural use of the word as I understand it. But self-identity is hard.

Ursula L said...

I know what you mean. "Trans-ethnic" seems like it should mean this fellow's identity, at the point in his life when I knew him.

But it seems to largely be used by people who have very little connection to and experience with the ethnicity they're claiming. And if it is used and understood that way, then using it to describe his situation would be assigning a lot of negative meaning and appropriation to a very different sort of situation.

I only new this fellow briefly, years and years ago. So I'm not sure how he'd self-identify today, or even whether he's still in the US, returned to India, or elsewhere.

Ana Mardoll said...

Well, here's the thing. Most of the google hits re: trans-ethnicity certainly seem to be painting it as appropriation. But that's what trans-gender was believed to be for years -- in particular, appropriation of women's identities without having experience being a woman -- until the feminist community caught up to the idea and ditched some prejudices. (Some of which still remain; see recent discussion on pagan ritual gatherings that only allow cis-women to attend.)

So I'm not at all willing to say that trans-ethnicity = appropriation, because I frankly don't know. I do know that if your friend identified that way -- and only zie should make that decision for hirself, as you say -- I wouldn't argue with hir.

Silver Adept said...

In terms of family history and genealogy, well, I can cheat, in some ways, in getting a fuller picture, as I have a relative who is a Catholic priest, and so he has access to church records and the like (which have been used, I believe, in building some of our genealogy).

However, I find the local history of my families more interesting - there's a lot of people in a particular town that I'm probably related to, and not that distantly, as the main families of that town have been marrying each other for generations. (All the way back to the point where it was several towns all next to each other.)

So yeah, I know the heritage, and it's not particularly Exotic, but we have stories, which is the real point in our chronicling - to tell the stories of the interesting people in the family, before there's nobody left to relay them.

lyorn said...

All the genealogical records as well as the family narrative got lost in WWII. So I can, without reasearch and without DNA testing, tell with a lot of conviction that I am a pure-bred Central European mutt, from the lone stone age Neanderthal leaving some DNA traces, to wood-and-swamp dwellers making ceramics and using bronze, through Roman legionnaires serving far from their sunny homes, Mongols riding with Attila and Ghenghis, Jews and Hungarians and Turks and whatever peoples ever trundled down these worn old tracks, arrived in busy seaports and sailed upriver for trade or war or adventure.

I feel pretty exotic. Just like everyone else.

lyorn said...

The subsistence farmer would never be able to afford the SCA gear ;-)

When we started our Shire, we were the sons and daughters of city artisans or wealthy traders, with the occacional runaway clergy, iterant student and travelling journeymen. The desire for appropriation was satisfied in role playing game groups, where usually no chracter was white or middle-class...

storiteller said...

In terms of American Girl, I always liked Molly the most. Perhaps it was because she lived in WWII, which seemed exciting but still having the action far away. I never really read the books with the Native American or African girls because I had stopped reading the American Girls books shortly before they released them. The "new" girl when I was reading them was Felicity, the Revolutionary War girl.

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