Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Being Questioned about Identity

I have a story to share. It is about the one and only time I was questioned about my ethnic/racial identity.

And it was in foster parent training.

We were all supposed to bring in something that symbolized our heritage. The point was of course for us to reflect on how important it was to us so that we could understand how important it was to the kids, and what it might mean for them to be separated from it. The instructor identified as Irish American and had a leprechaun doll, if I remember correctly. That was his illustration of the sort of thing we were to bring.

The next week I showed up with the quilt that had been on my bed through most of my childhood, starting at whatever point I was considered old enough to be trusted with it. I love everything about that quilt. I love that it is a thing of beauty, while clearly intended for everyday use. It is made with largish squares of dark and light fabrics set on point. The light colored squares are embroidered with flowers and vines. They embroidery, like the everything about the quilt, is sturdy and simple. What I love most about that quilt is that most of the fabrics were originally seed bags. My great-grandmother made the quilt before I was even born. It is an example of making something extraordinary from something common-place. I look at the quilt and I think of how my mother lets nothing go to waste. I imagine generations of women working, living, and dying on dairy farms dedicated to thrift and beauty.

So I showed the quilt. I explained to people about the seed bags and about how much it meant to me.

The instructor looked uncomfortable and said, "But where is your family from?"

I stuck my chin out and said, "Pennsylvania."

"No, I mean, before that."

"As far back as anyone can trace my mother's family they have lived in Pennsylvania. Some of my ancestors were living in the mountains of Pennsylvania before America was a country."

"Yes, but where were they from?"

"My mother's last name is from Scotland, but I can't tell you how many ancestors were from there."

"What about your father's family?"

"One of my great-grandparents immigrated from Ireland."

"Okay. So you are Scottish and Irish."

I sat down, miffed. I am not Scottish and Irish. Or maybe I am. I don't know. My mother grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch territory. I always assumed I had some ancestors that were German. I hadn't told the instructor, but the family documents indicate one ancestor who immigrated from France and oral history includes an American Indian some seven generations back. From my father I am verifiably 1/8 Irish. I know that, but there is nothing about me is explained by knowing that. Well, except that I was baptized by the Lutheran pastor since the same great-grandparent got excommunicated and the family was too embarrassed to take the babies to the priest, but that's another story.

I am the daughter of a woman who grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. Much of what I love about my mother explained by that. It is why she never could make fewer than five pies at one time. It is why she composted, recycled or re-used before it was cool. It is why I grew up loving sauerkraut cooked with pork roast and eating Lebanon baloney whenever I can find it.

I am descended from women who took seed bags and turned them into beautiful blankets for their children to sleep under.

THAT is my heritage.

And I resented being told that I was giving the wrong answer, that my answer was unacceptable because it wasn't the sort of answer the instructor wanted. I would like to think that it was an exercise to help us understand how it felt to have our identity questioned, but I don't think so. Everyone else in the class gave the right sort of answer. I was the only one who got the answer wrong.

It took me years to realize that the reason why that experience is unique in my life is that I am white.

I've been casually asked where my ancestors have come from many times. Usually in the context of a bunch of white folks sharing what they know, and don't know, about their family trees. Sometimes I volunteer that the furthest we have been able to document is the French couple who immigrated in the mid-1600's. Sometimes I share that my great-grandfather was born in Ireland. Often I just say, "Oh, all over Europe I suppose." And no one has ever thought the answer wasn't good enough because it wasn't complete enough or specific enough. No one has said, "Yes, but what about the rest of you?" The only time some did reject my answer was after I had been told explain not how my family got to the US, but was asked to share whatever was most important to me about my heritage. Being told that what mattered to me was not what was important was a pretty disturbing experience, and one that the unearned privilege I get from being white makes rare.


  1. funny thing is that even if they were born here.Dutch americans are just Americans to us Dutch. You spot them a mile away even if they still speakkt he language My dutch american family is lovely but way more american then dutch!). So if your great grandfather was born in Groningen, the Netherlands but moved to America in the 1830's surely doesn't make you dutch in whatever way..

  2. My hubby gets this kind of treatment. He is Jewish, or his family is. Religiously we are Catholic (he converted several years ago), but if you ask him about his heritage he will say he is Jewish. This often upsets people, who ask but where are you from? Truth is, like many Jewish people, he really doesn't know. He knows (based on looks) that they are Eastern European and not Middle Eastern but where they just don't know. So, to him his culture is Jewish.

  3. My dad's adopted and looks very Jewish. My mom's family is from all over Europe. I've gotten into the habit of saying I'm of European mutt descent. I don't want to say I'm Jewish on my dad's side, since his adoptive parents weren't Jewish and, in any case, Judaism is passed through the mother's line.

    What's my heritage? My mom taught me how to cook Mexican food from their years in Las Cruces. My dad taught me to fight with swords. Both of them taught me a love of reading and computers. We just don't go back a lot farther than that, and that bugs people sometimes.

  4. mijk:

    The "Pennsylvania Dutch" are from Germany. They got named that because "Deutsch" sounded like "Dutch" to American English-speakers.

    So I could have ancestors who are really Dutch, but it is more likely that I have a few from Germany.

  5. I do the same thing. "Where are you from?" "Pennsylvania." "Where were they from?" "Well, a German principality. So I guess I'm Holy Roman." "You can't be Holy Roman!" "Then I'm African, near Olduvai Gorge. DEAL."

    Know anyone in Centre county? Because that's where my Pennsylvanian comes in. Dad's family's from all over the place, but Mom's goes straight back to Conrad Weiser.

  6. Oh, and another bit: in the where-are-you-from discussion, people can say 'Chile' or 'Puerto Rico' and no one calls them on colonization. My Puerto Rican relatives-- still Pennsylvanian on one side, and boy are those genes strong-- are Puerto Rican, yes, but does anyone ask them where they were from *before*? No. Andalucia and the Basque country (I'm not sure which is more prevalent) do not matter to their official heritage.

    I wonder what people would say if I said, "I'm from the Internet."

  7. I understand! But I AM dutch so I just responded to the general habit of American's claiming a European identity when in fact they are American. (Which is quite cool too ;-)

  8. All I have to say is "I'm adopted" and the line of questioning ends. Well, that line.
    I'm glad you stood your ground. There are times in these classes that the point seems to go too far. Yes, heritage is important, but the definition each person gives it is also.
    If you're looking to find a person's identity, shouldn't you listen to how they define themselves first and foremost??

  9. I think two human tendencies drive this: nosiness and the need to label. I personally think they're innate, uncontrollable, and lead to a whole lotta trouble in the world, but that's just an opinion.

    I grew up in a very white, non-diverse area and got asked this question all the time, I suspect because I'm dark. People just couldn't leave it alone.

    No one here in the States has ever guessed my ethnicity, although plenty are nosy enough to ask and try to label me as something else. I've come to the conclusion that in the environment I grew up in, it's less important to the nosy ones to know what you are than to be able to judge you.

    Good post.

  10. What mijk said. I'm American but I spend a lot of time abroad and I notice that is Americans who keep insisting on being whatever their ancestors were before arriving here, sometimes hundreds of years ago. Elsewhere to be "Irish" or whatever would mean you actually hold an Irish passport.

    It is strange - the first thing that popped into my mind when you mentioned the object representing heritage was, since I am from California, some natural object typical of there - a piece of granite from the Sierra, a redwood burl, a Monterey pine. But the teacher wouldn't have accepted that, obviously. Yet it would be my expression of me: so I would have felt violated by that teacher.


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