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Ethnicity, Ancestors and Society
Self-Identification in the US

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I recently found out that my great grandmother was from New Orleans and was black.  One would never suspect looking at our family as we are all blue eyed blondes and red heads with the rest of our background being Irish.  How do people or society decide they are black or white?  When you see actors who are multi racial they always say they are black.

I am also a genealogist, and some of the things we discover about our heritage from the past are interesting and sometimes confusing or challenging!  Let me just muse a while and maybe some of my thoughts will be of help in your consideration of your identity and ethnicity.

Kinship and Culture
What you are asking actually involves at least two different aspects.  One is genetic.  This is not particularly operative in ethnicity.  Some ethnic groups are more or less lineage oriented or kinship oriented, but some are not.  Most European cultures are language, culture and history oriented.

The other aspect is perhaps what we could call social, which is very vague and tenuous.  In one regard, the social and genetic aspects are not really very critical in actual ethnicity.  In the American social scene "black" and "white" are not really about what we call "ethnicity."  More detail on that later.

On the other hand, social factors do sometimes affect groupings within society.  In a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society like detribalized North America, these are often broader coalitions or super-groupings, not actual ethnic groups.  There is a political or "formal" aspect of social groupings that are only tenuously involved in ethnic identity.  That entails certain expectations and general concepts of groups within societies.

Genes and Socio-Politics
The terms you mention, "black" and "white" fall into this category in the US.  These are social-political-cultural-economic references, not strictly ethnicity.  They are rather vague reference terms that refer to some blocks of society with some internal coherence.  This does illustrate the political or social pressures that may be involved in the coalescence into certain blocks in society.

The broader and more mixed the society and gene pool of a group are, the less important historical lineage is.  An ethnic group can be a few dozen up to a few million, depending on various factors of personal self-identity and shared group self-identity.

Ethnicity is not related to race or genes, other than incidentally.  Cultural factors and social associations are primary.

Roots and Ethnic Fashion
You mention in this regard that "multi-racial" actors always say they are "black."  I'm not sure this is actually the case, but it is understandable and explainable in historical and social terms.  It is currently fashionable to affirm and emphasize your African heritage.

Similarly in the 20th century it was desirable to focus on your Native American heritage, whereas in the past century, it was considered shameful.  (Anglo Americans with Indian ancestors referred to that ethnic line as "Black Dutch" or other euphemisms.)

It is now desirable and fashionable to declare any Native American heritage.  Likewise it also is now with African heritage.  Cultural and social moods change.  Fortunately now in American culture, individuals and families are encouraged to discover their historical heritage, both cultural and genetic.  Most of us have mixed "racial" or genetic heritage.

Ethnicity is primarily a matter of self-identity within the primary group with which we identify ourselves.  This usually involves the nuclear family and some extended family.  But American and European cultures are "detribalized" compared to some other societies, so many ethnicities and sub-cultures mix and cross more easily into another one.

Our genes and historical heritages don't make us prisoners of the past.  We are limited, though, to our accumulated cultural experiences, and this is the crux of ethnicity.

Genetics is often only a minor part of this ethnic identity in the societies of Europe and the Americas.  Social identity is more important functionally.  Think in terms of self-identity, of the individual, immediate family and primary group they relate to.  North Americans are a rich mix of many different genetic, cultural and linguistic lines.

North American Mix
Many "Anglo" Americans, whose family members exhibit "classic" European or Nordic features, also have some African or Native American ancestors and some small bit of the genetic contribution to their lineage.  The terms "white" and "black" in current American culture and politics do not relate primarily to genetic history, or even to colour, except very vaguely in regard to a fading past.

Language is a part of ethnicity, but for some reason the shift of language in our heritage does not bother most people.  In the settlement of North America by Europeans, in general the working language in any territory was the primary or dominant language of the colonial power.  People of other language origins moving into that area learned that language.  This established Spanish, French and English, and to a lesser extent Dutch, as the dominant languages in various parts of the Americas.

People from all over Europe and later other parts of the world learned English as British dominance grew and in turn United States and Canadian consolidation continued over the westward territories.  Families from many origins moved into the English-language stream and the broader culture associated with it.  But each also contributed their cultural heritage, so the North American "Anglo" culture was eclectic.

Previous Spanish-speaking areas became incorporated into the sovereignty of the United States.  But the Spanish language and culture continued in the southwest, heavily influencing the version of Anglo culture that developed there.  Some areas of New France that became part of the US were already well-established and French culture and influence, even language, continued even into the current period.

Some French areas appropriated by the British in Canada became English-speaking, but French retained a foothold in the oldest areas of French settlement.  Some French-speaking cultures were able to consolidate areas of geography in North America.  We are all familiar with Quebec and Louisiana, with its world-famous Cajun culture and New Orleans.  French is still an official language of Louisiana.

Africans became part of the ethnic mix in both the English-speaking and the French-speaking areas of what became the United States.  Genetic mix occurred through various purposeful or incidental alliances.

Ethnic Pockets
Some other cultures also later created their own cultural pockets, like Poles in Chicago, Scandinavians in Minnesota and other lakes areas.  Germans in Texas.  Irish in Baltimore and Chicago.  Russians, Japanese and Chinese in California.  These had settlements, churches, schools, whole cultures of their original language and culture, but with an American flavor.  Many maintained ties with the Old-Country cultures.  Most of these have merged more fully only in the 20th century.

Within these broad North American Anglo cultures, various sub-groups exist.  Dozens up to hundreds can be identified as separate ethnic groups sharing somewhat in the broader overall culture.  In Canada more emphasis has been put on retaining and Reinforcing the Old-Country cultures and communities.

This has occurred more in the US since World War II, with whole floods of people from certain areas moving all at once and settling down in their own areas.  Italians, Lebanese and Palestinian Christian Arabs, Iranians, Chinese, Africans, Vietnamese and Filipinos.

So it is not surprising that Americans are a great, rich mix of genes, colors, physical builds and creative, flexible and eclectic cultural variation.  Variety and change are primary characteristics of the broad American and Canadian cultures.

Of course, "American" and "Canadian" are not so much cultural as geo-political identities.  Though these geo-political terms have a cultural connotation also, we usually locate "ethnicity" in smaller community-identity groups.

Genetics and Jazz
Many "white" Americans have some "black" genetic heritage.  Millions more have cultural and social influences from African-American culture.  The broad eclectic "Anglo" ("white") culture, from about the 1970s and even earlier, now consciously borrows from "black" culture.  Dress, speech, music and attitudes.

African culture was rich in the mix in the southern colonies and states, and later spread its deep influence to the northern and Midwestern states as southern blacks moved out.  Today inner-city American culture is basically a version of deep-south African-American culture that developed out of the African mix on the southern plantations.  The American music scene is dominated by African-based art forms:  blues in all its varieties, jazz in its thousands of sub-divisions, rhythm and blues, country with its heavy blues strains, rock and roll, hip-hop, rap, soul.

If some of your family came from Louisiana, they probably spoke French as a mother tongue, as even today some Louisianans do.  But your family are apparently English speakers.  Check other ancestral lines.  Did some of them speak other languages?  Yet those languages are not a part of your current ethnicity.

Do you have contacts with the European ancestral culture and family?  This provides a perspective for evaluating the newly-discovered aspects of your genetic heritage.  You indicate that you were previously totally unaware of your African-American ancestor.  Has this knowledge had any effect on your practices, beliefs, associations or self-awareness.

Who your ancestors were &mdash any one individual or family stream or cultural group of ancestors &mdash does not determine who you are now, or what social or ethnic grouping you must therefore associate with or identify with now.  I am a little unclear on why this new information about one of your ancestors requires some decision about your current proclaimed identity.  Think with me a little in that regard.

Mixed Cultures
I notice your surname (a married name?) is Greek.  A basic component of Greek culture is the church.  Are you Greek Orthodox, or do you follow some other observance?  Your first name is not Greek.  That does not seem to present a problem in identity or alignment with a Greek family.  What about your maiden name?  You mention your family consider themselves Irish.

How has marrying a Greek challenged your sense of ethnicity?  Do you speak Irish or Greek in the home?  Or English?  If English, then you have not limited yourself to an Irish identity, nor a Greek identity.  This choice does not seem to have imposed any new need to redefine yourself in terms of your ancestors.  Genetics is incidental or irrelevant at that level, it seems.

"Black" is a very general, multi-faceted term in American lingo today.  The same with "Anglo" or "white."  These can be called "racial" terms, rather than strictly "ethnic" as we normally use the term.  This terminology and the related social or political groupings in current America are primarily political or social power groupings, not primarily ethnic groups.  They do entail some very general cultural identification.

Preferred Terms
Incidentally, a few years ago, the fashion was to discourage the use of the term "black," although it wasn't many years before when I remember that the African-American community as a whole specifically began using the term and insisting that others use this term of reference.

The preferred term from about the 1970s or 1980s was "African-American."  This was the "Politically Correct" term.  This is still the term used more in formal and technical contexts.  But I have noticed in the last generation or so (maybe from the early 90s) the term "black" seems to be used more commonly again as a positive reference.

Such terms of designation are social and political in meaning and vary from country to country, from society to society, from social group to social group, from time to time.

Note that I personally believe we should avoid all appearances of disparagement and belittlement. I believe we should use the preferred terms of reference of the specific person or group themselves, if we know that. One problem is that the larger and broader the group the more difficult it is to find any one term that is fully acceptable or preferable by all individuals or sub-groups. Attitudes always need to be under review in our speech.

How White
How many "white" people are totally "white," in either color or culture?  What does "white" mean, anyway?  It is a short-hand reference term for a certain cultural or economic grouping, also usually carrying some political connotations, and perhaps power structure connotations.

From certain perspectives, for instance, Mediterraneans are not "white," but in other perspectives anyone of European extraction is referred to as "white."  I have been informed that some Italians donīt like to be referred to as "white," because it means to them northern European (mostly Germanic culture, color, politics and language).  Some also object to the term "Caucasian" in the US, because of its Anglo-Protestant connotations.

Reasons to Classify
Further it depends on whether such an "ethnic" designation is a self-designation or an imposed one.  Am I forced to classify myself as "white" or "Native American?"  Who set up the categories I must choose from?

Does a person want to be "white" or "black" or is someone making them choose this option?  There are different reasons why someone may want to classify others.  But all humans have identification routines, categories and procedures.

Our heritage and our cultural characteristics, as well as physical characteristics, are part of who we are as humans.  Genetic and physical information can be important in medical care, for instance.  And most people are honored when others show interest in their culture, country of origin or ethnic traditions and their legends or myths of origin.

Incidentally, the US census focuses on many details to provide a rich demographic picture of the people. The census offers an extensive list of ethnic designations that are not mutally exclusive, in an attempt to obtain a more realistic view of self-identity and self-classification. These categories change as necessary to reflect the American cultural and ethnic mix and the changes it undergoes. I address this in another article.

I grew up in Texas, where many Spanish-surnamed people are intermarried with Scottish-surnamed or Irish-surnamed or English or German people.  Other questions that would have to be answered to "classify" them would be
(1) What language do they speak in the home, in the broader community, in what specific settings?
(2) What languages do their children speak, at school, at home?
(3) What cultural groupings, activities, events or observances are they associated with?

But while we are at it, why do they need to be classified?  What is the purpose for designating someone or choosing a category?  And who sets the categories?  Don't be a victim.  Who determines the "races" that we are allowed to say are now "mixed" in some individual or community?  In what way were those previous "races" not already mixed?

What about Spanish-surnamed people whose native language is now English?  Genetic heritage, and thus to some extent ethnic heritage or at least interest in ethnic heritage, is a component of our self-awareness, but some people care little or know little about their past and ancestors.  Does finding out change who you are now?

I have some Cherokee background, and several individuals in several of my family lines have Cherokee connections.  But I never lived among the Cherokees, though I have a fascination with American Indian cultures, and have studied them extensively, and have great respect for Native American cultures, both ancient and current.

That positive interest and possible genetic background does not give me any right or reason to choose or announce that I am ethnically a Cherokee.  After all, I was raised in the broader "Anglo" culture, and have no experience in Cherokee culture and society.  (I also have some Choctaw cousins.  And I have some black cousins.)

Genes and Culture
In my cultural and ethnic history I have Dutch, Irish, Welsh, English, Scottish, French (Breton and Norman).  If I wished to "become" Cherokee, I could move into the Cherokee Nation, learn the culture and language and truly "join" that ethnicity.  But having a Cherokee ancestor and relatives does not make me a Cherokee, any more than I can say I am Welsh because one of my Jenkins ancestors came from Wales, or Irish because one of my Terry ancestors came from there.

There are aspects of those cultures that continue through my family and the broader American society that are part of my current ethnicity, but I am not really Irish, am I?  I was born in America, and have been "infected" somewhat with eclectic American culture.  I am not sure what "label" to put on my ethnicity.  I am further complicated by the fact that I have lived most of my life in other countries among other cultures using other languages.

So I am multi-cultural, or at least cross-cultural.  My children were born in Kenya, but they have factors in their background, including the limitation of U S citizenship, and the home language of English, that led them back to the US for education and professional life.  So they feel Kenya is their home, but they have some affinity with America too.  And they are not Kikuyu, or Kamba, or Swahili, exactly.  They are between and beyond all or either.

It sounds like you likewise have no experience in New Orleans black culture or society of your ancestor.  It is not clear why that would now become a factor in your choice of associations or identities in the current society.

Same Gene Pool
It does seem to me you have one new real advantage.  The new information you have discovered seems to indicate a broader richness or variety of your personal ancestry and genetic strength than you thought, since your gene pool is broader than you knew.

We all share the same human gene pool, but each person can have only so much of it, and everybody has to be kin to somebody, and no one gets to decide who they are related to.  But you still remain free to determine the immediate factors of your current life and associations.  I can see this knowledge might give you a new advantage in building relationships with some segments of US society with which you were perhaps not involved before.

Most families are eclectic, and we experience a rich mix of multiple cultural inputs in customs, games, foods, worship styles, music, educational approaches, stories, literature, etc.  All these are cultural factors.  Most of them to some extent are factors from a multiple ethnic heritage.

But ethnicity is a largely self-defined understanding, and depends on the shared broader worldview and practices, and which broader group we relate to.  It also depends on how broadly or narrowly an individual or family wants to identify themselves or identify with others or identify with any certain "package" of characteristics.

Ethnicities are evolving all the time, new ones are developing all the time.

The operative factor here is self-identity and group alignment, not what term is used, or how pure your genetic heritage is back to any one certain ancestral group or individual.

Also related:
Appreciating Differences
Culture and Experience
Ethnicity in a Multi-cultural Society:  What is Meant by "Hispanic" or "Latino" in the United States? (Criteria For Determining Ethnicity)
Italian and Caucasian
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks:  Genetics and Ethnicity
Models of Assimilation:  Evaluating Ethnic Characteristics
Multi-Level Ethnicity:  Illustrating Different Views of the Same Ethnic Group at Different Levels

Related Powerpoint presentation on this site:
Models of Assimilation
Describing a People Group


Written 14 March 2008
Finalized as an article for Thoughts and Resources 22 March 2008
Last updated 8 November 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright Đ 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  researchguy@iname.com
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