When we are taught history, we are given the impression that distinctly different tribes and nationalities were always the norm. After all, it’s a lot simpler to grasp. There may be mention of the taking of Sabine women, but even the absorption of the Greeks into the Roman Empire somehow didn’t blur the lines when we talk of the Empire versus the Hellenistic World of, say, the First Century of the Common or Uncommon Era. What is overlooked is the impact of constant, prolific genetic mixing of mankind in every age without exception. Childhood textbooks notwithstanding, such was not limited to the arranged marriages between royal families to form alliances or keep the peace, but whole cultures crashing into one another in ways that even mingled family trees couldn’t achieve … but it helped. In fact, Cosmopolitanism seems to be the prerequisite of any thriving world power, and then diminishing only in times of isolationism.
Today, we may have a specific nationality (a legal-political distinction), but any number of ethnicities. Sometimes people change nationality and embrace a new ethnicity. Some are adopted and claim ethnicity loosely but not in practice. For example, I had to remind a young lady I know that she was Polish. The fact she was adopted from China was irrelevant — she grew up in the Polish-American ethnicity and didn’t know a lick about Chinese culture. And that should be okay. In contrast, I grew up Polish (adopted from unknown lineage, but most likely northern European) but embrace a combination of cultures, including Chinese. If I had been adopted from Kenya, I’d still be Polish by name, Black (but oddly not “African-American”) by the insistence of society’s label, and might take up the bagpipes and eat haggis. Well … maybe not haggis.
Another case study: There is a movement in Southwest America called “[[National Council of La Raza|La Raza]]”, calling for the reclaiming of whole states by Mexico — on the grounds of aboriginal blood lines. Never mind the whole Cortez thing … I wonder if those claiming Toltec heritage will want all of Mexico back if La Raza succeeds in taking back lands they think are theirs. This whole thing cannot logically be about blood — I know many, MANY Americans who have a Cherokee ot two in their distant — or not so distant — lineage. And yet few consider themselves “Indian” by ethnicity. My own step-family is Seneca (Iroquois). They don’t speak the tongue, wear the clothes (accept in dance competitions when the boys were younger), live on a reservation, or go to Longhouse — they are as Baptist as La Raza is Catholic. And the Aztecs didn’t speak Spanish as their first language last time I checked. La Raza is an intentional ethnicity. I still don’t know why “Hispanic” isn’t under the term “White” — it’s all European descent, and other languages don’t have their own box on the census. I wonder if the Portuguese feel left out, or maybe darker-skinned Italians if pigment is the issue.
Maybe it’s racist, but I think we all look more the same than different. For example, I can’t for the life of me describe what someone “Jewish” looks like in any way that would be useful in identifying people in the real world from anyone else — and I mean Jewish by blood, not nationality or religion. (Talk about different conisderations of ethnicity — even my own daughter is Jewish by one standard!) It would be like picking out a Gypsy without them conveniently wearing medieval movie-prop clothing to give me a hint. I’ve known a Pole mistaken as light-skinned Black; another I only knew was Hispanic after he told me; a German-Chinese American I knew was regularly asked if he was from India.
And what of Kwanzaa? The holiday didn’t exist before 1966, generations after the last slave was brought against their will to America. It’s based in African principles as a matter of recreating meaning from a lost heritage — fabricated ethnicity. Not so lost is “Black Heritage” and things like “Black History Month”, meant to pay homage to the plight of one segment of American people, as if Black History is somehow distinct or even disconnected from American History. But some things are not only about how one sees themselves, but how they are viewed by society. From Negro freeman to dark-skinned Europeans or Asian Indians, the common plight of social injustice establishes an ethnicity by skin color. And yet the appellation “African-American” only applying to longstanding descendants of Africans and not newer immigrants is a recent yet real phenomenon. If one is from Haiti, maybe it could go either way if the French part of one’s accent is suppressed. Or maybe you could just say you’re Creole and fit in finely in some parishes of Louisiana. Ethncitiy is easily defined by arbitrary distinctions.
Some people call themselves hyphenated Americans and others reject any such term in favor of just plain “Amerrcan”. It doesn’t matter that the national anthem is a English tune (and in English nonetheless!), the Statue of Liberty is French … well, you get the picture. At least we have Levis, Football (ahem … AMERICAN football, not “soccer”), processed cheese, and pretty much invented the Internet. But who’s keeping score? In the end, aren’t all achievements a collaboration of the sum of mankind’s collective knowledge? Even so, ethnicity is also a matter of pride, however one chooses to slice it in one’s favor. Tiger woods is Black to African-Americans, and Asian to people of Far Eastern descent. We won’t even mention Obama.
Yes, more and more, ethnicity is a choice, conscious or not. Not only do we accept or reject any particular identity (or identities) but establish and help mould existing ones by our own individualism — our choices. What about myself? Ultimately I am a citizen of the world, and every people’s story is OUR story. So if ethnicity equals culture, and culture truly is a choice, mine is for all-you-can-eat heritage buffet. Not a bad choice, I think.