I previously weighed in on one aspect of race and genealogy, and now would like to do so again, as prompted by a recent discussion I saw online wherein a woman born in Ghana was offended when called an “African-American”. Apparently, the offense was caused by the perception that in the United States to be labeled “African-American” means that one is descended from black slaves who were primarily of African origin.
First, a question: Aren’t we beyond all this? I mean, honestly, wasn’t this settled during the Civil Rights Movement, that one’s race doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t, that because one is black or white or purple with orange stripes doesn’t mean one lacks good character and intellect or vice versa? And why do we have these labels anyway? Aren’t they virtually meaningless in the hodge-podge society we live in today?
In genealogy, one’s race or ethnicity can provide a fascinating clue to one’s ancestral origins. But it is only one part of the puzzle, one small piece of a much larger whole. I have two ancestors whose ethnicity I know for certain, and only then because I know their nationality. One was Irish, the other German-speaking Swiss. Do I identify with those? Well, yes, mostly with the Irish side because those traditions have been preserved within my immediate family.
But is that the entirety of who I am? No. In fact, a fascinating new web service over at WolframAlpha calculates genealogical relationships as a percentage. My Great-great-great-grandfather John Martin, Sr. (the Irish immigrant) contributed only 1/32 of my DNA, all things being equal, which means I self-identify with only 3.125% of my total ancestry (assuming no other Irish ancestors).
My family isn’t “Irish American”, but we do tend to self-identify as Irish. This in spite of the fact that we are equally Swiss (another 3.125%), while the other 93% of our ancestry is unknown, though likely European (largely British) in origin. In other words, we’re mutts in a world of purebred wannabes.
I actually envy those whose ancestries allow for research outside of non-US and non-British sources. What a boon to be Jewish, or Polish, or Mexican, or Italian! I would love to have an ancestor like that in my family tree, but no, just plain ol’ white people. (Ok, there are a couple of Quakers in there somewhere, but mostly just boring ol’ law-abiding Protestant farmers, with the exception of those involved in the Watson-Hooper feud.)
My envy is so great that it led me to develop a graduation thesis around early non-white settlers in Rabun County, Georgia, where I grew up. Truth be told, I’m fascinated with that period of Rabun County’s history and have worked quite a bit on the earliest records trying to reconstruct all the residents of this area. But the slaves and the Cherokee, those who largely went unrecorded, those are the ones who tug at my intellectual curiosity the most.
Perhaps it is a quirk of my character, a flaw even, that where others might see a handicap, I see an opportunity. But what I don’t see, what completely escapes my understanding, is why one’s race or ethnicity is important outside of cultural identification and heritage. To be brutally honest, there is no such thing as a “pure” racial heritage in this country; there’s been too much interbreeding for such a thing to be true. There are people who look black but are genetically primarily white, and vice versa, people who are blond-haired and blue-eyed, but whose racial heritage is Semitic, and so forth. When such people are labeled as being black or white or orange with purple stripes, a great disservice is being committed, both against them and against the ancestors who remain unsung in such a rigid, superficial identification system.
But really, the abiding question remains: in day-to-day matters, why are racial and ethnic labels important? Do they contribute to our understanding of the world? Do they make our lives more comfortable or easier to deal with? No. All labels do is create disharmony rather than unity, and I think we’ve all had enough of that. Isn’t it time we put those labels aside and see people for who they are rather than judging them based on a (literally) skin-deep characteristic?