Why do they call you Red?... It must be because I am Irish.
September 26, 2010 1:14 PM   Subscribe

Why do many Americans seem reluctant to define themselves as "American"?

I wasn't quite sure how to phrase the question, but what I mean is why do so many Americans define themselves based on their immigrant cultural heritage as opposed to their American heritage? For example someone who was born and raised in Texas and who has parents and grandparents who were born and raised in Texas might say "I'm Irish" or "I'm Italian" or a similar statement. It seems odd that someone who may never have been outside of the United States can feel so comfortable describing themselves this way.

Obviously I realise that when a New Yorker says "I'm Irish" they are simply stating that they are of Irish descent, but how did this racially conscious attitude develop? Are Americans particularly aware of their immigrant roots? If so is this because America has a relatively short history as a country?

I'm partly of Norwegian descent, but I would never think to tell someone I was Norwegian. I think of myself as Scottish, because this is where I was born and raised, and so were my parents. To tell someone I was Norwegian would surely be a lie, if what I mean to say is I'm of Norwegian descent.

So why is it that so many Americans seemingly avoid defining themselves as "American" instead of whatever their great-great-grandfather was? Surely using this logic we could all say "I'm African".
posted by Spamfactor to Society & Culture (128 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've often wondered this myself. I think part of this comes from the guilt of being "rude Americans" but I'm not sure. I've always defined myself as simply American because this is where I was born, and this is where I've lived all my life. If I go overseas, I'll still define myself as American and I refuse to feel guilty for being so. Sorry if that was a derail...
posted by patheral at 1:18 PM on September 26, 2010


Short answer: it's because America is a very large country full of multiple ethnicities, races and cultures. People say these things as way of aligning themselves to whichever or whatever they want be known as a part of, or whatever culture they want to identify with no matter how dilute.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 1:22 PM on September 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


Confirmation bias is the first thing that came to mind, because I can't think of any American (including myself) that are reluctant to define themselves as such. You get a lot of younger people saying "I'm Irish!" (or whatever) as a way to color their personality, but they're not saying it in a way that means "I am not American."
posted by nitsuj at 1:24 PM on September 26, 2010 [9 favorites]


Particular racial or ethnic origins come with a whole host of qualities which create a sense of belonging or identity from an early age: cuisine, spirituality (the same religion can be practiced quite differently based on race or culture - consider the differences between black and white Baptists, or Irish and South American Catholics), history, etc.

Americans are bound by a history, yes, but it's a significantly shorter history and one which, at least for some, carries far more negatives than positives - a country whose early economic viability was dependent on the subjugation of indigenous peoples and black slaves. Even though other countries have violent histories, they're tempered by a common cultural bond that Americans just don't share.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:26 PM on September 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Speaking for myself, there are several reasons. First, most of the people I talk with are also American, so identifying myself as "American" would be redundant. We both know that part already. Second, asking about someone's descent (as you say) is pretty common in America. If I answer, "I'm American," then I know the immediate response is likely to be, "Yes, but where did your family originate from?" so I might as well cut to the chase. And third, when I was in elementary school, the idea of America as a "melting pot" was repeatedly drilled into us, year after year—meaning that, yes, for people who had similar experiences, we are particularly aware of our immigrant roots.
posted by cribcage at 1:27 PM on September 26, 2010 [17 favorites]


Maybe I should point out that I didn't mean to imply that there are many Americans who are in any way ashamed to define themselves as such. I'm sure the majority of Americans are proud to proclaim their "Americanness". I was just wondering why quite a few seem are so conscious of their immigrant roots, more so than in many countries.
posted by Spamfactor at 1:29 PM on September 26, 2010


Spamfactor: " Surely using this logic we could all say "I'm African"."

On this point - people do, at least indirectly, when they say things like "I'm a member of the human race" or when they decline to identify with any ethnicity out of a sense of universalism. For that matter, there are also many people who identify using an almost hyper-localism: think of people who identify with growing up in particular burroughs, or even neighborhoods, of New York City, for example.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:29 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Are you talking about how Americans identify themselves at home, or abroad?
posted by Jacqueline at 1:29 PM on September 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


I was born and raised in the US, now living abroad, and I've been asked this question a lot lately. "American" has a lot of (possibly negative) cultural connotations, and I must admit that depending on where I am exactly, I have no clue what they are! Basically, I'm out of my depth with the nuanced meaning of saying "I am American" in places other than California. But I also don't have any other option. I think if I was able to say, "I'm Irish" or somesuch it would feel safer and unquestionable. Other people may disagree with all this, but I am just one perspective.

It may also be a matter of authenticity or cultural longevity as well. Saying you're Irish or whatever else is tapping into and identifying with a longer and more established and unquestioned legacy. One that is also universally understood.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:29 PM on September 26, 2010


This is also true of Canadians, probably even more so. I've long thought that this is because Canada and America are countries built on immigration, so they have relatively weak national identities of their own. In Canada's case, part of that identity just is encouraging diversity. People interpret this as holding on to what makes them unlike everyone else.
posted by smorange at 1:30 PM on September 26, 2010


I think kuuj has it. If I were travelling outside of the United States, I'd describe myself as an American to someone who asked. But in the states, when U.S. citizens ask this question of one another, they aren't asking about what passport you hold, they're asking what ethnic/national/cultural/religious/etc. group you identify with ancestrally. I think this goes back to the U.S. forever thinking of itself as a "nation of immigrants."
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 1:31 PM on September 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


Are Americans particularly aware of their immigrant roots? If so is this because America has a relatively short history as a country?

Yes and yes. Also, as someone noted above, we are constantly told growing up that the US is a multicultural "melting pot," much more so than many other countries.
posted by amro at 1:32 PM on September 26, 2010


I think there are several possible answers to the question. IMO, how you identify yourself culturally is a big deal here in the US. I can't help but think it's related to this country's history with immigration. Most people's families came here from somewhere else originally, and we still have a ton of immigation going on today. The idea that you must assimilate to American culture is giving way to adapting (assimilating carrying a lot more baggage as a word, because it implies you give up what you left behind, while adapting suggests you incorporate your original culture and your new one). I am Hispanic, and for a long time I would see parents refuse to teach their kids Spanish because they wanted the kids to completely blend in and not have a trace of an accent -- be more American. In more recent years I've noticed a change in that trend, which I feel has to do with the whole "assimilate vs adapt" thing.

With families that have been in the States for a lot longer (where the family migration to the US happened a lot further back), I think there are customs from the "old country" that stay with families, which makes it easier to create a cultural link to a country you may never even have visited.

In general I don't think it's a reluctance to call themselves Americans. I think that there is an element of cultural identification that feels good to people, even if the migration happend such a long time ago that it would seem negligible, the *idea* of "where I came from" in a longer-term sense than just where you were born is pretty powerful. I wonder if this is harder to grasp for people whose families remained in the countries that Americans' families came from. That break from the country that gave you even a fraction of your cultural education can be felt, I think, for generations.

I, too, wonder if these are Americans abroad that you are referring to, rather than how Americans identify themselves at home.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 1:33 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think it's partially American culture to do this. America is known for being a country where a bunch of other countries came to hang out, and many families still hold traditions from their cultures even if they've all lived in America all their lives.

Getting asked about your family's nationality outside of America is a pretty common question. In my schools growing up they inevitably made a big deal out of talking about your family's culture from other countries in history class. (I was somewhat alienated during these sorts of projects because my family didn't actually know. I was too much of a racial "mutt.")
posted by vienaragis at 1:35 PM on September 26, 2010


Short answer: Because America, relatively speaking, is a very young country.
posted by applemeat at 1:35 PM on September 26, 2010 [8 favorites]


If I am talking to another American, I will tell them "I am Italian." If I am talking to a non-American, I will tell them "I am American." It is not a reluctance to identify as an American. It just seems obvious to me that I am American, but I still identify as an Italian-American. Give us a few more generations. We are still a country of immigrants.
posted by fifilaru at 1:43 PM on September 26, 2010


To answer DrGirlfriend and Jacqueline I sm mainly referring to Americans at home. My mother and sister recently returned from a trip to New York city. They talked for ages about how fantastic it was, but one thing that stood out for them was how often people talked about their racial history. My mum told one woman that she was of Norwegian descent, and the woman immediately told her "I'm Norwegian too!".

I suppose the fact that America is such a vast and relatively new country means that it's cultural identity may not be as well defined as elsewhere. As I said, I'm proud to call myself Scottish, and I think a large part of that is that Scotland is a small country with a long history, which has helped it develop such a strong national identity.
posted by Spamfactor at 1:43 PM on September 26, 2010


It's just contextual. In the example you use as your title, it wouldn't make much sense to say, "It must be because I'm American," because a heritable trait like red hair is associated with an ethnic heritage elsewhere. So that's why the answer would be "It must be because I'm Irish" -- Irish as an ethnic designation rather than a political one, given that red hair is due to the former and not the latter.

Other than that, yeah, I'd definitely say, 'I'm American" while abroad, and "just your typical American mutt" if asked here.
posted by palliser at 1:44 PM on September 26, 2010


Most people I know who have strong associations with their ethnic ancestry are people whose families immigrated to the US relatively recently. It's pretty easy to develop an identity as "Irish" if Grandpa moved here from County Clare in 1932, and you can still talk to Grandpa about that, still have relatively close family members there, etc.

For what it's worth, I didn't have a clear picture of my ethnicity/ancestry until I was an adult. It's only recently via google-fu that I've discovered what regions of various countries my ancestors came from. It just wasn't something we talked about in my family aside from, like, "Did you know that your great-grandmother was from Sweden?" I did not grow up participating in the culture of some far-off European country simply on the basis of my last name, or whatever it is you're imagining.

When I travel internationally, I say I'm an American, not a Swedish-American (or any of the other hyphens I could potentially claim - I have ancestors from Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Ukraine, as well as ancestors of Native American and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry). It's only within the USA that I would use any of those descriptors, and even then only in conversations about immigrant identity and ethnicity.

Most people I know who are invested enough in their ethnic identity to choose that over their national identity are people with very recent immigrant roots - people who are immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, and don't feel that "American" is sufficient to explain who they are. Anyone who is third or fourth generation American but still primarily considers themselves Irish is a jerk.

If so is this because America has a relatively short history as a country?

I suppose so, though I think our immigrant tradition has more to do with it. At this point, the USA is as old as a nation as quite a few other countries where ethnic identity is more congruent with national identity. My Cajun ancestors left France for what is now Nova Scotia something like 400 years ago, and yet I still sometimes hear my grandmother talk about our French heritage. And yet most Haitians consider themselves Haitian, not West African.
posted by Sara C. at 1:45 PM on September 26, 2010


We really are a melting pot, not a homogeneous group. This is easier to understand if you travel here. For example, many of Houston's original settlers were German and Czech, and this is reflected in food, the names of streets and schools, and so on. However, some parts of our city have street signs in Chinese. Most of our public documents are translated into Spanish and Vietnamese.

In my office, most of the workers are first-generation American citizens. I sit next to one person from the UK, one person from India, one person from China, one person from Africa, one person from France, one person from Vienna, one from Russia... they are all Americans, and yet they have melded the culture of their origins with the American culture. The foods they eat, the languages they speak, the days they celebrate, reflect America and the country of their forefathers.

Being an American does not mean losing your previous culture. It means adding to it. This is a good thing.
posted by Houstonian at 1:45 PM on September 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think I - and I daresay most Americans - could write 10 pages on this. I will try not to!

First, I don't know any Americans who are reluctant to define themselves as American. (Except those Americans you hear about who go to other countries and say they're Canadian, if they even really exist.) I think what you're talking about is what happens within America, where it's presumed that everyone (or nearly everyone) is American, and there's a need or desire for greater clarification. (In other countries I say I'm American; in the US I say I'm Jewish.) Because of our history of immigration, and the process of assimilation or lack thereof, ethnicity defines a lot here. Maybe not so much now - though for many it still does, hugely - but for our ancestors. And except for Native Americans, most of our ancestors didn't get here that long ago, in the scheme of things. So their experience isn't some distant, forgotten thing.

For many (most?) Americans, where your ancestors came from impacts where you live, how you're treated by others, how you're thought of by others, how you relate to the government and law enforcement, how you speak, your customs, values, what holidays you celebrate (aside from the regular all-American ones), what your family expects of you, what food you eat, I could go on and on and on. This is often less true for 2nd or 3rd generation Americans, but sometimes not. So it's important. We're mostly proud of where we came from, because we've been told a lot about the hardships our ancestors had to overcome to get here, and in many cases the discrimination they faced when they did.

For the most part, too, with noteable exceptions, we like these differences. Most Americans who aren't bigots like the melting pot/salad bowl/whatever it is now image, and find it interesting to talk about how the different groups interact, both historically and currently.

I'm maybe exaggerating this because you asked the question; it's not like Americans go around shouting about their ethnicity all the time. (Unless they're having a parade!) But in context, we do see things this way and talk about it. It's not that we're not American, we just have another layer (or two or three), and a lot of us think that's a good thing.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:52 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I see. Well, that's my answer to your question, then. I don't refer to myself as "American" because it doesn't indicate what country I'm from, only what continent. I doubt there are many French, Irish, or Scottish individuals who refer to themselves as "European," either, but I may be wrong.
posted by pecanpies at 1:52 PM on September 26, 2010


In the case of white Americans claiming to be Irish/Scottish/part Native American, I've always thought it is a way of differentiating oneself. Americans tend to be quite individualistic people, seizing upon any quirks or traits that make one different from the masses. For example, in all of my travels, I don't think I've been to any country where people are as picky about what they do/don't like eating as the US.

In my case as an American of Asian descent, it's taken as a given that when somebody asks me about my background, they're not interested in hearing "I'm American." Especially when I travel abroad, people either don't believe I'm a "real" American, or they just follow up the question with "But where are your parents from/are you of Asian descent/etc."

If it helps, Canadians are very similar in this tendency to identify with a particular ethnic group, perhaps even more so than Americans.
posted by pravit at 1:55 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I also find that the importance of ethnic origins and immigrant ancestry is more or less important in different parts of the country.

Growing up in southern Louisiana, Cajun was the dominant culture, regardless of what European country your family actually came from. Even though only a tiny number of my ancestors were actual French immigrants to Acadia who left as refugees and resettled in Louisiana, I still identify heavily with Cajun ethnicity because I grew up within Cajun culture. Very few people ever talked about their immigrant ancestry, except for those who were emphatically NOT Cajun and were trying to identify themselves in opposition to that culture.

When I moved to New York, it suddenly became important to have some kind of hyphenated ethnicity that tied my blood-relative family members to specific nations. "Cajun" doesn't cut it here, especially since I have what tends to be read as an Irish surname. People default to assuming I'm Irish, even though I have only a handful of Irish ancestors and very little is known about them at all. I get asked, on the street, by strangers, if I'm Jewish or Russian. Polish people address me in Polish all the time, without even bothering to ask if I speak that language. This stuff matters here, in a way that it just doesn't back home.
posted by Sara C. at 1:55 PM on September 26, 2010


Also: in big cities in the US - and this is true worldwide, really - many people have historically immigrated into pre-established communities of other immigrants from their country of origin, not only to retain a connection to the home country, but for practical reasons of employment and housing, because that's where their Irish Catholic churches or Greek Orthodox churches or synagogues or mosques, etc. are located. This is where you get Chinatown, Greektown, Little Italy, the Irish communities of Boston and New York, etc. Ethnic enclaves naturally retain a strong attachment to the place of origin, particularly with a regular influx of new immigrants mixing with longer established families. Over time and generations, families may move out of these enclaves, but often retain a connection to these communities and their family-owned business, their places of worship, their shops that carry foods from the home country that you might not find at Safeway or Kroger.
posted by katopotato at 1:56 PM on September 26, 2010


I think there are a couple of factors at play here.

The first is that many people do come from families which immigrated fairly recently, moreso than in many other, older countries, and have been raised with cultural practices that have more in common with their ancestors' in the old country than with their neighbours in the US.

Additionally, even for people whose ancestors have been in the US for many generations, "American" as an identity feels pretty vague. I think this is why, in addition to the self-identification by ancestry you mention, you also see a good deal of regional self-identification in the US — what it means, culturally, to be "American" is abstract and not especially clear, but what it means to be a Southerner or a New Yorker is pretty concrete in that there will be real shared cultural markers within those groups.

Lastly, to the extent that "American" has any clear meaning it seems often to be associated with a fake, plasticky, commercial, mass-produced culture. An immigrant heritage, or a regional culture, seem to many people to be more authentic and more interesting.
posted by enn at 1:58 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, as part of that multicultural melting pot, there's a long history of race-based and origin-based differentiation and among Americans, particularly depending on when your ancestors came to the North American continent. This ranges from things like immigrant groups being pitted against each other during the industrial revolution and laws prohibiting entire racial groups from becoming citizens (eg the Chinese Exclusion Act) to things like the "My Big Fat Greek Food Festival" at the Greek Orthodox church across town and a St Patrick's day parade.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:59 PM on September 26, 2010


In my experience, outside of America, "What are you/where are you from?" is asking what nationality you are. Inside America, it is asking about ancestry or ethnicity or race.

The reasons for this have already been stated: we are a country of immigrants so to call yourself "American" is pretty meaningless as far as race or ethnicity is concerned (except if it is "Native American"). Many families still have strong cultural ties to the "old country" (whatever country that might be) and it can sometimes be convenient shorthand for describing your family's culture or traditions or religion. Increasingly as America gets older and people have more and more ancestors that were born in this country I've noticed people start to answer this question with regions of the United States because identifying you or your family as "Southern" versus "Midwestern" can also be a convenient cultural shorthand.

Why an American would answer this question abroad as anything other than "American" is probably not a distancing themselves from America for political reasons (in my experience most people who do that say they are Canadian for what it's worth) but a misunderstanding of shifting expectations outside of America in terms of what the question is actually asking.
posted by cosmic osmo at 2:00 PM on September 26, 2010


[folks, please do not start the America isn't USA derail, it has nothing to do with this question and is needlessly fighty. Go to MeTa if you want to]
posted by jessamyn at 2:01 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm probably the exception, but as an American-born person of too many mixed ethnicities to name, when asked I define myself as an "American mutt."

When I was in grade school, a kid asked me "What nationality are you?" and I was too young to really get what it meant. I asked my dad, who told me the proper answer to that question is "American"* because at the time that was (and as far as I know still sometimes is) what citizens of the United States were colloquially known as.

*Of course, in a time and place were most of my classmates answered that question as Chinese or Mexican or Irish, this got me into trouble :)
posted by chez shoes at 2:01 PM on September 26, 2010


When I was in the UK earlier this year, people would hear me talk and then say something like "Oh, you're American!" and they did not seem to be under the impression that I was from Mexico or Canada.

When abroad, if asked, I usually say something like "I'm from the States," or I name my city.

When at home, like others have said, it's understood that someone is asking about my ethnicity, especially since my name reflects it.
posted by rtha at 2:01 PM on September 26, 2010


"It's not that we're not American, we just have another layer (or two or three), and a lot of us think that's a good thing."

Oh I agree, I hope I didn't come across as suggesting that cultural diversity and pride in one's heritage in America is anything less than a very good thing. I'm just wondering how these attitudes formed.

"I don't refer to myself as "American" because it doesn't indicate what country I'm from, only what continent."

I'm not trying to be rude when I say this argument seems a little pedantic and isn't really an answer to my question.
posted by Spamfactor at 2:02 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was just wondering why quite a few seem are so conscious of their immigrant roots, more so than in many countries.

As others are saying, it's because for many of us, our immigrant roots really only go back a few generations. Though all my grandparents were born here, all of my great-grandparents except for one were born elsewhere (including Germany, Ireland, England, and Sweden). My boyfriend was partially raised by his paternal grandparents, who emigrated from Italy less than 100 years ago; his maternal grandmother came here essentially as an indentured servant from Norway around the same time. I can name several close friends who are only alive because their grandparents managed to flee Germany or Russia in the '30s and '40s. For millions of people in the states, family history hinges on immigration.
posted by scody at 2:03 PM on September 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


A lot of these answers are good, but part of the problem, I think, is because in many other countries there is so little variance in ethnicity that the subject is not discussed much. But in places where it matters, it's talked about as much as it is in America, when there's a mixture of people about.

One case, Hungary. Nearly everyone there is of primarily Hungarian ancestry. To say you're Hungarian should mean that you're a citizen of Hungarian, but it tends to mean more often that you're ancestry is Hungarian. Yet a Hungarian citizen of Romany heritage will often describe him- or herself as "Rom" or "Gypsy", even if his or her family has resided in Hungary for many generations and has no real connection to any other place. I have a Hungarian friend who describes himself as "Bulgarian" despite never having been to Bulgaria and despite not knowing a single word of Bulgarian or anything about Bulgarian culture. It's what he feels his ethnicity to be. When visiting America, though, he'd claim to be Hungarian.

Another case, Romania. Mostly, Romania is full of Romanians. But there are also other ethnicities present, and invariably, they will describe themselves as Székely or Hungarian or Saxon or Rom or Tatar or Ukrainian or whatever. To a greater degree than in Hungary, these non-Romanian Romanians will go out of their way to avoid claiming themselves to be Romanian, except when having to under strict terms (like answering questions about citizenship).

A third case, Bosnia & Herzegovina. "Bosnian" is now basically shorthand for a Bosnian Muslim, or sometimes used as a qualifier for another ethnicity, à la Bosnian Serb. Essentially, the entire country's population qualifies itself as something more precise than a simple citizen of Bosnia.

I could go on and on, but the truth is that most of the time when you hear people from outside America describing themselves as "French" or "Spanish" or "Hungarian" or what have you, it's because their ethnic lines up neatly with their citizenship. There's no need (or way, really) to distinguish between them. But there is no "there" for Americans - such an ethnicity never really existed. (Native Americans were never a single people).

The original post asks, how did this racially conscious attitude develop? I think the real answer is that it exists everywhere, in much greater force than a "citizenship-oriented consciousness" does. America, because it is such a mix of immigrant populations, simply offers a much wider variety of answers than most other countries; one notices the answers more because they are not so dominated by a single one, as they would be in France or Ireland or Japan (etc.)
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:09 PM on September 26, 2010 [20 favorites]


pravit: in at least parts of the US, there's still some cultural differentiation and animosity between some groups that - at least these days - read as "white". Irish vs English, for instance.

As for part Native American, there's the whole weird thing where some unreasonably large (compared to demographics of the time) number of people claim to be descended from American Indian ancestors (often Cherokee). This often shows up as the "Cherokee princess" myth.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:09 PM on September 26, 2010


I'm betting it's because America is such a large country in a way most Europeans can't even fathom. For most of U.S. , there is no quick hop over to another country, so I think our default is too assume everyone is American. As such, being able to identify with smaller sub groups becomes more important to the individual as a way placing themselves somewhere in the herd.
posted by nomadicink at 2:10 PM on September 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


There are some good answers above, but another angle has to do with an ongoing trend in the political culture and discourse of the U.S. That is, the right side of the political spectrum, some branches of the Republican party and factions even further to the right, often try to frame their political identities through a sort of rhetorical move that goes "I'm a REAL American. Therefore, my opinions count for more." Within this discourse, the implication, sometimes more overtly stated, depending on the audience, is "and the rest of you fuckin' freaks are NOT...."

As offensive as this move is, it's been effective in certain contexts over time, to the point that there's been some conscious effort at push back. And one strategy for doing that involves the use of a whole range of qualifiers, descriptors, and hyphenizations in how some U.S. citizens choose to identify themselves, the sort of phenomenon you've noticed. I don't mean to imply that everyone who speaks this way has a conscious political agenda in mind. Habits of speaking, like habits generally, often develop slowly and less consciously among those who hold them. But over time, it can come to seem natural (and easier) for some people to begin speaking this way, even if to someone from a different cultural background (like you), this habit stands out.
posted by 5Q7 at 2:11 PM on September 26, 2010


My mum told one woman that she was of Norwegian descent, and the woman immediately told her "I'm Norwegian too!".

I saw this all the time when I (Texan of Italian descent) would go out with friends of Italian or German or other European nationality. People of Italian descent or whatever in New Jersey would rush to boast of their Italian-ness, which was an ancestor. Americans tend to think about ethnicity in terms of descent and perhaps Europeans think about it in terms of language ability and nationality, in part because the countries are so much closer to one another and travel is that much easier.

I think it also has to do a little bit with how provincial places in the US are-- most people in the US don't really ever come across a person of Italian or Norwegian nationality, so the badge of ancestry gives one something that seems exotic and exciting.
posted by vincele at 2:12 PM on September 26, 2010


This strikes me as odd. I have yet to have someone American tell me that he or she was other than American unless asked what his roots were.
posted by Postroad at 2:12 PM on September 26, 2010


Something really interesting that I didn't anticipate is that one of the more common answers to my question seems to be along the lines of "Because when another American asks me where I'm from, it wouldn't make sense to say I'm American, because that is already assumed".

This gives the impression that Americans spend a lot of time asking each other where they are from. This seems odd to me, as no one has ever asked me where I'm from when I'm in my own country. I have a Scottish accent so people assume I'm Scottish and generally don't require any more detail. The fact that quite a few commenters here require a more specific answer than "I'm American" probably emphasises that immigrant roots are very important, as many people have said
posted by Spamfactor at 2:14 PM on September 26, 2010


In what part of the US is there still animosity between Irish and English ethnic groups? Literally the only time I've seen anything like that was in an Irish bar in Queens which was a local hangout for people who were, themselves, recent Irish immigrants. The bathroom was full of IRA grafitti and slurs against various British football teams. Football teams. Not Americans of British descent, not even actual Brits! But, like, ARSENAL SUX scrawled on the bathroom wall.
posted by Sara C. at 2:14 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I do not think the short history of the U.S. has much to do with it. Brazil, Mexico, and other countries settled by immigrants, as well as young European countries like Germany and Italy, probably don't have this phenomenon.
posted by vincele at 2:14 PM on September 26, 2010


This gives the impression that Americans spend a lot of time asking each other where they are from.

No, it doesn't. It gives the impression that we're all weighing in on the question you asked.
posted by Sara C. at 2:16 PM on September 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


how did this racially conscious attitude develop?

I'm Asian-American.
When I tell people I'm from Seattle, they always say, "No, where are you really from?".
When I'm traveling abroad and I say that I'm American, I still get, "No, where are you really from?"

For some people who would like to identify as American, it's not that easy.
posted by apophenia at 2:18 PM on September 26, 2010 [13 favorites]


It's worth noting that the 2000 census asked for a free-form answer to the question "What is this person's ancestry or ethnic origin?", and 7.2% of respondents answered "American". This makes it the fifth-most common response recorded to the question, well ahead of "Italian", "Polish", "Norwegian", and "Swedish" (though not "Irish".) The map of the geographic distribution of the answers, on page 8 of that PDF, is particularly interesting: it shows that the answer is much more prevalent in the South than anywhere else.
posted by Johnny Assay at 2:21 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some of us had our ethnicity drilled into us growing (and I have a name that reflects it, so it's not I ever really get to forget about it), but what it means to be "American" seems vague and something that you explore and get to define for yourself, since there are so many ways that you can interpret that term. The term "American" just has so many connotations, both positive and negative.

That said, when I get this kind of question (in the U.S.), I usually just refer to myself by my home state, rather than my ethnicity or nationality.
posted by heurtebise at 2:21 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


We're a country of immigrants. There aren't many countries of immigrants (Australia is one, but most of them have a similar immigrant story). Our racial/national/cultural heritage is an important part of who we are--or, at least it was when I was a kid. Many of us are only a generation or two removed from another country, and that country informs some of our food choices, upbringing, etc.

To expand: in other countries of immigrants, the majority of the immigrants are from one or two places. Germany is not at all analogous--there, some ethnic Germans deny the Germanness of, for example, Turkish Germans (who I suspect define themselves as Turks as much as they do Germans. Anyone know?).

There's no such thing an ethnic American except for Native American Indians. That's not true of many (most?) European countries.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:22 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


"No, it doesn't. It gives the impression that we're all weighing in on the question you asked."

No what I mean is that many people seem to be saying that throughout their lives in America they have been asked where they are from, which obviously has required a more specific answer than simply "I'm from America". I can't imagine this question being asked of me in my own country in this way. So surely this does indicate that the topic of what one's cultural history is talked about more often in America than elsewhere?
posted by Spamfactor at 2:23 PM on September 26, 2010


I'm going to agree with others that there is some confirmation bias here. For a significant portion of the United States "American" is the ancestry reported (at least according to this Wikipedia chart). A different question is why people on the West Coast (where I grew up) are more likely to distinguish ethnic heritages rather than those living in the South (where I live now). I'm sure there are a variety of interesting answers!
posted by El_Marto at 2:26 PM on September 26, 2010


Damn it, should have previewed. I just repeated Johnny Assay's answer.
posted by El_Marto at 2:30 PM on September 26, 2010


People who aren't white or black tend to get asked where they are from--Asians and other brown/light brown being perceived as a relatively new immigrant group, sorta (compared to Europeans and Africans)--by white Americans who are trying to figure out if the person is Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Iraqi, etc. It's often not a welcome question, and white Americans aren't always very good at asking it. The blog Racialicious explores these kinds of issues in detail.

I'm also going to say, in general, people often try to find commonalities with other people. In the US, there are a few ways to do it--the place you grew up, went to college, etc, and sometimes ethnic/racial identity.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:30 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sara: I've run into it in the Boston area, occasionally. Mostly among people who are of my parent's generation. Although it's also closely linked with religious differences, too, so I'm not sure you can separate one from the other in those instances.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:31 PM on September 26, 2010


No what I mean is that many people seem to be saying that throughout their lives in America they have been asked where they are from, which obviously has required a more specific answer than simply "I'm from America".

Yes, it does come up from time to time.

For me, living in New York, weirdly enough it comes up with strangers more often than friends. A lot of people use ethnicity as a handy way to categorize people, and they need you to fit in their system somewhere. This is probably because not only does NYC have a strong history as an arrival point for immigrants, but it's still a city that is very heavily populated by immigrants and first-generation Americans. It's a city where somebody is likely to come up to you on the street, decide you pass for Member Of Immigrant Community X, and start speaking to you in a language that isn't English.

But, no, it's not something we sit around talking about all day.

We probably talk about it more than people from European countries where ethnicity generally equals national identity. But we probably talk about it the same amount as Canadians, Australians, or South Africans might. From the time I've spent in India and around South Asian culture, I'd also say that we talk about ancestral identity probably less than South Asians talk about regional identity (which is something that seems somewhat comparable to me, somebody correct me if I'm wrong).
posted by Sara C. at 2:31 PM on September 26, 2010


People who aren't white or black tend to get asked where they are from

Nope, I'm black and living in the South and I get asked that because my accent is different from someone born here.

I'm also told I have a different body language and presence which marks me as someone not born here, but whatever
posted by nomadicink at 2:35 PM on September 26, 2010


It's worth noting that the 2000 census asked for a free-form answer to the question "What is this person's ancestry or ethnic origin?", and 7.2% of respondents answered "American"

I'm going to agree with others that there is some confirmation bias here. For a significant portion of the United States "American" is the ancestry reported (at least according to this Wikipedia chart).

Doesn't this backup my point? The fact that in America only 7.2% of people surveyed referred to themselves as American?
posted by Spamfactor at 2:37 PM on September 26, 2010


So surely this does indicate that the topic of what one's cultural history is talked about more often in America than elsewhere?

I couldn't offer any trans-national comparisons, but I do think this is a topic that comes up with some regularity among Americans in America. Also, at least here in NYC, a frequent related topic is where you lived (in the states) before you came to the city.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 2:37 PM on September 26, 2010


rmd103 - real animosity? Or half-joking, "oh, those fucking yanks" sort of talk? How many people in the Boston area even self-identify as being of "British" ancestry? Maybe this is just because I live in a neighborhood where, 20 years ago, there was an actual riot between the Jewish and Caribbean-American communities, but bwuh?
posted by Sara C. at 2:38 PM on September 26, 2010


Doesn't this backup my point? The fact that in America only 7.2% of people surveyed referred to themselves as American?
Only 7.2% of Americans refer to themselves as Americans when specifically asked about their ethnicity. When asked about their nationality, I suspect almost all Americans would say "American," other than the people who have dual citizenship. When asked "where are you from," I suspect almost all Americans would tell you the name of a city or town. It would never in a million years occur to me to answer that question by talking about the place where my grandparents were born.

Ethnicity matters to some Americans. Some of us grow up eating foods, celebrating holidays, going to after-school classes and summer camps, and otherwise being immersed in formal and informal ways in our ethnicity. That's not a solely American phenomenon, although it may be more common in the US than elsewhere. It's a little baffling to me that other people seem so baffled by this, to be honest. Maybe that's because my ethnicity is "Jewish," and being Jewish in America doesn't seem so hugely different from being Jewish in Scotland or Australia.
posted by craichead at 2:42 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Re: asking, sometimes people ask. (Often after they try to speak to me in some language I can't identify, as Sara C. mentions.) I've had a lot of conversations like:

Them: Where are you from?
Me: Here.
Them: No, but where are you from?
Me: Um, I was born in New York...
Them: Yeah but where are you from?

But mostly, it's not so much that we go around asking each other but that it just comes up, usually in a sort of off-hand or jokey way, like:

Me: I have to call my Mom when I get there or she'll think I'm dead.
Them: Your Mom still worries about you driving places?
Me: Yeah, well I'm Jewish, so...haha.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:43 PM on September 26, 2010


People who aren't white or black tend to get asked where they are from

Nope, I'm black and living in the South and I get asked that because my accent is different from someone born here.

I'm also told I have a different body language and presence which marks me as someone not born here, but whatever


Indeed, I guess I was thinking that Asians who otherwise present as American (accent, clothing, etc) still get asked where they are from/ethnicity questions. Of course white and black folks with non-American accents get asked this question as well. Sorry for not being clear.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:45 PM on September 26, 2010


Doesn't this backup my point? The fact that in America only 7.2% of people surveyed referred to themselves as American?

No. Because it was in answer to the question "What is your country of ancestry or ethnic origin?"

Most people who were born in the United States are going to consider themselves American, in terms of nationality. But we mainly consider ethnicity a whole different kettle of fish. Just like every other country that isn't Northern/Western Europe.
posted by Sara C. at 2:45 PM on September 26, 2010


I'm partly of Norwegian descent, but I would never think to tell someone I was Norwegian. I think of myself as Scottish, because this is where I was born and raised, and so were my parents. To tell someone I was Norwegian would surely be a lie....

...how often people talked about their racial history. My mum told one woman that she was of Norwegian descent, and the woman immediately told her "I'm Norwegian too!".


It sounds like the New Yorkers were being polite, and trying to find common ground with your mom. She said she's of Norwegian descent, and someone else said, "Me, too!"

If we're just using the reports of one person as data, the question is also, why do Scottish people define themselves based on their immigrant cultural heritage as opposed to their Scottish heritage?

We're trying to explain, but it seems you're stuck on your preconceptions.
posted by Houstonian at 2:45 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I do not think the short history of the U.S. has much to do with it. Brazil, Mexico, and other countries settled by immigrants, as well as young European countries like Germany and Italy, probably don't have this phenomenon.

My friends from Brazil are quick to point out their Italian roots and speak quite a bit about the ancestry of other people they know.
posted by tamitang at 2:47 PM on September 26, 2010


I was just wondering why quite a few seem are so conscious of their immigrant roots, more so than in many countries.

You sad you're Scottish, right? I think you don't really understand America or Americans very well. Which may be tautological given you're asking this question. But you're not really grokking the answers.

The reason that Americans are conscious of their immigrant roots, more so in many countries, is not because (as you imply elsewhere) that the USA does not have a strong cultural identity because it is a young country. The USA has a very strong cultural identity. Being conscious of our immigrant roots is part and parcel of that cultural identity.

So your whole question is based on a faulty premise. This isn't a sign of weak American cultural identity, it is a sign of a strong American cultural identity that you don't really understand.

In terms of current events this is why some of the rhetoric of the last couple of years in the southwest over Mexico and in the GOP over Obama is so troubling to so many Americans. Because it is attacking the very foundation of American cultural identity, that multiculturalism and strong roots in other cultures and ethnicities is a strength of America and not a weakness.
posted by Justinian at 2:52 PM on September 26, 2010 [22 favorites]


Um, I did not mean to imply that you were sad that you are Scottish. That is an unfortunate typo.
posted by Justinian at 2:53 PM on September 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


If we're just using the reports of one person as data, the question is also, why do Scottish people define themselves based on their immigrant cultural heritage as opposed to their Scottish heritage?

We're trying to explain, but it seems you're stuck on your preconceptions.


I should have mentioned that the only reason my mother mentioned she was of Norwegian descent is that the New Yorker directly asked her about her ethnic background. I am not stuck on any preconceptions, I've merely observed that ethnic background is very important in America, and I wanted to hear some explanations as to how that had developed. The New Yorker was of course just being polite and was happy to find common ground, but that wasn't my point, and I didn't mean to imply anything negative about her interest.
posted by Spamfactor at 2:54 PM on September 26, 2010


When people who have never left the continental USA refer to themselves as "Irish", and not "American" or "Irish-American" that's because the "American" part of their identity is just kind of assumed to be there without having to declare it explicitly. Kind of like the "human" part of their identity.
posted by jason's_planet at 2:58 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


No what I mean is that many people seem to be saying that throughout their lives in America they have been asked where they are from, which obviously has required a more specific answer than simply "I'm from America". I can't imagine this question being asked of me in my own country in this way.

When other people in America ask where I'm from, I'd say my state or city.

Of course I discuss my cultural heritage, but usually not in response to a question like "where are you from." Perhaps: "Where is your family from?" I don't think people accost strangers with this question (well... beyond the sort of people who ask, say, a person of Asian descent "No where are you really from?). It's more like I'll mention my heritage if something comes up. ("Oh! So you've been to Wales? My family is Welsh!") Or maybe I'll attend a heritage festival or something.

It's not so different from other cultures. In France you'd assume most people are French, and if you asked where they're from they'd probably tell you a city -- but maybe they also attend a cultural heritage thing if they're Breton, for example. We just have a looot more different heritages floating around that people still identify with.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:58 PM on September 26, 2010


No what I mean is that many people seem to be saying that throughout their lives in America they have been asked where they are from, which obviously has required a more specific answer than simply "I'm from America". I can't imagine this question being asked of me in my own country in this way. So surely this does indicate that the topic of what one's cultural history is talked about more often in America than elsewhere?

This happens to me in Canada from time to time. Ethnically I'm 4th-generation Canadian with a big mess of European ancestry, which is probably what most people think of when they hear "Canadian", or "American". But when you move to the bigger cities like Vancouver or especially Toronto, you find that people come from all over the place, and they came a lot more recently. At one place I worked, a co-worker of mine who grew up in Toronto (we were both early 20's) said I was the first person he'd met whose parents were born in Canada. Looking around my small department: Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Kenyan, English, Iranian, Arab (?), and me. I'm pretty sure I was the only Canadian-born person, though many of them had Canadian kids. This sort of situation is so common as to be unremarkable.

Ethnic heritage in an immigrant society is just something people talk about. The immigration experience is a big part of people's lives and their personalities. And for those people who have gone through it, or whose parents have gone through it (collectively these categories probably cover the majority of Canadians today), it's something you're curious about, especially for people you have a close relationship with. Even as a 3rd-generation Canadian people are curious about where my family came from and the trajectory of my ancestors. So yes, I do get asked where I'm from every now and then. The answer is not "Canadian" because that is not the question that's being asked.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:00 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Brazil, Mexico, and other countries settled by immigrants, as well as young European countries like Germany and Italy, probably don't have this phenomenon.

Having lived in Brazil and Venezuela, another country with a large immigrant population, I can tell you most emphatically that the subject *does* come up, and in much the same context it does here in the US. It's one of those pieces of background information that comes up occasionally in conversation, not unlike the way the question of "what church do you go to?" came up at slumber parties when I was a kid, or perhaps as an aside when mentioning a particular holiday. As others have said, in many families the immigration experience is a relatively fresh one, and cultural traditions are still often maintained, unless there was a reason not to. (My mother's family is of German extraction and assiduously assimilated during the 1930's and 1940's, when being overtly German was not a particularly popular thing to be. My father's family is of Norwegian extraction and maintains many more cultural traditions, despite having come to the US in the 1850's. Go figure.)
posted by ambrosia at 3:00 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


"The USA has a very strong cultural identity. Being conscious of our immigrant roots is part and parcel of that cultural identity."

Sorry I didn't mean to appear so dense. When I said Americans may not have as strong a cultural identity that was probably a stupid way of phrasing it. I was merely commenting on the fact that American identity isn't based on a standalone culture. It is, as you say, the combination of different cultures that make it strong and unique. As several people have said the concept of a "melting pot" is very common. I don't want it to appear like I'm ignoring what people are saying
posted by Spamfactor at 3:01 PM on September 26, 2010


and I wanted to hear some explanations as to how that had developed

Hmmm. Maybe this will help. It is a map of the united states with US counties color coded by the largest ancestor-ethnicity. Notice there are many distinct geographical regions but also some patchwork areas.

Now compare Scotland. Scotland is 98.19% white... 88% pure scottish and 8% people from England or Ireland. Less than 2% of the country are visible minorities.

Do you see how the mechanism which produced the first map might instill a different sort of cultural identity than the one which produced the second set of demographics? You can't even make a map of the demographics because it would all be the same color. Note that I'm not making a criticism; I'm just saying that you can't expect the same kind of cultural identity in two places with such divergent histories.
posted by Justinian at 3:02 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I should have mentioned that the only reason my mother mentioned she was of Norwegian descent is that the New Yorker directly asked her about her ethnic background. I am not stuck on any preconceptions, I've merely observed that ethnic background is very important in America, and I wanted to hear some explanations as to how that had developed.

A lot of people [in New York] use ethnicity as a handy way to categorize people, and they need you to fit in their system somewhere. This is probably because not only does NYC have a strong history as an arrival point for immigrants, but it's still a city that is very heavily populated by immigrants and first-generation Americans. It's a city where somebody is likely to come up to you on the street, decide you pass for Member Of Immigrant Community X, and start speaking to you in a language that isn't English.

That is the answer you seek, in terms of why this exchange happened between your mom and some random New Yorker.

Also, waitwaitwait, you're Scottish? And you don't get this?

So you know how there is a nation called The United Kingdom, and it includes, within its national borders, England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland? And you know how you can consider yourself both Scottish and a citizen of the UK at the same time? It's exactly like that. The only difference is that Scottish people are more likely to identify primarily as Scottish and would not call themselves British at all, whereas we Americans consider ourselves American first and of Norwegian ancestry second.
posted by Sara C. at 3:04 PM on September 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


I have this conversation with people regularly, because just about everyone I interact with (aside from Native American friends of mine who identify as Native American, not American) have great grandparents or great-great-grandparents were born somewhere other than the United States. This is not true in a lot of other countries. The cultural traits that our grandparents came to the United States with are still being passed down. It's evident in our names, our holidays, our skin and hair color, and our family norms. People ask this question in part to get insight into those things.
posted by emilyd22222 at 3:04 PM on September 26, 2010


Also, in regards to your mom: I think a lot of people from the US ask people who seem to be foreigners about where they're from as a way to relate to them. There's a good chance the asker has been to Norway/know someone from Norway/have ancestors from Norway/named their dog a Norwegian name/know how to say hello in Norwegian. I wouldn't read anything too insidious into it.
posted by emilyd22222 at 3:08 PM on September 26, 2010


One might as easily ask: Why do so many Britons seem reluctant to identify themselves as "British"?

Just as citizenship in the the United Kingdom doesn't prevent you from identifying yourself as a Scot (not only politically, but also as a matter of cultural identity), citizenship in the US doesn't preclude Americans from identifying more or less closely with the culture of their immigrant or indigenous ancestors.
posted by doubtless at 3:12 PM on September 26, 2010


No what I mean is that many people seem to be saying that throughout their lives in America they have been asked where they are from, which obviously has required a more specific answer than simply "I'm from America". I can't imagine this question being asked of me in my own country in this way. So surely this does indicate that the topic of what one's cultural history is talked about more often in America than elsewhere?

I am from NYC so that might be coloring my experiences a bit but yes, I'd say that the topic of your ethnicity or ancestral roots is not a particularly unusual thing to come up in conversation, just because there are a lot of recent immigrants or first-generation Americans here so the cultural ties to other places can be very strong. For me personally it comes up a lot because I have an unusual and somewhat ethnically ambiguous last name so people ask me about it a lot.
posted by cosmic osmo at 3:12 PM on September 26, 2010


So you know how there is a nation called The United Kingdom, and it includes, within its national borders, England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland? And you know how you can consider yourself both Scottish and a citizen of the UK at the same time? It's exactly like that.

Is it really exactly like that? I can consider myself British and Scottish because I was born in both Britain and Scotland. My cultural background or history doesn't enter in to it. An American who describes themselves as Italian was not born in both America and Italy. I'm afraid I must be coming off as very ignorant and stupid (especially considering you felt you had to describe the geography of my own nation to me). All I wanted to do was get some different perspectives on the concept of national identity in America, I didn't mean to unfairly generalise or appear ignorant.
posted by Spamfactor at 3:17 PM on September 26, 2010


You're not coming off as stupid, spamfactor. You're coming off as someone who is trying to understand the answer to the question they asked which is a good thing. I was initially a little baffled that you don't get the answers instinctively... but that's probably because I'm American. So I hope you don't feel like you're being told you're dumb. It's just that to a lot of Americans this probably seems like asking a fish to explain water. Well, it's just kind of there.
posted by Justinian at 3:24 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


My cultural background or history doesn't enter in to it.

Of course it does. Your cultural/historical background is Scottish. Unless it isn't, and it's something that means absolutely nothing to you/you know nothing about it/it's not even worth remarking on. Which would be highly unusual.

And a counterexample is your mother, who clearly defines in some way as Norwegian or the entire conversation wouldn't have happened. Which means that A) your mother is culturally or historically Norwegian but identifies as Scottish as well*, or B) your mother is Norwegian by birth but has adopted Great Britain as her country of nationality and has assimilated enough into the local Scottish culture that you, her offspring, don't even consider it a part of your heritage.

*I.e. basically exactly what we Americans are trying to explain to you in this thread.
posted by Sara C. at 3:24 PM on September 26, 2010


BTW, I don't think you're stupid at all - I just think you're looking for a different answer than the one we're giving you.
posted by Sara C. at 3:26 PM on September 26, 2010


I think that most of what you're seeing here, since you seem to be seeing it very strongly, is just confirmation bias.

Let me sort of rephrase your original question:

"Around here in Scotland, nobody seems to care very much about people's ethnic backgrounds. But when my mother was in the States it was all over the place! What's up with that?"

So. One, I rather doubt it's the case that people in Scotland don't care about people's ethnic backgrounds. I mean, Catholic versus Protestant, which is mostly just a question of ethnic backgrounds, is I gather kind of a big thing 'round your parts. Other case in point, everyone's favorite Scot, Dario Franchitti. Even though his Scottish accent is just about thick enough to be visible in the air, it's not for nothin' that he has a St. Andrew's Cross *and* an Italian flag on his helmets.

Two, you're not well-equipped to see people caring about ethnicity because yours will tend to blend in with local ethnic stock what with all that regrettable raping and pillaging a thousand years ago. As a Scandahoovian-descended person with a Scottish accent, people assume that you're "just" Scottish. Imagine instead that you looked Arabic and had a strong Liverpool accent... don't you think people would ask you where you were from more often?

Three, Americans move around a lot, so it's very common to meet people with accents or features that are not common among the native stock in your area. So asking makes some sense, because many of us either are or are talking to that Arabic-looking person with a different accent.

Four, stuff like this is especially strong in large cities like New York where there aren't just people who were from Wherever 300 years ago, there are lots of people from Wherever five years ago. It isn't like you see Scotland, where you're seeing people confront a large, monolithically Scottish majority. Instead, in major American cities you tend to see ethnic groups arriving in a place where there is no majority ethnicity.

Five, you're underestimating the extent to which Americans have recent immigrant ancestors. For lots of people, immigrant ancestry isn't something from the distant past, it's something about your grandparents or great-grandparents.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:30 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


This gives the impression that Americans spend a lot of time asking each other where they are from. This seems odd to me, as no one has ever asked me where I'm from when I'm in my own country.

We do ask this a lot. Usually, at least here in NYC, where a majority of people you meet came from eleswhere to find their fortune, it means "where did you grow up/go to school" not "where are your people from originally." But a lot of people *are* interested in talking about your roots, either as a way to categorize you, or relate to you, or just so they can talk about their own ethnic background.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:35 PM on September 26, 2010


"Of course it does. Your cultural/historical background is Scottish."

Just to clarify, what I meant was that my ability to declare myself both Scottish and British has nothing to do with my cultural history. It is equally correct for me to say I'm Scottish as it is to say I'm British because Scotland is a part of Britain. I also have Norwegian and Irish ancestry, but it is not equally correct for me to say I'm Norwegian or I'm Irish, because my ability to say I'm Norwegian or Irish is purely a result of my ethnic history.
posted by Spamfactor at 3:37 PM on September 26, 2010


I think that part of the problem, Spamfactor, is that the question assumes that the Scottish way of doing things is normative, and if America is different from Scotland, than our strange American way of doing things requires explanation. But you could just as well turn the question around and ask why Scottish people *don't* maintain ties to their ancestral cultures. (That's assuming they don't, which I don't entirely believe. I get the sense that there are plenty of people in Scotland who identify as Irish, for instance.) Was your family made to feel ashamed of being Norwegian? Could they not see any Norwegian customs that had any value? If so, why not? Is it that Scottish culture is superior to Norwegian culture? That there was no room for difference in Scotland? That your family really wanted to conform to everyone else?

I'm being somewhat facetious here, but I'm also sort of serious. Instead of asking why Americans maintain a sense of connection to their heritage, you might as well ask why the descendants of immigrants to Scotland don't. I don't think it ever occurs to people to ask that question, though, because they're generally starting from the assumption that American culture is sad and deficient and that our belief in ethnicity is stupid and wrong. At least, that's the impression that I've received, and I've been asked to "explain" this by more British and Irish people than I can count.
posted by craichead at 3:41 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was born in both Britain and Scotland


You can't have been born in both - these are two different places. You were born in Scotland and also the United Kingdom.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 3:42 PM on September 26, 2010


Was your family made to feel ashamed of being Norwegian? Could they not see any Norwegian customs that had any value? If so, why not? Is it that Scottish culture is superior to Norwegian culture? That there was no room for difference in Scotland? That your family really wanted to conform to everyone else?

It could also be a lot more benign, like what I described upthread about not really being aware of my ethnicity as a function of biological ancestry growing up in southern Louisiana, a part of the US which has a very dominant local culture that (white) people from (most) other cultures are expected to assimilate into. It never made sense in Louisiana for my family to identify ourselves strongly as Swedish or Ukrainian or Jewish, because we were able to easily sink into Cajun culture.

Even though it's not like there are vigilante groups of Cajuns going around pressuring people into celebrating Mardi Gras and eating Gumbo. It's just what you do. For reasons that I can't entirely explain, but would probably make for a really interesting master's thesis in anthropology.
posted by Sara C. at 3:49 PM on September 26, 2010


I think that part of the problem, Spamfactor, is that the question assumes that the Scottish way of doing things is normative, and if America is different from Scotland, than our strange American way of doing things requires explanation. But you could just as well turn the question around and ask why Scottish people *don't* maintain ties to their ancestral cultures.

Oh god did you really get that from what I said? Sorry that's really really not the impression I meant to give. I absolutely was not suggesting the way I live my life is the "normal" way, and I didn't think Americans were weird or wrong to have such close ties with their history. Basically, all it boils down to is that I've heard several Americans say things like "I'm Italian" as opposed to "I'm of Italian descent". I just wanted to hear some explanations as to why this particular odd phrasing occurs, and if it's to do with American cultural identity. That's really all I meant by it, there was no judgement or condescension in my question.

Also, all those questions about my family being ashamed to be Norwegian and stuff are really incredibly ridiculous and I think you've assumed some very strange things about me and my family. I'm proud of my heritage of course. I've been to Norway several times love it there. And most importantly my grandfather is Norwegian born and raised but moved to Scotland to go to university. He wouldn't be too happy if he thought I was putting down Norway I'm sure.

So yeah I'm not judging anyone and I'm not some racist nutcase, I just asked a question
posted by Spamfactor at 3:52 PM on September 26, 2010


"You can't have been born in both - these are two different places. You were born in Scotland and also the United Kingdom."

I was born in Scotland which is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. I can correctly say I was born in Scotland, the UK or Britain.

http://geography.about.com/library/faq/blqzuk.htm
posted by Spamfactor at 3:57 PM on September 26, 2010


Oh! I thought your question was entirely different! Is this correct? You are asking, why do Americans sometimes leave off the word "descent" when describing their ancestry?

It's just a language difference, really. It has no special meaning. Kinda like, you say "I'm in hospital" and we say, "I'm in the hospital." No real important difference. It doesn't really signify anything.
posted by Houstonian at 3:57 PM on September 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


Basically, all it boils down to is that I've heard several Americans say things like "I'm Italian" as opposed to "I'm of Italian descent".

That's just semantics. Descent is what we mean.

At the risk of stating the crushingly obvious, "American" can mean many things. It can mean what your passport says, or a philosophy you ascribe to. It can be a way of life or a culture. What it can never be (and which Scottish can be) is an ethnic heritage. You can't have American blood. You can be as American as all get out in almost every way, but unless you're descended on both sides from, I don't know, Mississippian Mound Builders going back 1,000 years, there will always be that extra little question of who you are.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:09 PM on September 26, 2010


This gives the impression that Americans spend a lot of time asking each other where they are from.

Well, not quite. Again, because so many Americans have at least one immigration story within living memory or close to it (i.e., literally millions of people whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents immigrated here within the past century), these stories about "where we're from" just naturally come up when we talk about ourselves, backgrounds, and families in general. For example, I never directly asked my boyfriend about his ancestry when we started dating; however, the first time he invited me over to his house for dinner, he made a couple of northern Italian specialties (fried zucchini blossoms and bagna cauda) that he learned from his northern Italian grandmother. This very naturally led to a conversation about how Nama and Nonna Ballatore left their little village in Piedmont around 1910 and made their way to the Pacific Northwest, which then in turn led to a conversation about where some of my own ancestors were from (e.g., how a group of Norwegians named Wong ended up in Wyoming).

Or for people whose parents and grandparents escaped the Holocaust -- this is literally the defining story of their very existence. When you know someone whose Jewish grandmother escaped from Poland in 1939 just days ahead of the Nazis (as is the case with one of my best friends, for example), that story is just going to come up, you know? It didn't take a pointed "so, where is your family from?" question for it to become a part of the conversation as we were getting to know each other.
posted by scody at 4:14 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


er, Nama and Nonno Ballatore! Scusi.
posted by scody at 4:18 PM on September 26, 2010


I rarely identify myself as anything but American. I am currently living somewhere fairly homogeneous (Maine), and my roots are not obviously different from others around me by my last name or appearance. I don't think the conversations people have in places like New York are as common here - the joke is that if you weren't born in Maine, you're "from away" whether that means New Hampshire or India. Many of my ancesters have been here 2 centuries or more, so I have no family traditions that are noticably from another country, and no obvious alignments with the largest ethnic groups in New England (French, Italian, Irish). It's just not a way my family has ever talked about itself (living in the midwest, the middle Atlantic and New England), and if I'm asked I usually reply with "roots in New England" and "some family emigrated from Germany about 100 years ago."
posted by Sukey Says at 4:33 PM on September 26, 2010


There's been some discussion on people in southern states who identify their ancestry as "American," which is something you really only see in the south. I'm not from the south, and my thoughts here come only from spending several weeks in West Virginia over the last few years. But I'll give this a shot anyway. Hopefully someone can come along and correct or revise this theory.

People in Appalachia (the area of America's eastern mountain range, which includes most of the people who say they are "American") are especially likely to have longstanding ties to their land. Much of the population there lives in isolated homes along the streams that trickle down valleys between mountains. (In West Virginia, these valleys are called hollows, pronounced "hallers.") These hollows are often fairly private, reachable only by one dead-end road. Relative to the rest of America, these hollows were settled early on - around 200 years ago. In that time, much of the land has been passed consistently from descendent to descendent. Even more importantly, different families in one hollow often intermarried over the decades, so that hollows are now tied ancestrally. This bond - both by land and by intermarriage - has created an especially tight unit of people. In fact, the bonds of land and family are exactly what constitute a traditional ethnic group. People associate with this new group, because more than any other identity, it explains where they came from.

My family is mostly from the midwest. Even though my ancestors were farmers, and married their neighbors, midwest pioneer culture was much more flexible and migrant. Productive land was treated more as an asset or commodity to be bought and sold, and not as a mark of ancestral lineage. So you don't see such a strong bond. You don't often see such a strong bond anywhere outside Appalachia, actually. The west is too young to have this association, and I'm guessing the northeast is too urban and transient.

So, my conjecture is that the geography of Appalachia has nurtured a new identifiable ethnic group. And the rest of America has failed to do so. Hence you get non-southerners identifying, still, as "Irish" or whatever.
posted by Sfving at 4:34 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think I have a slightly different answer to the question than other people, so I'm going to give it a shot...

I am English, and I moved to the USA when I was about 7 years old. I was in third grade, and in the next few years our history curriculum focused on the history of the United States. Many different waves of immigration are a part of this history, and in third through fifth grade, this meant that it was interpreted to us through a discussion of where our own families were from. (Incidentally, this was not limited to the USA -- I lived in Canada for the two years prior to this, and we had special events at school where we had to bring in an ethnically-appropriate food. Some of us were actual immigrants, and some were Canadians of whatever descent -- we all brought in a non-Canadian food (I brought Branston Pickle).) So early on, we were encouraged to think about ourselves as a particular, non-American ethnic identity.

This is encouraged in many places by the retention of cultural identities -- as Houstonian and others have noted, there are ethnically-specific festivals, events, names, etc. all over various American communities. On Long Island, where I grew up, the ones I remember prominently are the annual Polish festival (mmmm kielbasa) and the St. Patrick's Day parade (and for what it's worth, my parents did their best to keep Irish-English animosity alive, foolhardy though it was in a place where everyone of any descent suddenly discovered they were "Irish" on St. Patrick's Day -- my mother started celebrating St. George's Day in only-semi-joking protest... sigh). More seriously, ethnically-based organizations offered things like scholarships to college, social spaces, etc. So again, community norms reinforced the maintenance of one's ethnic identity, even when the *only* thing people knew about Irish culture was leprechauns and the phrase "Erin go bragh" (usually spelled wrong).

As for those who are saying Americans don't talk about this more than others -- I think they're just plain wrong. And I'd agree that it stems from this sense that we do have micro-identities that are based on this ethnic identification, thanks to a ton of cultural reinforcement. Anecdotally, I feel that this behavior is stronger on the East Coast than the West Coast (I haven't lived in the middle long enough to know for sure, although when I lived in Michigan/Chicago it seemed more east-coasty than west-coasty in this regard). My personal hypothesis is that the East Coast was settled by immigrant groups in a period of time in which ethnic enclaves were a common survival strategy, so "Little Poland," "Little Italy," etc., were common. In Northern California, by contrast, immigrants were either American already (Okies and the covered-wagon folks), or racialized (Chinese and Japanese immigrants; Mexican immigrants) and therefore with their own set of concerns. Californians today seem most concerned about whether or not you're a native Californian (i.e. born there, not Native American) -- and this ranges from a benign sort of "you can't really claim to be a Californian" to a more politically fraught and frankly repugnant nativism of the violently anti-immigrant variety. See for comparison France and other European countries that are suffering from the aftereffects of colonialism.

As for me, I find it an uphill battle to explain to people that I'm English, because I have an American accent. Across the United States, people are so strongly convinced that if you sound American, you must have been born here, that when I say "I'm English," they assume I mean ancestry, and when I clarify, "I'm from England," they correct me, saying right, my parents or grandparents are from England, but where was I born, and when I say "I was born in a small town near London, and lived there until I was five," they say "but you're an American citizen, right?" and when I say "only since 1999," they looked confused. This is kind of the opposite of what others are describing of the experience of being Asian American, where racial phenotypes utterly prevent many Americans from being able to see Americanness. (I'm not innocent of this, by the way -- when I traveled back to England as a youngster and encountered people of African descent with British accents, I was shocked by the realization that I expected black people to sound American -- and my sister had the same experience. I grew out of it, and it's basically provincialism in action, but as people have pointed out upthread, the United States is a damn big "province" and it's easy to assume that everyone you meet here is an American.)

There's also a longer answer to be given about the history of race and ethnicity in the United States, but I think in terms of contemporary American culture, we're collectively performing the effects of that history pretty well in this thread.
posted by obliquicity at 4:36 PM on September 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


Justinian's link is very interesting.. I'm curious about the "other" counties. Is one caused by all the Somalis in Lewiston, Maine? What's going on in Scranton?

I do think that the lateness of the immigrant experience has something to do with this. My mother's family identifies strongly as Quebecois, having been in Vermont for less than a century. My father's family has been in America since 1630 or so and I can't imagine them identifying as English. I would also say that my father's family never really had the "immigrant experience" as most Americans understand it.

Regional identities may be even more important than ethnic here as well, which may be more common elsewhere. I'm a Vermonter first, an American second, and a Queeb/Yankee third.
posted by GodricVT at 4:37 PM on September 26, 2010


If you blow it up, GodricVT, there's a list of "others" at the bottom. It says:

Chinese (San Francisco County, CA)
Cuban (Miami Dade Co. Florida)
Dominican (New York County, NY) (Who knew?)
Filipino (Kauai and Maui Counties, HI)
French Canadian (Androskoggin Co, ME)
Japanese (Hawaii State, Honolulu Co., HI)
Polish (Luzerne Co., PA)
Portuguese (Bristol Co, MA and Bristol Co, RI)
posted by craichead at 5:04 PM on September 26, 2010


If it helps, Canadians are very similar in this tendency to identify with a particular ethnic group, perhaps even more so than Americans.
--pravit

Which is interesting because most Americans who are originally from Canada resolutely identify themselves as Canadian, completely regardless of racial or ethnic background or how long they've lived here. I know this woman who has lived in the US for over 40 years and, she will tell you, she is Canadian, even though she finally got around to getting her US citizenship a couple years ago.

But unlike the other examples here, I think this is a first-generation only thing. I don't think their kids don't call themselves Canadian.
posted by eye of newt at 5:13 PM on September 26, 2010


excuse the double 'don't'
posted by eye of newt at 5:14 PM on September 26, 2010


I'm a Vermonter first, an American second, and a Queeb/Yankee third.

I think this is a good point, too; regional identity is also important for a lot of people here, too, in a way that's not necessarily associated (at least not directly) with national or ethnic identity. In my experience, this derives from a few factors, I think: the physical enormity of the United States, as mentioned upthread (for example: the distance between Seattle and New York is roughly 1000 km more than the distance between London and Moscow) combined with the generally high level of mobility within the U.S. (that is, a high rate of people being born, raised, educated, and/or working in different locations separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles).

The latter condition is especially evident in many urban areas, where it's not uncommon for very high percentages of the population, whether immigrant or native-born, to be from somewhere else (that is, for fellow U.S. citizens to be from somewhere else in the U.S.) -- here in L.A., for example, I can literally think of exactly two people I know who were born and raised in Southern California; the rest of my friends/family/coworkers were all born and raised elsewhere in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world.

This means that "where are you from?" in a city like L.A. carries more of an immediate connotation of "what city/state/region were you raised in?" than "what ethnicity do you identify with/where did your ancestors immigrate from?" If someone asks me where I'm from, for example, my short answer will be that I was raised in Wyoming and Colorado, but lived in Chicago before coming to L.A. (The long version is that I was born in Wisconsin, raised in Wyoming and Colorado, spent time as a child in London and Vienna, went to college in St. Louis and England, worked in New York for awhile, went to grad school in Iowa, lived in Santa Fe briefly and then Chicago for several years, then moved to L.A. -- but my whole family is really from Wyoming, even though both my parents were born in California because of where their fathers were stationed during WWII.)

The funny thing is, do you know what the most "exotic" part of that story is? Wyoming. In America, having Western European ancestry like mine (Irish/English/German/etc.) is so commonplace as to be boring. But tell someone that you spent a good chunk of your childhood in Laramie with a grandmother who was a cowgirl and you will quickly lose count of the number of times people will say "holy shit, I never met anyone from Wyoming before!" (People especially love to find this out, given that my last name is Cody, though sometimes they get Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill mixed up, at which point I gently have to explain that I am not only no relation of Buffalo Bill Cody, I am no relation of Wild Bill Hickock either.)
posted by scody at 5:26 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I have an obviously ethnic name, and this is how a lot of conversations go:

"Where are you from?"
"California."
"No, but like, where are you from?"
"Uh, Orange County?"
"I mean originally."
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 6:10 PM on September 26, 2010


Sara: It's mostly at the "are you sure you want to take up with a WASP?" level rather than "Oh God the Irish are moving in, let's go over and fuck them up". It's not riot levels, and it's certainly not to the scale of animosity between many white folks and people of color, but it's definitely a differentiation.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:21 PM on September 26, 2010


I see I'm actually the third person to mention people's reluctance to accept ethnic people as truly American, and I hope that indicates to you what I perceive to be a large part of the reason why people want to know your biological ancestry.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 6:30 PM on September 26, 2010


In cities in particular -- thinking about NYC and Chicago -- your ethnic background determines what neighborhood you grew up in and who your friends were. Other people are frequently identified by their ethnic background, "a Polish coworker of mine" or "that Italian family."

I don't know what part of NYC your family was visiting, but Bay Ridge, Brooklyn still has a Norwegian parade/festival every year in May.

But part of it is as scody describes-- we have so many immigrant family members within living memory that talking about ourselves and our families inevitably leads to discussion of the immigration story. Hard to talk about my father without mentioning he was born abroad. Hard to talk about my mother's parents without mentioning that their specific immigration story or how their met in their ethnic neighborhood. Scandinavian immigration is a pretty dominant story of Minnesota. Likewise Arab and Dutch immigration when it comes to the history of Michigan.

The flip side was that in the USA, this ethnic identity carries less weight than it does in other countries, in that it has no formal, legal meaning as it would if you were an ethnic Hungarian in Serbia or an ethnic Ukrainian in Romania. When I was visiting a monastery at Mt. Athos, I was being "checked in" by one of the monks who went over my permit and asked me a couple questions for a form he was filling out. He asked, "Citizenship?" and I answered, "American." Then he asked, "Nationality?" and I answered "American," which he was surprised by because he was expecting me to answer with my ethnic origin (Greek), whereas I would have given two separate answers to those questions if I were a Slovenian living in Trieste, Italy. But my "nationality" is American. As an American, I maybe would have given another answer if I were a member of a Native American tribe.
posted by deanc at 6:39 PM on September 26, 2010


Just tossing in one more anecdote ... It was not that long ago in American history that many institutions we consider to be "monocultural" were divided along state lines. In the Civil War, for example, military units were divided by state origins -- you were in the Union Army, but your unit was, say, the 20th Maine Infantry, made up only of men from your state, and hard work was put in to preserving that sense of state-by-state cohesion.

That disappeared after the war ... But you still see examples of those tribal-like divisions, especially in sports and university cultures. "Where are you from?" "California" is probably a more meaningful descriptor than "American" or "the same country that contains New York, which I consider a somewhat 'foreign' place."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:16 PM on September 26, 2010


It comes up in conversation as a way of explaining why we are like we are. (Althoguh I've only ever heard it phrased as 'what [ancestry] are you?' not 'where are you from?') Mostly when I get asked that it's because I have a funny last name. I don't have a funny last name because I was born in Illinois. I have a funny last name because my great-grandparents moved to Illinois from Krakow. The other day a co-worker had on a Slovenian soccer jersey, which is sort of an out-of-the-ordinary thing to be wearing. I said "Slovenia, huh?" and his response was "yeah, my Grandmother's from there." There's so much diversity it sort of naturally presents itself for discussion.

As far as why ethnic background gets discussed more here than other places, well, it's because it would be a pretty boring conversation to have in some country that's ethnically homogeneous.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:23 PM on September 26, 2010


SFving - I totally agree with that assessment, and would extend it to the whole south. I don't know if it's a post-Civil War reconstruction thing, or if it has something to do with the culture of the south, but people just don't move around there* in the way that people do in a lot of the rest of the country. I left the south 10 years ago and my family is still sort of flipping out about it. My mother can't entirely believe that I might have children and not raise them within a couple hours drive of where I grew up.

In addition to the tight knit communities and the practice of keeping property in the family, there's also a tendency for people to assimilate to whatever the larger regional culture is, and there aren't (or weren't until very recently) ethnic enclaves like the ones that have always existed in the big northern cities.

*this of course doesn't count the big cities like Atlanta and Houston, which are full of transplants.
posted by Sara C. at 7:44 PM on September 26, 2010


America is full of Irish bars. I don't think you have to go beyond that to explain why people who are 1/8th Irish are very outspoken about their Irish ancestry. Having Jewish, Native American, Scottish, or a handful of other ancestries is also a trendy differentiator, so it's popular to emphasize those parts of your background over other parts.

You'll almost never hear an American noting their Hungarian, Polish, German, Russian, English, French, etc. ancestry even though many people's families came from those countries.
posted by miyabo at 7:49 PM on September 26, 2010


Dominican (New York County, NY) (Who knew?)

It's funny you say that, because I was going to recommend that the OP read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as a way to get his head around how Americans, and specifically New Yorkers, understand ethnicity.
posted by Sara C. at 7:49 PM on September 26, 2010


I meet a lot of Americans here in Beijing and pretty much everyone identifies as such if the subject comes up to my recall; the conversation has to get a bit more in depth for any finer gradation. This seems to me to fit with the point made above that it depends on who you're speaking to - with me as a non-American, I get the larger citizenship, with fellow Americans that's already a given so you mention other aspects of your identity.
posted by Abiezer at 7:59 PM on September 26, 2010


Wow, maybe us Puerto Ricans really do go to the parade every year, cause we barely make a mark in the U.S. mainland. :-P
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 8:55 PM on September 26, 2010


what I mean is that many people seem to be saying that throughout their lives in America they have been asked where they are from, which obviously has required a more specific answer than simply "I'm from America".... So surely this does indicate that the topic of what one's cultural history is talked about more often in America than elsewhere?

My more specific answer is "I'm from ", possibly expanded to "but I was born in ." If they start asking about certain regional speech markers, "oh, my father used to live in ." If I'm traveling in a state other than where I live now I might say I'm from there. These are generally the sort of answers I get from other people, unless the person is indeed not an American -- although it's just as likely they might respond "Oh, we just moved here from California."

Common responses from the asker are things like "Oh, I visited there once, it's very pretty", or "What brought you to ?"

Very, very rarely, I do cross paths with a person who persists in asking "Noooooo, I mean where is your family from?", who will take it personally and get really huffy if I don't name some specific country, even to the point of directly telling me that something's wrong with me if I don't provide them with some sort of "ethnicity" -- I find such people to be extremely rude.

Texans specifically though -- there are a certain number of them who DO identify as Texans. Generally not the case with other states though.

posted by yohko at 9:03 PM on September 26, 2010


You'll almost never hear an American noting their Hungarian, Polish, German, Russian, English, French, etc. ancestry even though many people's families came from those countries.

Have you never watched Jersey Shore? OK, so maybe that's not the best example of Americans taking pride in their heritage. In Texas, there are strong cultural ties to Czech, Polish, German, Mexican and Italian nationalities. You often hear people refer to their family's background and there are many festivals and events to celebrate that identity, Octoberfest being an example. It is very common here to hear discussion about family heritage because there is such diversity and strong ties to the overall culture of Texas.
posted by tamitang at 9:40 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


You'll almost never hear an American noting their Hungarian, Polish, German, Russian, English, French, etc. ancestry even though many people's families came from those countries.

I would strongly disagree with this sentiment. It really depends on where you live. If you live near Cleveland, for example, you'll hear a LOT of people identify an Eastern European heritage. Out near Cincinnati and Columbus, there are a lot of people who identify as German. Because a lot of Germans arrived in the US and promptly moved to the Midwest.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:44 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Among many white Americans that I know, it's a common topic of casual conversation to ask where peoples' ancestors are from. It's an interesting conversation to have, because any given white American could be descended from people from just about anywhere in Europe. Like someone above said, there's no 'default' ancestry at all. Take a group of five white Americans, you could have half the countries in Europe represented by their ancestors.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:44 PM on September 26, 2010


As for why people ask - people like to find something in common, or to figure things out and feel clever. So if I meet someone with an accent I can't place, I want to figure it out and ask where they're from. A (white, locally born and raised) friend of mine gets this ALL the time, just because he developed weird speech patterns sometime in his youth, and everyone is shocked when he says "I've lived here all my life". They will often then press to find out where his family is from, etc.

And for finding something in common, every now and again one of my coworkers or friends will notice something about me that reminds me of their own national background and ask about it (why, yes, almost half of my family is originally Eastern European, Ivan! That's almost certainly why you thought I "looked Russian". Unfortunately, I can't bond with you about cultural things as you were hoping because I don't know any).
posted by Lady Li at 12:01 AM on September 27, 2010


Oh, but as a note, I as a white American with no distinct ethnic appearance (not Irish or Italian) or accent almost never get this question. I've had two Russian-descended friends and one Russian immigrant co-worker ask me about looking Russian but I don't think that's on most people's radar. And once in high school when I had just come out of French class and hadn't remembered how to pronounce English words yet, the cafeteria lady asked me where I was from.
posted by Lady Li at 12:04 AM on September 27, 2010


I've been in the UK for about 4 years now and get asked this question all the time, and instead of saying American I always say that I am a Vermonter. A true natural born Vermont woodchuck if they press further. I am emphatically not an American and I do not identify with such a moniker. I would say if anything I am a Canadian, because so much of my family speaks French and came from there (as in all of my grandparents (my parents spoke French before they spoke English)).

It takes a bit of explaining, but when I compare USA to the EU and say that to them calling me an American is the same thing as calling them an European (in the UK it is even easier and just threaten to call a Scottish person English)

I find it works better to explain my quirks if people know that I came from one of the most liberal States out there, but that state also has the loosest gun laws of anywhere. In fact it has significantly looser laws on many traditionally conservative topics, namely because those laws just do not exist.

So in essence I am not an American, I am a Vermonter. I come from a traditional state where stoicism is valued, and people just leave you alone. No one would go around asking you about your religion, but many people go to church just because it is what you do. Many people have guns and go hunting, but it is out of respect for the environment and the need to cull the herd to keep it healthy. I can do an honest days manual labor, as well as debate openly with my peers and engage in politics on Town Meeting Day. I can build a house, install a sink, wire the house with electricity, pour concrete, sew a hem, milk a cow, chop down a tree, etc. etc. etc.
posted by koolkat at 2:53 AM on September 27, 2010


I am one of those white Southerners with no strong ethnic identity. The truth is most of my ancestors immigrated hundreds of years ago and have been intermarrying since. My last name is an unusual one in the US, and we've never located it as existing in any European country, so probably some illiterate farmers made it up. If pressed, I say I'm Scots-Irish because I'm from NC and that's the majority white ethnic group more or less and I was raised Presbyterian. But one of my grandmothers had a German maiden name and my maternal grandfather had a Huguenot name but was from a mixed racial family from Robeson County, NC. So what am I? Probably just American is as good as anything.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:31 AM on September 27, 2010


As someone from the UK, I have noticed this with younger Americans online - they refer to themselves as Irish or Scottish, which seems odd to me. I have Irish ancestry but a) have never met my Irish relatives as it's two or three generations back b) I've never been to Ireland, so to claim Irishness seems somewhat fraudulent. (Like Sara C, I get mistaken for Polish now and again.) We tend to get asked more about where we're from geographically, given how diverse our accents are.

I think in the US people feel the need to define themselves more than we do here - unless you have an accent, immigrant parents or skin colour that marks you out as not White British, you're just a British person, but in the US that ethnic or ancestral identity means more. I've observed how in Minnesota, for example, there;s still really strong Scandinavian/German cultures generations after the first settlers came over.
posted by mippy at 7:27 AM on September 27, 2010


It's a fascinating question, and something I've wondered at myself. I'm a New Zealander, married to an American, living in New York. I filled out the last census form for our 2 year old daughter, and got completely stuck on the ethnicity question, because it's something that I never think of. I'm a New Zealander (and hey, New Zealand is a younger country than the USA!) and all four of my grandparents were born in Ireland (County Donegal) but I would never consider myself Irish in any way. My husband is American, but his great-grandparents are from Slovakia, Austria-Hungary (then) and France. What the hell do I put for our daughter's ethnicity? I went with "American" which, sure, isn't an ethnicity but fuck it, it's the most accurate-feeling. Particularly due to the abovementioned "melting pot" aspect of the country.
posted by gaspode at 7:34 AM on September 27, 2010


I hate and love the "where are you from" question, because in America no one ever asks it with your passport in mind, and the only answer I can use that satisfies anyone is "I was born in Southern California," and that only works for Texans and Californians. Everyone else either wants my ethnic heritage (so, a Lithuanian Jewish New Yorker married a Bostin Irish lass, and their son married a girl whose father had Scottish and Irish roots and whose mother had the classic "Germans and Scots and a girl who I swear really was Cherokee and there was this pointless sojourn in Idaho" thing going on,) or wants to know that I'm Mormon and root for the Buckeyes because we moved here when I was in high school. Sometimes they just want me to explain my last name.

Now I just name the neighborhood I'm in (there's been an ongoing fight as to which side of the border I'm on!) and change the subject.
posted by SMPA at 8:24 AM on September 27, 2010


It seems like in Europe it's pretty common to cross the border and live in another country for extended periods of time. So there, it's absolutely meaningful to say "I'm Italian" and mean that you are an Italian citizen. In the US, if you are inside the borders and don't speak with a non-American accent, you are generally assumed to be an American (possibly with the unfortunate exception of Asians [particularly South Asians] and people from the Middle East).

I'd like to add that very, very few Americans think of belonging to a country in terms of passports. I remember when I first heard "passport" used as a term of citizenship: "I have a --- passport" and I thought it seemed very strange. Many Americans never get a passport. I have one, but I'd still never think of "having a passport" as meaning anything other than "I once traveled outside of the country and needed to get one". I find it very strange to see some people using the word "passport" to answer this question.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:08 AM on September 27, 2010


Also, quick question: how many generations back is the Norwegian? I have a feeling if it was just one or two that would make a difference, but I may be wrong.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:10 AM on September 27, 2010


I always say that I am American and usually refuse to elaborate further. This question has bugged me since first grade when a teacher yelled at me for not telling her my "ethnicity." At the time, I had no idea what she meant and was very upset that she was yelling at me. All of my grandparents were born in the US and no one in my family felt any connection to a country outside of the US.

To this day, it bugs me when people ask. I think part of the reason people respond with a different country than the US when asked this question is because answering "American" usually just annoys the person who asked (so it's easier to just to answer with a random "homeland" than America).
posted by parakeetdog at 1:59 PM on September 27, 2010


[few more comments removed - folks, please leave it alone, go email people if you want to talk about who is and is not American]
posted by jessamyn at 2:24 PM on September 27, 2010


I don't know if you're still checking this, but I just came across this article online which speaks to the history a bit, and thought you might be interested. It is by Rndolph Bourne, written in 1916, and talks about American national identity in terms of ethnic heritage and the failure of the "melting pot."
posted by obliquicity at 10:25 AM on October 3, 2010


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