Where Are You From?

In Sweden, a campaign tags this question as racist. The idea is that many people, both immigrants and some born in Sweden, may not look exactly like the archetypal Swede. Asking them where they are from is a way of pointing this up, which could be offensive to them.

We had a similar controversy just recently involving the President, who asked a woman of Korean ethnicity where her people were from. Another Korean-American wrote, "[M]any Americans still subscribe to the insidious myth that Korean Americans are somehow less American. Whatever his intention, Trump’s alleged words perpetuate the idea that no matter how long we’ve lived in the U.S., we will always 'really' be from somewhere else."

The thing is, though, ethnicity is treated as of fundamental importance by many on the left, as well as some on the right. The number of people who answer the question "What ethnicity are you?" with "American" is not large, and it is concentrated in my own Appalachian South. That means that, for now, answering "American" is just another way of telling people where you're from.

By Stevey7788 (talk) (Uploads) - Own work, Public Domain, Link

It would be great if we had a lot more people self-identifying their ethnicity in that way. We're so far down the rabbit hole of hyphenated-Americans, though, I wonder if it's possible. Nor is that new: Theodore Roosevelt spoke against the concept in 1915, and John Wayne spoke against it in his 1973 album on patriotism. Ironically for today's debates, this bit contains the line, "A wall you always have to climb" as well as a paean to immigration.

In defense of John Wayne's concept, one of the most American people I ever knew was a first-generation immigrant from Korea who had fought against the Communists before emigrating here. That was a man who knew what America was about, and who knew what made America great. I'd take all the Americans like him we could find, wherever they came from.


E Hines said...

I suppose, then, that the Swede considers all of (Progressive-Democrat) Chicago to be racist. After all, one of the first questions asked in Chicago (especially Barack Obama's Chicago, but essentially unchanged from when I was growing up in Kankakee) when one contemplates doing business with another is, "Who do you work for?" or "Who sent you?"

Eric Hines

Elise said...

Several years ago, Grim asked newcomers like me to introduce ourselves to the Hall. I'm pretty sure I began my introduction by saying I was a second-generation American of Norwegian ancestry on my mother's side and a third-generation American of German ancestry on my father's father side. I don't think considering that a major part of my identity means I'm less American, less patriotic, less aware of what American is about, or less assimilated: it just means my family is kinda new in these parts.

To me, questions about ancestry are not the problem. The problem is finding those kinds of questions racist. If someone looks like me, it's reasonable to wonder if they (or their ancestors) came from Scandinavia or Germany recently. Appearance is not always reliable of course: I have a first cousin who's half Norwegian ancestry and about a quarter Creek Indian. His Norwegian ancestors were recent arrivals; his Creek ancestors, not so much.

Now, I would never describe myself as a Norwegian-American nor would my cousin describe himself as a Native American-American. But neither of us is going to be insulted or offended if someone asks where we're from or what ethnicity we are, and neither of us is going to think someone who asks those questions is somehow implying we're "less American" or "'really' from somewhere else." In fact, I rather enjoy it when people ask me where I'm from (or where my people were from) and I can tell them, "Alabama." They always seem to expect to hear "Sweden" or "Minnesota."

E Hines said...

I have a different set of buttons for pushing. I came to the Hall later than that, but had I been asked, I would have said I'm an American, and that my ethnic group is American. Which is what I put on every form that requires an answer and that asks for ethnicity rather than (or in addition to) race.

I'm not offended by being asked my ethnicity; I just a) won't play that game and (contradictorily) b) consider the United States to have been around long enough and to have a unique enough culture that we are an ethnic group of our own.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

One issue may be that those of us whose families have been around for a while have to give a really complicated answer if we say something other than "American." My father's family hails from the Old Danelaw, my mother's from Scotland -- but that's if you go through the father's line on each. My mother's mother's family has some Welsh blood, and so on. So you end up needing a lot of hyphens: "Viking-Scottish-Welsh-British-American" or something like that.

Both of my parent's bloodlines have been here since before the Revolution. I have ancestors that served in the Continental army in one way or another. I have ancestors on both sides of the Civil War. One reason to simplify to "American" is that, otherwise, it's a really long story. I feel pretty comfortable specifying "Southerner," as well, although really my folks are all Appalachian Southerners and not the Lowland Southerners who are really quite different.

Of course, "American" also makes sense just because of my family's long-standing participation in the American project. We're Americans if anyone is.

Elise said...

Grim - Yes, that's what I meant about being kinda new around here. I think some of it, too, is that I knew my maternal grandparents very well so their ties to Norway were a part of my everyday life when I was young.

Eric - I would not list Norwegian or German on any form questioning my ethnicity. I don't think of it as relevant legally or socially or politically or anything like that. I suppose, really, I'm simply very aware of the courage of my grandparents and paternal great-grandparent, and very grateful they were willing to leave behind everything they knew for a fresh start.

jaed said...

I agree about the complexity, especially if your family has been here long enough for a lot of marriages between different original ethnicities. Last time I counted, I could be described as Irish/Italian/African-American/German/Scots-Irish/Dutch/Swiss/French, and that's not counting the ancestors I haven't been able to trace to their first arrival here.

Not to mention that not all branches may have been here the same length of time. (The earliest immigrant in my family, an 11-times great-grandfather, came here in 1620. The most recent was my maternal grandfather.)

It's hard to know what to say to someone who asks my ethnicity. The largest portion is Irish (and I look Irish), but that's not even half the story.

douglas said...

Those check boxes on forms are relatively quickly going to become completely outdated. My kids are part Ashkenazi Jewish, Hungarian, Polish, Chinese, German/Dutch, with a touch of French tossed in for good measure.

Being Eurasian, I always checked the "Other" box, and for ethnicity, chose "American" where possible. I also got asked a lot 'where are you from?'. Ironically enough, quite often by other 'ethnics', usually Asian/Filipino (probably because they were trying to figure out if I was one of them). It never offended me- why should it have? It may even have saved me harm once- I was walking home through the neighborhood near us that was a barrio, and a car pulled up and the guys inside asked 'where you from?'. I reflexively answered that I was from here, but my mother was Chinese and Dad was from New Jersey. They just laughed, and moved on. Apparently, they were more concerned with personal affiliations than ethnicity.

Gringo said...

One reason for Theodore Roosevelt downplaying ethnic identify in favor of American is that he was the product of a North-South marriage. His mother was from South Carolina. TR had Confederate uncles on the Alabama. And he was proud of them.

Perhaps one factor in the American label is that there is no old country across the ocean to go back to. For me, the old country is where my grandparents lived, in the prairie or plains, or where I was born and raised.

My ancestry is mainly British Isles and Germany/Switzerland. A number of ancestors were in the US by the 1640s- some German included. Albion's Seed mentions four British folkways: Virginia/Cavalier, New England/East Anglia/Puritan, Midlands/Quaker, and Borderlands/Scots-Irish. I have ancestors from all four folkways. Though the New Englanders turned Quaker and left as soon as Pennsylvania was founded. Some Indian, but cousins on my mother's side have more, as their mothers were 1/8 Indian.

I am a fairly good mixture of what the US was before 1860. Which may help explain why my politics test out as close to the middle. That mixture may also explain why, over the years, I have often been mistaken for someone else- a 50th percentile face.