A Discussion of Nationality and Stigma: part 1 (Scarlet)

Scarlet Page, hostess of A Lakefront Pagan Voice, and I get into some funny and interesting conversations on Twitter. (Have you followed me, yet?) The latest one sparked a bit of debate and contention, involving the terms "nationality" and the stereotype of the "fat, lazy American." Granted, the first bit was birthed from my own misconception about the definition of nationality, admittedly. In my defense, in legal-speak the words "nationality" and "nation of origin" are typically interchangeable. So much so that I'd forgotten that one can be American by nationality and still be, say, German or Vietnamese by nation of origin - the country or countries of your ancestors.

Be that as it may, Scarlet went on to present me with some fabulous arguments about nationality, stereotyping of populations of countries, and what it means to be a "native." I hope you'll enjoy our back and forth via blog this week. Think of it as Inciting A(nother) Debated Riot, but in text form. Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments below.

Today is part one of a 4-part series. This is Scarlet's discussion of 'nationality.' Enjoy!

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

PS. Scarlet did want me to mention she gave me no editing privileges whatsoever. Any words are solely hers, as is the spelling and punctuation. I've not touched the article to sum anything up or to correct any syntax. These are her words and her words alone, which are wonderful as is.

Why is my nationality “American”?

I was surprised to find, upon mentioning that my nationality is “American," that not everyone take this for granted of me. That’s cool… people make a lot of assumptions about me that I’m not aware of until it comes up in conversation, for instance, it’s often assumed by people who don’t know me, that I’m straight, since this is, apparently, the ‘default setting’ in most people’s minds, but not in mine. Firelyte asked me to elaborate on why I think of “American” as my nationality, as he proposed a different view, so here is mine.

My assumption was that everyone understood that if someone was born, raised and still lived within a particular nation, that that person’s nationality should be fairly obvious unless self-identified as something other than the nation in question. Again, that’s my naïveté assuming that my understanding is the common one… apparently not. So, I will try to explain and make sense of it.

Let’s start by defining “nationality”… without looking at any dictionaries or encyclopedias, I understood the term to mean something like, ‘a person’s nation of origin.’ So then, what is a nation? I think a nation is a people, a culture, often based on a particular plot of land and overseen by a particular political structure. If someone’s nationality is Scottish, like my husbands, which means he was raised to identify himself with the nation of Scotland, that he grew up in a land called Scotland and was raised by people who practiced Scottish culture. It’s a question of culture and of place… I tried to read the Wikipedia article on this word, but it also seemed confused about whether nationality has more to do with legal citizenship or ethnicity.

My legal citizenship is as a US citizen… commonly referred to as “America.” My ethnicity, too, is American, since I lack any other logical or meaningful ethnic background other then the culture I was raised within. That means that whether you define nationality as a place of residence or an ethnic background, I’m American either way. Firelyte argued that one would have to ethnically be “Native American” or a member of an indigenous tribe to be considered “American” by nationality. I can sympathize with that view, but it does make me question… What, then, am I? And why?
Since we already know that my citizenry is unquestionably American, we’ll have to explore the ethnicity half of the equation to see where the confusion comes from. Ethnicity is based on heritage… it’s about the culture of your ancestors. Here’s where things get tricky. Which ancestors do you look at? Typically, if there is a blending of cultures and a mix of ethnic back-grounds in a person’s heritage, it tends to be up to the person to decide which ethnicity they identify with most strongly and the one they present themselves as, usually the one within which they were raised. It’s their culture with a little heritage thrown in for good measure.

I often run into people who strongly identify with specific ethnic backgrounds, such as Irish or Italian, even though they may only have one great-uncle or great-grandfather who lived there. While by citizenship, they are American, they were raised by people who upheld cultural ideals and practices and taught pride in a particular culture or place from whence a grandfather or two had immigrated to the US. These people will identify their nationality as “Irish American” or simply as “Italian” without even admitting a connection to America. My question is, who decided that those particular grandfathers were the ones upon whom their ethnic identity was based?

I’ve often wondered if there is a specific system of counting back a certain number of generations to find ones ethnicity and what happens when ethnic blending causes forks in the path… how do they decide which ancestors are more important? How do they decide which generation to focus on? In many cases, it seems to be whichever generation landed in the US first, which seems a confusing method of determining ethnicity, to me. What about the great great grandfather who first landed in Germany from Russia just one or two generations before the US immigrant? Does his ethnicity not count in calculating someone’s heritage? Is ethnicity really just a matter of the last place your ancestors were before your family came to the place it is now? Is that single most recent stepping stone on the way here really of so much more importance than any other step that it determines your nationality and identity?

No, I think it really is about the culture you were raised in… if a family with ancestors throughout the ages from Africa, Tibet, Ireland, Russia and Germany whose major patriarch immigrated to the US directly from Italy, it’s probable that the family thinks of itself as Italian and raises its children with a particular Italian bent. So then what about people like me who have immigrant ancestors from Cornwall, England and Poland and who knows what or where beyond them and a few other things thrown in? Who was raised in America without a particular bent towards identifying as either Cornish, Polish, German or any other culture that may appear somewhere back in the family tree (either recently or thousands of years ago) and whose family takes part in one variation of American culture and that’s all she’s ever known?

Well, then I can only really say that my heritage is unspecific enough to determine my ethnicity in any specific way and that “American” is how I identify since that’s the culture I and my recent ancestors were raised within. Besides… have you ever heard of someone identifying as “English-American”? It’s just not a thing you can really be… it’s just not a subculture we have in the states and it’s not something I really identify with other then in passing. I mean, I do like meat-pies and orange marmalade… just not together… ugh… but who doesn’t? And I also like tamales and crepes (again, not together), but that has little to do with my heritage.

Can’t I count my ethnic background to the grandfather who first crossed the border into Wisconsin instead of assigning it to some random ancestor from a random generation who first stepped foot on US soil from some other random place? I find it far too confusing to try to do the math there and identifying with some other culture that I’ve never participated in makes little sense to me, so I go with what I know… that’s the here and now.

Here’s another question I’ve had… It goes back to Firelyte’s comment about “Native” Americans. I certainly mean no offense to indigenous people and I’m sure there’s a really good answer to this somewhere, but I’ve never found it. At what point does a species (let us say, of plants) stop being an “invasive” species and become “native”? How many generations have to pass? How much time? In what way does the ecosystem have to change before “native” can be applied to a species… or a culture? I’m not arguing anything about that or claiming to be, in any way, “Native American” myself, just always been curious about that distinction and classification… Maybe Firelyte can do some research for us and enlighten me? ;) Maybe that might help us clear up how ethnicity is determined and by proxy, how nationality is decided.

In the meantime, I identify as American by nationality for lack of any reasonable (to me) alternative.


  1. I hate to sound pretentious, but I feel like I'm about to regardless, so consider yourself forewarned. I think your main confusion with determining what your nationality is has to do with the vocabulary you're using. I've studied a lot in the social sciences, and within that field, there are very specific definitions of (although admittedly subtle differences between) citizenship, nationality, and ethnicity. Each of these terms can belong to an individual, but an individual does not necessarily possess all three, and may possess more than one.

    Citizenship is the political concept, and refers to the state (meaning country) of which one is a member. Fairly obvious. Ethnicity is more of a question of genetics, and corresponds to the genetic traits inherited from one's ancestors, often with a stronger tie to the more recent ancestors. For example, I am ethnically Slovak, English, German, Scottish, Irish, and a smidge Native American. My family kept fairly good records of who came from where and who married who, so I consider myself lucky to know where most of my ethnic roots extend. We've also traced our genetic markers through DNA (we're all nerds and all fascinated by the family tree concept; don't judge) and found that they line up fairly well with the records we've kept concerning our varied ethnic heritage, although apparently the blend that produced *my* specific DNA resembles more that of someone who's lived in Turkey for the past 1000 years than anyone from the individual ethnic backgrounds of which I could be said to comprise.

    On the other hand, nationality is a trickier concept. While everyone has an ethnicity (or several), and there are few circumstances I can think of where someone would not be a citizen of at least one state, not everyone has a nationality. In American culture, and as far as I know in the English language in general, "nation" and "country" are used fairly synonymously. From a social science standpoint, however, the two terms are quite different. A "nation" refers to a social organization in which the vast majority of members are of the same ethnic background, hence the Iroquois Nation or the Maya or the Japanese. Thus, a "nation-state" is a country in which the citizens are all from that nation, such as--you guessed it--Japan. Thus, America is a state, but not a nation, and therefore American citizens do not technically have a nationality unless they are a member of a subset of American society with a specific national heritage.

    I hope that helps clear things up, at least from a social science standpoint.

  2. Hi Anden!

    Great feedback! As you know, my education background is in social sciences as well. I loved your response. Though, I think there are still a few more things I could add, which I will later this week. I believe you're hitting the nail on the head. There is an emotional side to terms such as 'nationality' or 'citizenship' and then there is the actual, technical definition of those terms.

    Again, great feedback! I hope Scarlet likes it, too.



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