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,
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.