Reclaiming Lost Ethnicity in America


Before We Were White doesn’t put its blogs or podcasts behind a paywall, so we rely on the generous goodwill of donors and patrons.

This means we’ve had to find creative ways of thanking patrons for their incredible support.

One such way is by making PDF transcripts of individual podcast episodes available, and curating a library of related images, sources, and further reading lists on our website members’ page.

When time allows, BWWW also tries to personally field members’ questions.

This week, I was contacted by a patron with questions relating to “post-white” identity.

In essence, this person was wondering about the validity of Americans choosing to identify themselves as members of an actual ethnic group – in particular, they wondered if Americans with, say, German, Irish, or other European ancestry should identify as one of those groups in place of “white”.

The question was both thoughtful and highly detailed, so I’ve extracted the main points from their correspondence for brevity and clarity:

1) would it even be possible or appropriate for those of us in diaspora to try to rebuild those kinship ties when they died ~100 years ago on the low end and ~300+ years ago on the high end and are an ocean away and weren’t raised in the culture?

2) a way forward [from white identity rejection and “race traitor” nonsense]?

3) the responsibilities of those of us in diaspora; anything more I could be doing?

These excellent questions raised many more questions, leading me to ponder over an appropriate answer for a number of days.

The following is my own sense of things, at this stage in my own education, research, and development.

I would be very interested to hear from readers and listeners regarding this complex subject.

Here goes.


At birth, we are born into a culture.

We are then moulded by our upbringing, early experiences, education, and daily environment.  Some cultural environments place more emphasis on ancestry and/or continuity of tradition than others (see groups such as Jews, the Amish, small indigenous communities, etc.)

Many western nations have drifted far away from the things which once defined the individual “cultures” living under their flags – regional dialect and slang, food traditions, particular sense of humor, clothing, attitudes toward sex and modesty, religious practice, music and dance traditions, sporting traditions, communal celebrations, rites of passage, et al.  Some nations are actively trying to erase multi-culturalism from the territories they control.

It could be argued that much of western “culture” (especially in the USA) has become little more than an homogenous list of mutually recognised icons supplied by government and corporations.

Many of us have become – at least in large part – most easily defined by what we buy, and what we watch in the corporate-owned media.

After childhood, we MAY be at liberty to choose any parts of our “pre-loaded” identity which we wish to change or discard.  This is what some leftist thinkers refer to as a “decolonisation” phase in our personal development.

People who are less inclined to use jargon might simply call this process “breaking away” or “becoming one’s own person”.  In places where identity is highly indoctrinated by family, media, or government, this step can be difficult and sometimes almost impossible.

What we choose to cast-off or take-on will be based on the intensity of indoctrination received, on further education and life experiences, and on our own in-built level of curiosity and rebelliousness.

It is our access to lifelong education and varied life experiences which will also determine our ability to recognise the multiple possible layers of identity:

  • Nationality (citizenship, political participation, voting, taxation, military service, and other duties)
  • Regional identity
  • Cultural identity (social norms and manners, food traditions, sports, forms of celebration, etc.)
  • Ancestral identity (historical identity before immigration to America)
  • Genetic identity (visible signs of belonging to a particular population group – in the USA, thousands of distinct groups have historically been collapsed into “white”, “black”, indigenous, or Asian)
  • Sexual and gender identity
  • Inner identity or “sense of self”
  • Religion
  • Language and dialect

Of course, one person’s “indoctrination” is another person’s “passing-on of traditions”.  Again, access to education and varied life experiences will usually help us tell the difference.

People who have been highly indoctrinated or are lacking in a wide variety of experiences are the people who tend to reject the idea that loads of people can have multiple strands of identity.  Such “single identity” people insist that they (and other people) should see identity as a complete and inseparable package.

These are the people who often see being “American” as being synonymous with “white” (ancestral/genetic identity), Christian (religious identity), “patriotic” (national identity), straight (sexual and gender identity), and English-speaking (linguistic identity).

While such people will acknowledge recent immigrants and peoples of color as “American”, many still subconsciously see recent immigrants and black and brown peoples as an accident of history, or even interlopers, who are only “proper Americans” when they agree to buy into the whole identity package – including the “white” story of America.

Others (the people who speak about rejecting “white identity” and about “decolonisation”) often sound as if they believe that changing identity is as simple as shedding a coat and wearing a new one.

As we’ve already pointed-out, “identity” is the accretion of multiple identities over our own lifetime and many lifetimes before us.  Some of these identities are real and organic, others are complete fabrications.  Most are a mix of the two.

A multi-ethnic American cannot simply replace one fabricated identity – “white” – with a dissipated, diluted, and “unlived” ethnic identity from another place or time.

Far from being an act of “decolonisation”, this is really just another act of colonisation – perhaps with good intentions, but it is a form of colonisation nonetheless.

Take Irish identity.  Being Irish can have multiple layers, with varying emphasis on different strands.  And while Ireland has one of the more cohesive identities due to geography, ancestry, folklore, slang and dialect, shared tragedies, an ancient Gaelic language and literary tradition, sporting traditions (such as hurling), monumental landscapes (which actually pre-date the Gaelic Ireland so beloved of “Celtic” romanticism), and shared mythology, etc.

But even Ireland contains multiple identities.  Jackeens.  Culchies.  Anglo-Irish.  Gaelgoiri.  Nornies.  Travellers.  The Donnybrook Set.  Blow-ins.  Corkonians (who act like their own ethnic group).

But most Irish today would agree, though, that the essence of being Irish is growing up surrounded by all of these cultural signifiers.  An asylum seeker from Ukraine who chooses to stay in Ireland, whose children grow up in Ireland, can call their children “Irish”, or “Ukrainian-Irish”.  It’s far more about cultural immersion than ancestry.

But an American with remote Irish ancestry cannot simply identify as “Irish” in any credible way.  I myself have ancestors who were famine immigrants to America, and I have now lived in Ireland longer than I lived in the USA, yet I am not Irish.

You ask about your “responsibilities” to Ireland based essentially on genetic history rather than cultural experiences, yet to me it seems more important that we assume such “responsibilities” in our immediate community (always with an eye on injustices everywhere in the world).

This is not to say that we cannot have a profound interest in the cultures of our distant ancestors!  Sticking with the Irish for a moment, Americans must remember that the Ireland of their ancestors no longer exists.  Irish culture has changed like any other culture.  The people escaping The Great Hunger during the 1840s would not recognise the Ireland of today.  So which Irish “identity” could an American with Irish ancestors actually hope to claim?  The Irish in America and the Irish in Ireland have walked completely different paths for decades and centuries.

I fully understand that many good Americans want to move past or reject the artificial and frankly poisonous identity of white Christian nationalism and American Exceptionalism.

But whether they like it or not, Americans with deep roots in colonial and frontier times have become a new people, just as the English became a new people – a new people formed from multiple waves of immigration and violent invasion.

The English are a mix of ancient British peoples including Dumnonii, Belgae, Ordovices, Iceni, Caledones, Brigantes, and Taexali, along with later overlays of Roman peoples, Germanic tribes, Scandinavians, and Norman French, not to mention various diasporic groups such as Jewish and Romani peoples, and peoples from lands once ruled by the British Empire.

Yet they are now seen collectively as a people called “English”.

If identity is primarily culture (and it is), then culture is also change (and it changes constantly).

The English didn’t always love tea, sarcasm, or Indian takeaways.  Those things arrived via international trade, occupation, corrupt warlords, empire, and the endurance of a long-suffering peasantry.

American culture has also changed in the past, and will continue to change moving forward – organically, and through the daily choices made by the American people.

Many Americans today are clearly longing for an identity based on something more than consumerism, and more enlightened than jingoistic, myth-based white nationalism.

This is why I have tried hard in my writing to put forward new ways of looking at American identity.

The coining of the term “Old Mix American” was my way of trying to bring many strands of identity together, minus the white-washing and toxicity.

The word “old” is to show that a person’s family and ancestors have been in America for hundreds of years – long enough to form a distinct ethnic identity.

The word “mix” is to show that a person acknowledges that they are aware that “whiteness” is a complexion and a social caste, not an ethnicity, and that they would like to move past describing themselves in terms of skin color or straight hair.

Most of all, the word “mix” is for showing that a person has learned, and accepted, that most Americans with colonial-era roots are indeed a mixture of multiple peoples and ethnic groups.  Being aware of our complex ancestry means we do not accept an American identity which expects us to belong to just one “race”.  When we say “Old Mix American“, we are not saying “mixed race”, we are saying “multi-ethnic”.  There is a difference, and it is important.

By saying “Old Mix” in front of the word “American”, we could show that we are aware that our complex ancestry and cultural mix is centuries-old, and that not all of our ancestors looked similar to how we look today.

By saying “Old Mix” in front of the word “American”, we could show that we accept our very real kinship with people of color, without attempting to colonise their own spaces and lived experiences.

Because many Americans of color also have indigenous, European, and other ancestry (along with African ancestry), this term could even offer an identity which might be shared by progressive-minded people of all colors one day.

By being aware of real history, warts and all, Old Mix Americans can reject foundational mythology and blind “patriotism” – both of which are exclusive instead of inclusive.

Bottom line is this: “Old Mix American” could say a hundred positive things in just three words.

It also sidesteps the issue of USA citizens referring to themselves as “American”, a habit which rankles with many people from other countries in North and South America.

Maybe Americans whose people immigrated to the USA after the Civil War could call themselves “New Mix Americans“?  A thought…

I hope this has helped you answer your question, and I hope you can see that you already have a “real” identity.

Finding a proper and fitting name for that very real identity is a job for all of us.  I’ve thrown my suggestion in the hat!

#identity #history #ethnicity

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