On the bogosity of ethnicity

Ethnicity is mostly bogus: we are all mongrels.

People generally self-identify as having some very definite ethnicity due to that being the identity one of their parents self-identified as having. Sure, it's common for both parents to have self-identified as having a common ethnicity before getting tangled up (socio-economically or genetically) together; but, over even quite modest numbers of generations, the historical reality of inter-ethnic unions still leaves any given person having more of a mixture amongst their ancestors' ethnicities than they are aware of, particularly if cross-ethnic unions are rarer today than they were a few generations ago.

In many cultures, there are ethnicities that have been persecuted or, more modernly, at least aren't deemed cool; those with a parent of such an ethnicity tend to down-play this and thus default to the normative ethnicity. Conversely, there are sometimes ethnicities that it's socially advantageous (i.e. cool) to claim to belong to: those with the option of self-identifying as one of these tend to make the most of it.

This is taken to extremes in the United States of America: if either parent (or, indeed, at least one grand-parent) self-identifies as Irish (for example), the children typically do (or, at least, that's how it seems); with the result that many people with at best fractional Irish ancestry (and often with little actual familiarity with real Irish culture) self-identify as Irish. The Irish-Americans out-number the actual Irish by a wide margin, as a result. I just hope they never get it into their heads to demand a right of return to their homeland. I'm sure Irish-ness is not the only ethnicity to which this applies. Nor is this an entirely bad thing: it helps promote a willingness to espouse diversity – at least when it actually carries forward some substantial cultural diversity, rather than just a few tokens of ethnic idiosyncracy with no practical influence on the general tendency of modern western civilization to create a de facto cultural uniformity.

Of course, in many cultures, naming conventions leave any child of mixed-ethnic parents with a name that gives at least a strong hint as to the ethnicity of one of them; and such conventions tend to carry those hints on through the generations. That may bias those with a choice of how to self-identify, by ensuring that those around them infer an ethnicity based either on their purely paternal or on their purely maternal ancestry; but some shall chose to rebel against this presumption – and some of these shall establish themselves well enough, within the ethnic group with which they prefer to be associated, that their descendants shall erode the identification of their name with their (previously) alien ethnicity. When even that proves impractical, there is always the option (not uncommonly used – for example, consider the Saxe-Coburg and Batenburg families) of changing name so as to fit better in with one's host culture.

There are always socio-economic advantages to be gained by fitting in better with at least one ethnicity of one's ambient culture – especially in any culture torn by an ethnic rift – being regarded as other by all may, indeed, be perilous. Consequently, folk are more apt to present themselves as having a definite ethnicity than they are to actually have a definite ethnicity, for any degree of definite-ness ranging from the myth of pure blood to acknowledging some other background but claiming a preponderance of one.

The result of all this is that – if you look at both parents, both of their parents, and so on backwards – the proportion of people that have ancestry of mixed ethnicity is higher than the proportion of people who know that they have such ancestry; which is, in turn, higher than the proportion of people who acknowledge this.

In fact, mixing ethnicity is actually a good thing – the new generation gets the option of drawing from a richer cultural heritage, simply because they have a greater wealth of cultural sources from which to draw. So it is a shame that this is down-played. The worst form of this folly is when ethnicity is interpreted in terms of (typically badly misunderstood) genetics and notions of race: those who imagine racial purity to be some kind of virtue are clearly ignorant of hybrid vigour and the greater robustness and intelligence (compared to pure-bred beasts) of mongrels.

For my own part, I am happy to be a mongrel (albeit of mostly European extraction); and remain willing to learn from every culture I have the good fortune to meet.

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