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Ethnicity

I am an ethnic Pennsylvanian.

That may not make much sense to most people, but it does to me. This statement goes to the core of what ethnicity is and the strange fascination we have with it here in North America.

Ethnicity is supposedly about identity, or how the world is supposed to approach you. It is a shorthand, something along the lines of “This is who I am, so you have some idea how to talk to me and what to expect from it”. On a continent with so much mixing of people it was probably handy to have these ways of understanding someone even before you meet them. But therein lies the problem.

After so many generations of mixing, we have intermarried to the point where very few people claim only one ethnic identity. If I were to represent myself as Irish, which I have, it is not a statement of who I am in the classic sense. Rather than, “I am Irish, so I have certain values and behaviors” it means, “Because I have certain values and behaviors, I choose to represent myself as Irish to make it easy for you.” The handles of ethnicity are nothing more than abstractions, pretty packages of core beliefs with a bow on top to make them easier to accept.

It’s not that I am particularly Irish, although my great-grandmother was. I discovered while in Ireland that people who are actual citizens of the Emerald Isle do not appreciate Americans calling themselves “Irish”, as the last hundred years or so of the Irish Experience eluded them. The term “American Celt” seems more appropriate, given that the Diaspora has taken Scotch Celts and Welsh Celts and Irish Celts as raw material to create Canadian Celts and Australian Celts and American Celts. We’re all cousins, not brothers. Good people go to Heaven, but the Celts went everywhere.

Consider for a moment a key ethnic group that helped to define the US of A perhaps more than any other – the Scotch-Irish. That’s what my surname “Hare” appears to be, although our exact origin has been lost in the fog of time. We were Scottish people exported to pacify Ireland by King William starting in 1690. We performed our role as Protestant standard bearers in Ulster until things didn’t go as well as we were promised. Many of us migrated to North America in the mid 1700s until about 1800.

To make it short: Scots who spent a century or less in Ireland became Scotch-Irish. Scotch-Irish people who spent two centuries in the US of A are still Scotch-Irish.

It’s all nonsense. My people on one side came from Germany escaping the persecution that Anabaptists and Zwinglischers faced about 300 years ago, and on the other side came here for reasons unknown at least 200 years ago. They all settled in Pennsylvania, taking up the promise of freedom given by William Penn. I have at least a dozen ancestors who fought in the Revolution for the Pennsylvania Rifles; “ethnically”, it might have been that they were Germans who had no interest in being English. On the other side, my great-great-Grandfather fought for the Union in the Civil War with the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry. What matters in both cases is that their home was, and still is, either among the rolling hills of Lancaster County or the gritty streets of Philadelphia. They were willing to fight for it, too.

To explain who I am in a kind of shorthand implied by ethnicity, I think I am best portrayed as a person who values wit, personal connections, and a tenacious resourcefulness that gets things done. I respect people’s individuality and highly value freedom – defined as broadly as it possibly can be. Street smarts are more valuable than book smarts to me.

In many ways, the best statement of my core values can be found in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Every person needs the freedom to be who they find that they need to be, making their own way in the world. No one should be judged by their interest in taking a different path than anyone else. What matters is the tenacity to do the task that is in front of us and pride in the completion of it.

I am an ethnic Pennsylvanian. Deal with it.

5 thoughts on “Ethnicity

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