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An Ethnic Pennsylvanian

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.


William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania.

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.

celtic_crossConsider 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.

What would Ben Franklin say?  Probably, "Get over yourself".

What would Ben Franklin say? Probably, “Get over yourself”.

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.

These values are shared by many other people from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and smaller towns dotting either side of the Appalachian Mountains.  Some have darker skin then I have and some can’t trace their people back more than a few generations in this land.  But where they share the same values I do, they are brothers and sisters.  The same shorthand for who I am must apply to them.  We are a people, and I’m proud of that.

I am an ethnic Pennsylvanian. Deal with it.

15 thoughts on “An Ethnic Pennsylvanian

  1. Hmmm, I’m from Delaware, which was part of PA until about the time of the American Revolution. Does that make me an “Ethnic Pennsylvanian?” I doubt it, because as far as I know my family’s roots in Delaware are recent. And, there is nothing about the plantation culture and traditions of Delaware that I particularly identify with. I suppose, though, that one can “be” something without feeling especially good about it.

    • No, Delaware is a terrible place. Sorry, as a Pennsylvanian I’m compelled to raz ya. 🙂
      You may find that you are responding to the inequities that you grew up with as much as anything. For example, Perdue still seems to run the state as a kind of “plantation” at times, and there is the whole duPont pandering to corporations history of the state. So it might actually define you, at least in how you respond to things.
      Then again, you do seem rather Pennsylvanian to me – you speak your mind and let the chips fall where they may. 🙂

  2. PA has an interesting and complex history. Penn. Franklin. Anabaptists. Quakers. The Quakers lost control of state government because, as I understand it, they were not as supportive of driving out the Native Americans as settlers in border regions wanted. Delaware: A border state. Last state to end slavery. Global safe harbor for corporate misconduct. Lowest lying state and soon enough to be under water. Here is something I wrote a few months ago: http://www.greendel.org/2015/03/07/russ-peterson-the-delaware-coastal-zone-act-and-leadership-in-delaware/

    • Yes to all of that on PA. The Quakers were also very suspect because they were not supporters of the Revolution, meaning that they were perceived as Loyalists after the war. The Scotch Irish and Germans (my people!) took over the state then.
      Delaware – wow. Your piece reveals a lot of love to my eyes because you found someone else who cared about doing the right thing all the time. It’s a great piece. I didn’t know any of this!
      And yes, Peterson was a Republican. I miss people like that, I really do.
      And I want to learn a lot more about the Coastal Zone and how it was managed. And I also agree on what you call “bomb trains” – what a nightmare!

  3. I might have added that the banks of the Delaware River were colonized by Swedes, Finns and Dutch in the early 1600s. So it could be said that the area is the *other* part of the US with a significant Nordic heritage. But the Dutch threw out the Swedes as rulers early on and the English threw out the Dutch by around 1660, and there isn’t much left of their influence–too long ago and there were never many of them. Unlike, say, New York (New Amsterdam) where there were many Dutch, with a sophisticated commercial culture, and their influence long remained after the English took over the government.

    • It certainly is! Very fascinating. Big cities with very distinct character, small towns, farmland – it’s really got it all!
      Voting patterns are also all over the place, which makes it very important. Along with Ohio it pretty much decides the Presidential race.

  4. How things change, or at least get refined! I remember a time when you proudly displayed the flag of the Conch Republic, and were very proud of their spirit of independence.

    • As I’ve written recently, I grew up in the South – or some weird parody of it. But my heritage is Pennsylvanian – far more than it is German or Irish or Scottish or any of the other places “my people” came from. In fact, as far as I can tell, “my people” come from good ol’ Pennsy!

  5. Economic stagnation, deindustrialization, technological changes … have severely impacted Pennsylvania (Anybody remember the Pennsylvania RR, Bethlehem Steel ….?) leading to some very negative politics and repellent pols like Rick Santorum. I am not sure how solidly the state is emerging from this.

  6. We need to take a lot more pride in where we are from in this country. I like where you are going with this.

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