One-quarter English, one-quarter Irish, one-quarter Scottish, one-quarter German, I tell people if they ask me, but this strange genealogical math doesn’t account for the 1/128ths of Danish and French and all the unregistered names through the hundreds of years my mother’s mothers have been in the United States
I’m just American, I used to shrug. There are African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Iraqi-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and then there’s me: the garden variety American, with nothing for my hyphen to hitch itself to.
There must have been a point where my ancestors made the switch, swapped their hyphens for a new descriptor—White—Scots and Brits and Germans swimming in the melting pot that traded identity for privilege. They lost the Irish temper and stepped into a culture ready-made for them, one stained with legends of superiority and tempting lies about what they deserved.
An unwritten trade, but a trade it was, and as their daughter’s daughter I feel no kinship with the heritage they left. It always felt easier to define myself by what I was not, and so I checked the boxes: Caucasian/White. Not Hispanic. I am not Black; I am not European; I am not Asian; I am not ethnic, I lied to myself, I am the blank palette, white like a coloring book, or like rising dough, not yet baked.
In cultural exchanges, I always felt I had nothing to offer. My ancestors had already gone before and opened their arms, spreading out diseased blankets and hatchets and hoes, burning their language into people’s throats and their religion into people’s hearts and I walked behind them, their current slapping against my knees.
I am the daughter of my father and my mother. They are White like I am, just White, one-quarter English, one-quarter Irish, one-quarter Scottish, one-quarter German, but only if you ask them. They passed on to me skin that blisters in the sun, a freckling nose, and yellow hair. They passed on their faith and their optimism; their value of books, hard work, and education; their stubbornness and their pragmatism; and also, the advantages they have in renting a house, in being offered a job, in walking fearlessly down streets at night.
I never felt a pull of heritage more strongly than when I left my country. I am White, and my color means I must be from the U.S. (they also yell “Gringa!” at the girls from Denmark). I am conspicuous here and people are curious here, which means for the first time I am asked to describe my culture, to own my culture, to represent a country that is more diverse than I can explain.
Two hundred years ago, the immigrants that were my father’s fathers came to a country that asked them to leave behind what made them different. Their new identity was formed in the country I’ve left, and here I’m asked to explain it: why we talk so loudly, why we dress so sloppy, why we elected Donald Trump. For the first time, I have to think about these things. I have to answer.
It’s a spool I’m still unraveling, this grappling with what it means to be who I am and where I’m from. But I no longer see myself as the default, and that is the beginning. I cannot lie and pretend I am not shaped by my heritage, even if what was once ethnicity has been ameliorated into something tamer and broader—suburbs and college loans, lunchmeat sandwiches with iceberg lettuce and casseroles made from canned soup, “I’m not racist, but…”.
History continues to exist even as time moves forward. Though we are not defined by our past we are certainly shaped by it—I have been shaped by it, and to know it well is to know better who I am.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).