My Humble Take On National Identity & Race

This is not a 4th of July polemic. That is, I didn't sit down to write something that just had to be heard on America's day. I'm just putting to blog an old idea of mine that resurfaced upon reading this article. Which didn't come out of July 4th by coincidence. And lest any think I'm hating, I here list my racial heritage. Confirmed: English, Jewish, black from Brazil, Welsh, French, Portuguese, Cherokee. Unconfirmed: Brazilian Indian, other North American Indian.

Today's N.Y. Times featured an article about the recent upsurge in "Hispanics" in the United States identifying themselves racially as Amerindian. As a Brazilian/American (not a Brazilian-American) I've always been a little annoyed at how the term Hispanic is used by the federal government.
“Hispanic is not a race, ” said Mr. Quiroz, whose ancestors were the Quechua people, of the Central Andes. “Hispanic is not a culture. Hispanic is an invention by some people who wanted to erase the identity of indigenous communities in America.”

In the 2010 census there was a big reformulation which I was happy about: "For this census, Hispanic origins are not races." That doesn't help me a ton, since I'm not really "Hispanic"; that's just where the U.S. has decided Brazil fits.

I don't usually opt out of answering these questions, however. And I have a motivation similar to that of the Indian folk from the article quoted above.

I got to choose. Both, mostly.
In a couple of generations the "white" majority of the United States will disappear. And I'm totally cool with that. That is, I'm cool with that if by "white" we mean suburban, identity-less, vanilla-flavored, Dilbert-commuting, non-smoking, white America.

The United States is not really a nation, at least not in the old-fashioned sense of the word (a word that has ethnic connotations), it's an artificial state drawn together by compact. What makes an American an American, as opposed to what makes an Armenian an Armenian, is the American compact. There are legitimate issues in modern day immigration as to how people approach that.

The passing of the "white" age might be a little sad. How horrible that sounds. And the problem there is how we've categorized things; we "white" people have brought an identity crisis on ourselves. Half the Latin Americans who move here must be "white", but we don't think that way. People of European descent in New York and Iowa do hardly more than think of themselves as "white", and have no idea what it means to be "American", thinking of themselves as Americans only in an internal politicized sense (democrat, republican, liberal, conservative).

So maybe the passing of the "white" age won't be sad at all. Middle class Americans are experiencing a massive identity crisis, and it's because they don't belong to anything or anyone. (Even their churches are little vanilla clubhouses with actual clubhouses for gyms.) The identity crisis doesn't impact redneck good ol' boys from the panhandle of Florida; nor does it affect all the "Portuguese" families in New Bedford who don't speak a bit of Portuguese; nor does it affect the Dutch Calvinist almond growers in the Central Valley of California. Those folks all know who they are. It affects the mass of white America, though, displaced in both body and spirit.

The white population of the United States needs a story to tell itself, a story it can believe in. A WASP is not the same thing as an Anglo-Saxon; the latter is much more robust than the former. The identity of a WASP is anemic. Those Indians felt threatened by the word "Hispanic", because no one knows what Hispanic means. A long time ago the majority of Americans began to give up their identities, because they agreed to be called "white". To know who you are you must have a sense of place, a sense of name.

Aside: It is not a coincidence that birth rates among whites are much higher in areas of the country you'd associate with having a more "placed" population; that is, Nebraska corn farmers have way more babies than people who commute 2 hours to their jobs in San Francisco. Nor is it a coincidence that black identity in the U.S. goes further into crisis with each generation (a crisis that has been with blacks since they were first stolen from their lands). Blacks, as compared to whites or "hispanics", have the highest abortion rate by far. Because of their submission to this, they deny themselves power and identity: they have less cultural and political power by far than they would have had if the 16 million black children killed in utero had survived.

My "nation". Chosen as well.
To know who you are you must have a sense of place. I know where I belong, and I know what my loyalties are. I grew up moving all over three different countries, but there were stories to be told along every thread of my family, not always deep, but always good stories. It is no coincidence that my shallowest sense of identity comes from the stream that cuts completely short in 1918 (with a family estrangement), and that my deepest combines the books my mom gave me to read as a kid with the ancestral knowledge that traces the farthest back. I have a Yankee side that has traced itself back to medieval days. My great-grandmother, a Long Islander who controversially married a Jew, gave me many of the books with her research, since I showed so much interest. I almost never look at it, but it certainly helps give me a sense of place.

I'm not sure that checking "Hispanic" for ethnicity then "white" for race is the right thing for me to do. Particularly because I have no interest in being "white". It's a small way for me to say that I'm proud to be a Latin American and a speaker of Portuguese; it's also a way for me to say, even though I carry the blood of races on four different continents, that I'm proud to be Anglo-Saxon.

I think people should want to be proud of their racial descent. There are really only two approaches to how so many nations can be made to live together in peace and harmony. One is what liberals and conservatives both emphasize today: give up your identity and become a servant of the state. They just say it in different ways. The other is to actually have the society described to me when I attended an American school (in Brazil) for the first time. A society in which folk are very proud of their ethnic ancestry, in which folk are very proud of their former countries, in which folk are proud to be Americans. A melting pot which is really more of a stew.

The biggest population in the United States right now is letting down the side. If you are a "white" American, don't stress out too much about stupid language rules in the public schools of Southern California. Instead, ask yourself who your are, and if a Mexican family would be able to see who you are if you had them over for a barbecue. And it'll probably help if you know you're Anglo-Saxon. Or a Southerner. Or a Californian. It probably won't help if you're just a citizen. Or if you're "white".

Oh, yeah, Happy 4th of July!


  1. Very interesting. The issue of identity to americans is a difficult ball of wax indeed. I was living in Korea when I discovered that being Korean meant something different to those who lived there than being American means to me. I've been a bit jealous ever since of those who can claim to be rooted geographically, linguistically, culturally and historically. Thanks for another great article.

  2. There is such thing as being American, but for the white majority this isn't normally realized unless contrasted against something that differs from the American's "norm."
    The stats that decry the loss of white majority are misleading in that the country is, and will be for a very long time prdominantly white. It takes ALL the other minorities added together to barely squeeze out the whites as numericaly superior. What this means is that anyone who is afraid of losing something by loss of white majority is falling victim to fear mongering.
    I say viva la multirace America!


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