Unapologetic progressive. Fearless activist. Plucky liberal.

Today is the perfect day to talk about optional and symbolic ethnicities, terms Mary C. Waters, a Harvard sociology professor, discusses in “Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America.” St. Patrick’s Day is unusual among American holidays in that today huge numbers of people claim to be Irish, even if they don’t identify that way any other day of the year, and even if they don’t know if any of their ancestors were Irish.

Chances are if you’re a white American of European descent, you do have some Irish in you. I’ve been told several times my name sounds very Irish, although I point out my surname is of Scottish heritage. But one of Waters’ points is that as a white American, I have the option of identifying as Irish or Scottish — or German or Swedish or Polish — if I choose to. People of color generally don’t have that same freedom to don and shed ethnicities at will, which is another example of white privilege.

If a black man claims to be Irish, even if he has Irish ancestors, most people will regard him with skepticism. For that matter, even people of color born and raised in America often are asked to prove their “Americanness” because they don’t look like a “typical” American — i.e., white. If you don’t believe me, just scroll through the entries at Microaggressions. (You should really read the blog anyway because it’s awesome and a great how-to guide for how NOT to act.) Perfect strangers will ask a person with Asian features where he’s from and won’t accept “Pittsburgh” for an answer. The man could be a fourth-generation American, but the stranger expects an answer like South Korea, China, Thailand, etc.

Waters says symbolic ethnicity is a phrase coined by Herbert Gans “to refer to ethnicity that is individualistic in nature and without real social cost to the individual.” St. Patrick’s Day is an example:

An example of symbolic ethnicity is individuals who identify as Irish, for example, on occasions such as Saint Patrick’s Day, on family holidays, or for vacations. They do not usually belong to Irish American organizations, live in Irish neighborhoods, work in Irish jobs, or marry other Irish people. The symbolic meaning of being Irish American can be constructed by individuals from mass media images, family traditions, or other intermittent social activities. In other words, for later-generation White ethnics, ethnicity is not something that influences their lives unless they want it to.

Gwen Sharp wrote another good discussion about highlighting Irish ancestry here, about a judicial candidate in Las Vegas who put shamrocks on her campaign signs.

So on a day when everyone claims to be Irish, you can celebrate but don’t pretend to be Irish if you know you’re not. Or, if you do, acknowledge that privilege to yourself. For myself, I’ll wear green and wish others a happy St. Patrick’s Day, but I’m proud of my heritage the way it is.

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Comments on: "The flexibility of white ethnicity" (1)

  1. Excellent post, Molly.

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