Calculating Ethnicity

Most Americans I know divide their ethnic origins into fractions. Someone might say, for example, that they are 1/2 English, 1/4 Scottish, and 1/4 German. The Europeans I’ve talked to think this is a very odd idea, because the person is simply American.

I’m always intrigued by these ethnic percentages. Americans are so mixed that unless a person’s ancestors came to America very recently it’s not likely that family lore would accurately separate English from Scottish and Welsh, and perhaps not even from French and German.

My partner says he is 1/2 Danish and 1/2 German. His father was the son of Danish immigrants, and his mother came from a Mennonite family that is German in all its branches going back to colonial Pennsylvania. That kind of break-down is easy to accept.

Looking more closely at family lore versus calculation, I’ve come to the conclusion that ethnic percentages are more a simplified view of a person’s immediate ancestry than a genuine reflection of ethnic origins.

I thought it would be interesting to calculate my own ethnic percentages. Because of ethnic mixing in my ancestry, even in colonial times, I had to set a cut off point after which I would regard an ancestor as belonging to a particular ethnic group despite fractional portions in his or her ancestry of some other nationality. I set the cut-off at 5th great grandparents.

According to my parents, I should be 1/2 English, 1/4 Swedish, 1/8 Scottish and 1/8 Pawnee. These numbers come from looking at the conventional wisdom about the ethnic identity of my parents’ grandparents.

However, my calculations show that I’m 61/128 English, 1/4 Swedish, 17/128 German-Swiss, 3/64 Scottish, 1/16 Pawnee, and 1/32 Dutch. Pretty close to family lore, but not exact. The English has been rounded off in family lore, the German-Swiss and Dutch have been forgotten, and the Pawnee and Scottish have been exaggerated.

I find the same thing looking at my parents. (Not a surprise.) My mother is said to be 1/2 Swedish, 1/4 English and 1/4 Scottish. Family lore looks only at her grandparents. She had two Swedish grandparents, one who identified as English, and one who identified as Scotch-Irish. Going back five generations, my calculations show she is 1/2 Swedish, 13/32 English and 3/32 Scottish. The difference is basically the cutoff point chosen.

And my father shows the same kind of break. He is said to have been 3/4 English and 1/4 Pawnee, but the Pawnee element is exaggerated, while German-Swiss and Dutch have been lumped in with the English. Why? Because his family divides everyone into Indian and non-Indian, and the non-Indians are all “English.”

It seems that ethnic identity is more a function of how a person’s views his or her ancestry than of actual ancestry.

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