I remember my granddad pulling me aside when I was around 12, telling me "you don't cross a brown horse with a white one." Being 12 and still kinda into horses, I said, "But that's how they get Appaloosas...and Appaloosas are awesome!" He sputtered at me that I didn't "get my meaning, son" - which was true - and it was only a few years later when I started dating a Catholic girl that the subject of what a proper mate is came up again.
Obviously, Grandpa had notions about our identity and about preserving that identity that he wanted to convey to me. The rest of my family either did not see things the way he did, or at least did not want to come out and say so, and as a result, I ended up figuring out for myself what his message was all those years before.
I did not like it, and in defining who I did want to be, I changed the way my family - my wife and my children - defines itself today.
When I started looking up our genealogy, I didn't know what to expect. It was possible that we might have descended from Nobility, or that I might discover cousins who were famous. Wrapped up in all of the unspoken assumptions about our family's identity, the one undisputed fact we knew was that we were "white people." And, in fact, every ancestor I have been able to trace has belonged to one of a handful of typical European groups that easily qualify as "white"; mostly British Islanders or Germanic folk, with the occasional Scandinavian thrown in. Depending on when they came to North America, they may have identified with a nation or religion that has since been absorbed into what is generally thought of as white - but along the way, I have also learned that there isn't really a solid definition for what race is.
In fact, I have learned that while there are still those who insist that there is room for debate, the notion that "race" is a biological concept is almost certainly false. Genetically, we're all one species, and insisting on maintaining artificial divisions within our species is not only pointless, but is also the ultimate in political correctness.
Now that I've been doing the family history for a couple of decades, I can see in thousands of documented cases just how quickly culture and identity can change. Because of our paternalistic naming traditions, we tend to lose track of where we come from - which can cost us anywhere from half to three-quarters of our cultural identity in a single generation if there is any kind of deep familial split or sudden migration. And despite this, we take for granted that we know what we think we know, and claim that our heritage is deeper than a generation or two. Making these claims that we take for granted has become ingrained in our identity - and this is particularly true for those of us in the ill-defined, ever-changing group that I find myself in.
We may treat our racial divisions as fact. But, as a researcher, if there is one thing that must never be left un-examined, that thing is an unquestioned "fact."
Ta-Nehisi Coates uses a construction in his book, Between the World and Me, where instead of simply saying "white people" he refers to "people who believe that they are white." He uses it to draw a distinction for his son that is very important, and that description serves to identify people who have chosen to be a certain thing. That construct seems more accurate to me, because if you accept that racial identity is not a biological phenomenon, then it becomes something more personal. A person's race is often thrust upon them, as it is what they are told they are from birth. But race is rarely about what a person actually is, and at best, it is more about what they aspire to be.
Before the American Revolution, people living in North America identified with the places they emigrated from. Benjamin Franklin, you may recall, considered himself to be English up until the moment that England and the United States became separated. He viewed the German settlers of Pennsylvania as distinctly different in culture, in character, and in all other ways that count. They spoke a different language, practiced different religions, and Franklin commented that they were attracted to different physical characteristics in their women than were Englishmen. (See his great biography, The First American.) And in truth, Germany as a nation did not exist until more than a century after Franklin described these German people, so it is doubtful that the German-speaking Pennsylvanians would have chosen to describe themselves quite the way he did.
But after the Revolution, you can see how quickly that changed. I see it in the way my German ancestors began moving across the continent, changing religions, marrying outside their traditional groups, and ditching the German language in favor of English. I see how my 5th great-grandfather, James Callin, went from being an Irish (or possibly Manx) immigrant fighting against the British to being an American farmer with land in Ohio. Whatever separate groups they had been before, they became something new in a very short time.
There is no question that those groups melded to create something uniquely American. And there is no question that the original notions of what it meant to be an American changed as these previously divided and distinct groups joined the dominant American culture. Despite some exceptions (notably the freed slaves, and immigrants from Asia, among others), America derived great strength from it's egalitarian "melting pot" ideals. And since the founding of the country, more and more different groups have been motivated to see themselves as "white."
It has certainly not been a perfect process. Today's debates about what immigration and what it means still tend to be motivated by racism - and every immigrant struggles to balance assimilation with preserving their own heritage. This recent Washington Post article documents just one way that different groups (in this article, people who used to fall solely into the "Hispanic" category) add themselves to the dominant group in American culture. That is not a new phenomenon, and in studying my genealogy, I've seen my own family do the same thing.
The pre-revolutionary idea of "white" would have been limited to men who were "Anglo-Saxon protestant and landed." Even my ancestors who could claim to be English may not have met those early definitions of "white." They may have been Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Manx...or simply poor. After the revolution, men like my maybe-Irish Callin ancestor would have been allowed into the club after acquiring land in Ohio. In that way, his family "became" white.
A large number of the descendants I have traced down from James Callin have been Roman Catholic. As recently as the election of John F. Kennedy, Roman Catholics were not generally included in the "white" culture, and while the first catholic presidential candidate was nominated in 1928, in 1960 it was still an open question whether JFK was electable. Catholics were still seen as dangerous outsiders, but now, that has changed. The pattern of widening the definition of "white" has been incremental, but steady. Think about that original definition again, and consider how many people on the modern Supreme Court meet that original standard. (Hint: there are six Roman Catholic, counting the late Justice Scalia, and three Jewish justices; and yes, that is a dig at originalism.)
It is interesting to see just how many people who would never have been considered "white" under the old rules now are. I heard someone on NPR recently describe themselves as "a white person - I'm Jewish, but I'm a white person." As I said, everyone has to struggle with melding these strains of their background, but it shows how fluid racial groups can (and probably should) be.
There is a flip side to this, of course, and it is more destructive. Consider how Ben Carson - a black presidential candidate - saying that President Barack Obama was "raised white" - challenged the "blackness" of the sitting president. He's not alone in voicing this kind of thing. I've heard that same argument about President Obama from dozens of my white friends since 2008 (particularly from Allen West supporters) and while it's offensive and ridiculous, it's an idea that says something about the validity of Ta-Nehisi Coate's construction: "people who believe they are white" are people who aspire to be something that they think it is important for them to be. It also perpetuates the idea that one group is for desirables, and the other is for undesirables.
The point I'm getting at is that your actual heritage is usually more complicated than a simple label can account for. Genetically, I am descended from people who are considered "white," so society says that's what I am. Even if I find evidence of ancestors who call my "whiteness" into question, it probably doesn't matter because of what I look like. And these days, if people as diverse as the people I have already described here as being "white" can be accepted as such - and if a black man with Obama's African name and documented heritage can be called "white" - then anyone can be. All they have to do is believe that they are white.
It's not all that new or radical to say that cultural pressures force people to fit themselves into a definition. If you question the rules about who actually meets the definition of the group, you quickly discover that there really is no such thing as a "white person" - if there ever was, it is just not defensible to say there is, now. When it comes down to being consistent, we're all actually "people of color" - it's just that some us us feel a need to be seen as white.
All of this is problematic. It is almost always harmful to place undue importance on these categories; especially when our culture so clearly mistreats those who it does not see as fitting into its arbitrary, shifting definition of "good." Personally, I'd rather celebrate who we are as individuals - as Mightier Acorns from the same tree - rather than make a big deal about what we think we need to be to fit in. Rather than bicker over fuzzy boundaries and who is "in" or "out" of the group, wouldn't it be easier just to be human?
And then maybe Ta-Nehisi Coates wouldn't have to warn his son to beware of "people who believe themselves to be white."