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Old 03-15-2019, 09:01 AM
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How do people know their (or others) specific ethnicity?


I came across this map on Reddit today. There are many examples like this that show all the different types of ethnicity groups in an area.

As a standard American mutt, I am always a little baffled by these. Unless I go do a DNA tests, I have no idea what ethnicity I am besides "white." How do these people, who are all packed together in a relatively small country know if they are ethnically Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Hungarian, Albanian, Slovak, etc? You just take your mothers and grandmothers word for it?

Who defines these ethnicity groups? Who gets to decide that these are all separate and not really just one blob?

How do people know other people's ethnicity? Is this all just self reported?

Last edited by Hermitian; 03-15-2019 at 09:03 AM.
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:07 AM
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I'm a little baffled by how you wouldn't know. Were you adopted?
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:07 AM
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It seems like a lot of what Gran says can be easily confirmed with a little research into birth, death, marriage registers.

I don’t think anyone can be certain of their entire ethnic background, some foreign invader centuries ago could easily and unexpectedly be present.

But within the last century, I should think that would be easy enough to track down, and more pertinent to how most people define their ethnicity.
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:11 AM
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Who defines these ethnicity groups?
Language and religion, mostly.
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:17 AM
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Originally Posted by Hermitian View Post
As a standard American mutt, I am always a little baffled by these. Unless I go do a DNA tests, I have no idea what ethnicity I am besides "white." How do these people, who are all packed together in a relatively small country know if they are ethnically Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Hungarian, Albanian, Slovak, etc? You just take your mothers and grandmothers word for it?
There are many ways to determine this ... and yes, a lot of this relies on "self reporting". But while ethnic identification is not always 100%, there are some pretty good clues.

A big one is languages spoken in the home, especially by older generations. Sure, I may be a teenager in Slovakia and have grown up speaking Slovak. But maybe my surname is "Nagy" -- and while my dad also grew up speaking Slovak, he also has command of Hungarian. My paternal grandparents both speak Slovak fluently, but with Hungarian accents -- and I notice that they usually speak Hungarian between themselves (more so when agitated!). And then my old Nana (Dad's grandmother) who passes away when I was 7 ... she only haltingly spoke Slovak, but sang me lots of songs in Hungarian.

And then there's a similar story on my mother's side, except her maiden name is "Gruber" and her immediate ancestors had varying levels of competence with Bavarian German -- akin to the Hungarian speakers mentioned above.

So, with that linguisitic information, you start working in further information about where your ancestors once lived, where they were raised, etc. This information does get passed down generation to generation, even if imperfectly. And yeah, information about your 18th-century ancestors is probably off in some significant ways ... things within your grandparents' living memory (things THEIR grandparents passed on to them) are not as likely to be significantly incorrect.

In the end ... it's not "23 and Me" accuracy, but it's typically more than enough to establish a credible ethnic identity within oneself. Besides, in the end ... does it really matter if you are really 3/4 Alpine French genetically when everyone on both sides of your family has lived in NW Italy for the past several generations? Should you feel any less Italian?
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:20 AM
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I'm a little baffled by how you wouldn't know. Were you adopted?
Upon reading the OP ... I was thinking maybe he/she was wondering how someone could know with forensic precision, as opposed to having a general impressionistic idea of one's own ethnicity. When I think more about that ... I realize that one's pinpoint-precise genetic profile is probably a very different thing than one's self-identified ethnicity (essentially, a social construct).
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:21 AM
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Their names, the language they speak, and what their parents and grandparents told them is going to be pretty accurate in former Yugoslavia. You can also look at the historic kingdoms that made up the country and you'll see them correspond to the major areas in your ethnicity map, and you can see most of it didn't change much between 1953 and 1991.

ETA: And religion, as MrDibble pointed out already.

Last edited by TriPolar; 03-15-2019 at 09:24 AM.
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:35 AM
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As recently as my parents' generation, churches in the US were almost exclusively ethnic: Irish-American Catholics would go to one church, Italian-American Catholics would go to another, Polish-American Catholics to yet another, and so on. And the churches would usually be named after patron saints of those ethnicities, to clearly label them. People could intermarry, but there'd still be clues: For instance, if your last name is O'Brien and you go to St. Pat's, but when you go to visit Grandma, she attends St. Stanislaus, you know that you're part Polish.
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:40 AM
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All my grandparents emigrated between 1885 (my maternal grandfather was only 1) and 1904 (the other three between 1898 and 1904) claimed to come from Lithuanian or Russia and all spoke Yiddish as their native tongue. How can I doubt my ethnicity?

I imagine most people learn it from the parents and grandparents.
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:44 AM
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Originally Posted by Hermitian View Post
How do these people, who are all packed together in a relatively small country know if they are ethnically Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Hungarian, Albanian, Slovak, etc? You just take your mothers and grandmothers word for it?
In this particular case, your ethnicity, and knowing that of your neighbors, was often a matter of life and death. And even in more peaceful times it was easy to tell by the language you spoke, the alphabet you used, what religion you were, and many other factors. Even people of mixed heritage would most likely identify (or be identified by others) as one particular group.

Since the peak of European migration to the US was a century ago or more, and many groups acculturated in terms of adopting English and other cultural features very rapidly, such distinctions have become obscured in the US. But still, I think the vast majority of people of European ancestry still have a good idea of where their families came from.
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:49 AM
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I'm baffled as well.

Ethnicity is determined by yourself and whatever nationality, background, social group, community, and/or religion, that you decide to identify with. I mean, you have a name right? Most people identify with the origin of their family name as (barring any hanky-panky) it is passed down through the generations. Yes, it is usually passed down by word of mouth from your parents, grandparents, etc.. and their family names.

Although there is more cultural diversity now than ever before, this is relatively modern. Traditionally, most ethnicities tended to stay within their community when settling in new regions, socializing, marrying, having children, etc..

Myself for instance, I identify with Scotland, my name is Scottish, (Gaelic actually) My wife has a Scottish name and background. My wife, 2 of my children, my aunts/uncles, nieces/nephews/cousins have red hair, etc.. My father's name and bloodline traces back to Scotland but my paternal grandmother is French-Canadian and her maiden name and family trace back to France. My mom, and maternal grandparents are both Scottish and have Scottish family names, as did all four of my great-grandparents, and so on.

If you identify as American that's fine, in fact, you can identify with multiple ethnicities if you choose... Hey, why not... AND... St. Paddy's Day is in 2 days!

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Old 03-15-2019, 09:51 AM
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I came across this map on Reddit today. There are many examples like this that show all the different types of ethnicity groups in an area.

As a standard American mutt, I am always a little baffled by these.
But, obviously for someplace like former Yugoslavia, people are greatly more aware of their specific heritage and group affiliation than 'standard American mutts'. Which also many Americans are, though generally not to the degree in former Yugoslavia. In my family there isn't any doubt. Every known surname back to at least great greats is Irish. The various branches of the family mostly lived in Brooklyn for several generations (nobody in my extended family personally knows any relative in Ireland AFAIK), apparently making it a point to marry other Irish. They were (NY) Irish, quite obviously and self consciously. It wasn't a matter of taking any one person's word for it, but a significant aspect of their identity, of mine when I was a kid.
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:52 AM
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Thanks for the responses so far. I guess this is a part of life that is known or discussed in other areas of the world. It is just so foreign to me.

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I'm a little baffled by how you wouldn't know. Were you adopted?
How would I know? My great grandparents were born in the US. By that time they were probably already a mixture of Irish, German, English, Swiss, Italian, and who-knows what.

But those aren't even ethnic groups are they? Does a nationality make an ethnic group? You can have many ethnic groups in one country.
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Old 03-15-2019, 09:53 AM
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My European ancestors moved to Baltimore between 1845 and 1860, and their offspring pretty much stayed in Baltimore. That meant that when I was growing up, there were lots of great-aunts and uncles around with stories and family lore, as well as family bibles with birth and death data. For my Irish and German ancestors, I know where my great-great grand-parents were born. For the Polish side, my grandmother told me that her family came from Poland. Good enough for me.
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Old 03-15-2019, 10:02 AM
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I'm a little baffled by how you wouldn't know. Were you adopted?
I confess that I personally wouldn't have a clue. One side of grandparents had some quite dark skin in there but not the others but whether that is mediterranean, middle-eastern, asian? I don't know. I know where my parents were born but I have no idea about my grandparents and have never been interested enough to ask.

So I don't actually care. They were them and I am me. If I found out my mother's dad was Scottish and My dad's mum was half Tunisian it'd be a big fat meh and it wouldn't change a single thing about me. My father in law loves his genealogy stuff but I glaze over after ten seconds.
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Old 03-15-2019, 10:24 AM
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Yes, for what ancestries / ethnicities Americans claim, it's very often a matter of taking what your grandparents or parents told you about family history at face value. For those of us whose ancestors emigrated to the U.S. within the past 2 or 3 generations, it's obviously a lot clearer than for those whose ancestors have been in the U.S. for a couple of hundred years.

And, yes, sometimes, those family stories probably aren't accurate (see: Elizabeth Warren). If I get into a conversation about ancestry with a friend, very often the friend says something along the lines of "and there's supposed to be a little Cherokee in there somewhere," which suggests to me that there's a lot of tall tales on the subject in people's family trees.
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Old 03-15-2019, 10:35 AM
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But those aren't even ethnic groups are they? Does a nationality make an ethnic group? You can have many ethnic groups in one country.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no (or not meaningfully). As others have noted, your example of the former Yugoslavia is a particularly thorny one, and as national boundaries have moved and changed over time, they haven't always matched up to dividing different ethnic groups from one another.

In some cases, nationality and ethnicity line up more closely, but even then, there might be distinctions. You can say, "I'm of English heritage," and your ancestors came from England, but they might have been Cornish, or from Yorkshire, etc.
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Old 03-15-2019, 10:47 AM
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... My great grandparents were born in the US. By that time they were probably already a mixture of Irish, German, English, Swiss, Italian, and who-knows what.

But those aren't even ethnic groups are they? Does a nationality make an ethnic group? You can have many ethnic groups in one country.
Sure they are. "Ethnic group" is a pretty fuzzy concept, though. "Nationality of ancestors" is one of many potential hooks upon which one may hang one's ethnic self-identification. But of course, there are other hooks -- language spoken by ancestors, religion of self/ancestors, minority status of ancestors (e.g. Roma in Europe).

...

Hermitian, now I'm curious -- going into this thread, what have been your ideas about ethnic groups? What do you consider "for sure" ethnic groups? Do you think of it more in terms of skin color, or religion, or language, or other ways?

Also, have you ever spoken to your oldest relatives with questions about their backgrounds? How they identified themselves ethnically? Even if your grandparents themselves defined themselves as "mutts", they may have some clues you can trace backwards.
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Old 03-15-2019, 10:52 AM
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If I get into a conversation about ancestry with a friend, very often the friend says something along the lines of "and there's supposed to be a little Cherokee in there somewhere," which suggests to me that there's a lot of tall tales on the subject in people's family trees.
If there had really been enough Cherokee in the Carolinas to provide for all the descendants out there, the white man wouldn't have stood a chance, and I'd be living in Bavaria today. Well, Louisville, at any rate.

My own mother was raised to believe that her grandmother had Native American blood. My brother recently did one of the DNA tests. Nope.

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Old 03-15-2019, 11:05 AM
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Hermitian, now I'm curious -- going into this thread, what have been your ideas about ethnic groups? What do you consider "for sure" ethnic groups? Do you think of it more in terms of skin color, or religion, or language, or other ways?
That is sort of why I made this thread. Plenty of sources talk about ethnic groups or map them out like it is this very clear line of what an ethnic group is. Like this is all well defined.

But it seems to be a complete mishmash of religion, language, lore, nationality, or whatever seems cool to claim to be.

Sometimes I hear a co-worker say something like "My great great grandfather came here from Ireland, so I'm Irish." I'm thinking, that's great that you identified 1/16 of your heritage, what about the other 15/16ths?

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Also, have you ever spoken to your oldest relatives with questions about their backgrounds? How they identified themselves ethnically? Even if your grandparents themselves defined themselves as "mutts", they may have some clues you can trace backwards.
My grandparents did a bit of research decades ago, but I have no idea where that info is now. But even then, it seems like people research the areas of the tree that they like or find interesting.
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Old 03-15-2019, 11:05 AM
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How would I know? My great grandparents were born in the US. By that time they were probably already a mixture of Irish, German, English, Swiss, Italian, and who-knows what.
You could probably find out by doing some genealogical research, if you wanted to. But there are a significant number of Americans who just list their ethnicity as "American," and that works as well.

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But those aren't even ethnic groups are they? Does a nationality make an ethnic group? You can have many ethnic groups in one country.
As far as Europe goes, ethnicity in many cases corresponds with nations, but not perfectly so. There are several multi-ethnic countries, or ethnic groups that span several countries, and as mentioned borders have shift.

You can break ethnicity down as fine as you want. For example, the "Scotch-Irish" in the US are different in religion and culture (or were) from the Catholic Irish who mostly emigrated later.

My great-great grandfather emigrated to the US in 1864. He was born in the German part of Switzerland (a fact that had been lost to us until we did some genealogical research), but may have been raised in Germany, emigrated from there, and was listed on most records in the US as being German.

Of my 16 great-great grandparents, one was Swiss (and gave us the family name), three were from three different German kingdoms (there being no unified German state at the time), and 12 from Ireland. Since my mother's family emigrated most recently, in the 1870s, we retain more Irish traditions and identify mostly as Irish. Still, my mother's favorite dishes to prepare include not only corned beef and cabbage, but also pork chops and sauerkraut (plus meatballs and spaghetti because our neighborhood was mostly Italian.)
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Old 03-15-2019, 11:05 AM
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I'm a little baffled by how you wouldn't know. Were you adopted?
Well, neither of my parents had any siblings and they were very different ethnically. My dad was (IIRC) English/Scottish/Irish and my mother was Jewish with her ancestors vaguely eastern European. Their parents were not happy about the marriage.

Neither of my parents were interested in their genealogy and I guess I inherited that feeling. I am the eldest surviving member of my family and have no desire to research my ethnicity.
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Old 03-15-2019, 11:12 AM
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Yugoslavia was very divided along ethnic lines. Croats lived in Croatia, Serbs lived in Serbia, etc. They each had their own religion and dialect. If they lived in a border area with mixed ethnicities they at least knew what religion they were or at least what their parents were. If there was intermarriage they probably knew when it happened.
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Old 03-15-2019, 11:17 AM
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Many Americans are a mishmash of European ethnicities. I'm not -- my father's parents were Jewish (early 20th century immigrants from Ukraine and Latvia), my mother's parents were German-Swiss, emigrated late 19th century from the Lucerne area. It's a known known.

My brother in law did the DNA thing and it came back 99% English.
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Old 03-15-2019, 11:43 AM
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Yugoslavia was very divided along ethnic lines. Croats lived in Croatia, Serbs lived in Serbia, etc. They each had their own religion and dialect. If they lived in a border area with mixed ethnicities they at least knew what religion they were or at least what their parents were. If there was intermarriage they probably knew when it happened.
Of course, the fact that the borders of the different states didn't correspond exactly to ethnicity led to "ethnic cleansing" and genocide when Yugoslavia broke apart, particularly in Bosnia where there were large areas with different ethnicities.

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Old 03-15-2019, 12:01 PM
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Quoth kenobi 65:

And, yes, sometimes, those family stories probably aren't accurate (see: Elizabeth Warren). If I get into a conversation about ancestry with a friend, very often the friend says something along the lines of "and there's supposed to be a little Cherokee in there somewhere," which suggests to me that there's a lot of tall tales on the subject in people's family trees.
Why would that suggest tall tales? It is, in fact, quite common for an American to have a little Cherokee in there somewhere. Or some other tribe, but as I understand it, Cherokee is the most common.
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Old 03-15-2019, 12:37 PM
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Why would that suggest tall tales? It is, in fact, quite common for an American to have a little Cherokee in there somewhere. Or some other tribe, but as I understand it, Cherokee is the most common.
Because while there are many Native American tribes, the ancestry stories I hear are nearly always Cherokee, specifically. No doubt, some of them are likely true (even if maybe the ancestry's from a different tribe), but the stories seem to come up so often that, at least IMO, it defies belief.

And, as this article notes, it actually *isn't* that common, if we're talking about non-Hispanic white Americans:

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With respect to European Americans, the percentages are much more different than African Americans or Latinos, with European American genomes being 98.6 percent European, 0.19 percent African and 0.18 percent Native American.
Yes, that's an average, but it's still a tiny number: much less than 1% of the average "European American"'s genome.
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Old 03-15-2019, 12:44 PM
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But still, I think the vast majority of people of European ancestry still have a good idea of where their families came from.
Is that really true? I mean, I don't really know. My father's surname broadly suggests an origin in the HRE. And the family settled within the giant swath of the United States where the majority identifies as "German." But that only accounts for a single line of male ancestors (and then, not for much). My mother's surname might be British (maybe English, maybe Scottish, maybe an anglicized version of something else entirely), but again, that only accounts for a single line of male ancestors. I'm not sure I have any real sense of where my family came from before the American Midwest.

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Old 03-15-2019, 01:06 PM
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Thanks for the responses so far. I guess this is a part of life that is known or discussed in other areas of the world. It is just so foreign to me.

How would I know? My great grandparents were born in the US. By that time they were probably already a mixture of Irish, German, English, Swiss, Italian, and who-knows what.

But those aren't even ethnic groups are they? Does a nationality make an ethnic group? You can have many ethnic groups in one country.
Sure you can have many ethnic groups in one country - nationality and ethnicity are not always the same. For example, there are a lot of ethnic Italians in some South American countries. And to give you my own example, my father's family is Gottschee. They are German-speaking Austrians who in the 14th century settled in what is now the municipality of Kočevje in Slovenia. When my grandparents were born there, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It then became part of Yugoslavia and eventually Slovenia. We are ethnically Austrian, not Slovene - but really, we're ethnically Gottschee because that culture is most likely a little different than Austrian- Austrian.

So how do I know I'm Gottscheer? Because I know my grandparents were born there . Because the neighborhood I grew up in was so German that we distinguished between the Gottscheers and the Bavarians, and to this day there's a Gottscheer Hall in that neighborhood. My kids know we're Gottscheer - but their kids probably won't get any more specific than "German"

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Old 03-15-2019, 01:30 PM
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Yes, the Trail of Tears was very effective at spreading Cherokee ancestors across the population.

And yes, among those Americans who have Cherokee ancestry, it's usually only a single-digit percentage. Like the people generally claim, "a little bit in there somewhere". OK, maybe such a small percentage is meaningless, but it's not false.
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Old 03-15-2019, 01:39 PM
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This isn't in any way to dispute the "messiness" of ethnicity which seems to have become the main topic, but I think there's something relevant to the OP but completely absent from this thread: completely independent of language, religion, or knowledge of a person's history or family, people look like their ethnic group.

When I was growing up I always had the same question as the OP—someone would say another person 'looks Polish', but I wouldn't see it. Since moving to Chicago, I've become very familiar with that specific (but to me fairly undefined) set of features. Certainly not all people of Polish heritage are recognizable as such, and I'd never claim that anybody has "forensic precision" at this. But this is a skill, learned over time and repetition, which many don't have. Since then, with wildly varying accuracy, I've become familiar with traits of quite a few different groups. This usually occurs by getting to know one person, learning about their heritage, then seeing others who looks similar and being curious if they share it. Certainly I couldn't do this without spending time in a major city.
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Old 03-15-2019, 01:44 PM
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And yes, among those Americans who have Cherokee ancestry, it's usually only a single-digit percentage. Like the people generally claim, "a little bit in there somewhere". OK, maybe such a small percentage is meaningless, but it's not false.
Just another data point: this Slate article, which notes:

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...geneticists say the overwhelming majority of white Americans who expect to find Native American ancestry in their DNA are disappointed.
To be fair, the article also notes that a complicating factor is that many Native Americans have been reluctant to participate in genetic testing, meaning that it's absolutely possible that there are white Americans who do have some Native American ancestry, but the genetic testing services can't identify it, because they don't have enough data on Native Americans.
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Old 03-15-2019, 01:55 PM
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Is that really true? I mean, I don't really know.
From here, only 7.2% of the US population identifies as "American" rather with some specific ethnic group. This category probably includes mostly European-Americans who either don't know or don't care about the details of their origin, or are so mixed that they don't identify with one particular group. It may also include some people who want to state that ethnicity for political reasons.

Now it's true that there has been a lot of intermarriage between European-American groups, but the majority of people have a good idea of their main ancestry, even if they don't know all the details.

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Old 03-15-2019, 02:39 PM
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Originally Posted by kenobi 65 View Post
To be fair, the article also notes that a complicating factor is that many Native Americans have been reluctant to participate in genetic testing, meaning that it's absolutely possible that there are white Americans who do have some Native American ancestry, but the genetic testing services can't identify it, because they don't have enough data on Native Americans.
I suspect another complicating factor is that it was popular to "explain" a Black ancestor as a Native American instead. I know there were several early baseball players who claimed to be Native Americans or Cubans who were actually Black.
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Old 03-15-2019, 03:43 PM
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From here, only 7.2% of the US population identifies as "American" rather with some specific ethnic group. This category probably includes mostly European-Americans who either don't know or don't care about the details of their origin, or are so mixed that they don't identify with one particular group. It may also include some people who want to state that ethnicity for political reasons.

Now it's true that there has been a lot of intermarriage between European-American groups, but the majority of people have a good idea of their main ancestry, even if they don't know all the details.
There are surely some people of various mixed European backgrounds who say that, but statistically it's heavily concentrated in Appalachia and among whites in the South, see map in article. Also a lot of Appalachian people who give 'American' as their ethnicity are not actually widely mixed but of predominantly so called Scots-Irish background, immigrants to Ireland from Scotland and other Irish Protestants who later migrated to the US. And it includes areas where most people trace most of their US ancestors to the area in which they still live.

That map only gives most common identification in an area (counties looks like), so surely there are people from eg. the Upper Midwest and northern Plains of mixed northern European background who say 'don't know/care', 'American' etc. but it's apparently most common in that region to give the originally dominant group among white settlers in the area, German in that large area. It isn't that Appalachian whites are more mixed, probably the opposite, it's just more the ethno-regional custom there to say 'American' when referring to origin in the British Isles, and mainly Scots-Irish.

Somebody said white ethnicity is real for fairly recent immigrants from Europe but semi-arbitrary otherwise. I agree it's semi-arbitrary for a lot of people, but it's not so arbitrary for others even with long roots in the US, even when it's not their custom to name that ethnicity, as it often is not for Scots-Irish in Appalachia.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs...=.0235306f25e0

Last edited by Corry El; 03-15-2019 at 03:45 PM.
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Old 03-15-2019, 06:37 PM
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Just another data point: this Slate article, which notes:



To be fair, the article also notes that a complicating factor is that many Native Americans have been reluctant to participate in genetic testing, meaning that it's absolutely possible that there are white Americans who do have some Native American ancestry, but the genetic testing services can't identify it, because they don't have enough data on Native Americans.


A few months ago a friend of mine on FB was shocked his 23 and Me (or Similar, I forget which one he did) did not show more First Nations (Cree and Mi'kmaq) ancestry. Someone posted this article to his timeline.

Native American DNA is just not that Into You I am not sure of all the science but it is interesting.

Me, I know I am roughly half Finn on both sides (both grandmothers were born to Finn immigrants) and my Dad's father was half Scots and half descended pretty clearly from United Empire Loyalists who went to southern modern-day Ontario after 1780. My maternal grandfather is a mish-mash of various Western European ethnicities mainly but not exclusively British. So I say half Finn and half British Mutt, which is not strictly true but close enough.
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Old 03-15-2019, 11:11 PM
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Unless I go do a DNA tests, I have no idea what ethnicity I am besides "white."
This is exactly why people have their DNA tested. You couldn't figure that out for yourself?
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Old 03-15-2019, 11:47 PM
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Language and religion, mostly.
Language is whatever your Mother spoke and ethnicity and religion is whatever Grandad said.

-From a anthropology lecture I attended few years ago.
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Old 03-15-2019, 11:56 PM
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This is exactly why people have their DNA tested. You couldn't figure that out for yourself?
A DNA test may not reveal much about his ethnicity that is not better known from his known family history and culture. Consider the extreme hypothetical case where he was adopted and his genes tell nothing concerning his ethnicity.

I concede that with proper analysis and interpretation these types of testing may reveal something; they use them to try to deduce the movement and admixture of prehistoric European peoples, for example. It seems like you need a proper expert or two to interpret the results, though, and anything too far back would not shed light on ethnicity, which is volatile on the order of a couple of generations, anyway, which brings us back to the immediate family history.
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Old 03-16-2019, 12:58 AM
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Fifty-some years ago, when we were of school age, my brother and I went to each of our grandparents and asked them what the names (including maiden names for the women) of their parents were and what they were told by their parents that those parents' ethnic ancestries (which meant national ancestries) were. They all told us, so we put those eight ancestries together to say that we were one-half of ancestry X, three-eighths of ancestry Y, and one-eighth of ancestry Z. Our ancestors all came to the U.S. sometime between the late eighteenth century and the late nineteenth century, so we figured it was likely that our grandparents knew their own ancestries.
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Old 03-16-2019, 01:51 AM
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Language is whatever your Mother spoke and ethnicity and religion is whatever Grandad said.

-From a anthropology lecture I attended few years ago.
There, that is what I was trying to convey. A simple(?) test for genetic markers will reveal none of those.
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Old 03-16-2019, 08:41 AM
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How would I know? My great grandparents were born in the US. By that time they were probably already a mixture of Irish, German, English, Swiss, Italian, and who-knows what.
The usual way would be the older generations informing the younger. If they withheld the information, it makes me wonder how or why the normal communication broke down. My mother's ancestors immigrated to Baltimore from Ireland 300 years ago, and through 10 generations we've never lost sight of where we came from.
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Old 03-16-2019, 09:10 AM
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I came across this map on Reddit today. There are many examples like this that show all the different types of ethnicity groups in an area.

As a standard American mutt, I am always a little baffled by these. Unless I go do a DNA tests, I have no idea what ethnicity I am besides "white." How do these people, who are all packed together in a relatively small country know if they are ethnically Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Hungarian, Albanian, Slovak, etc? You just take your mothers and grandmothers word for it?

Who defines these ethnicity groups? Who gets to decide that these are all separate and not really just one blob?

How do people know other people's ethnicity? Is this all just self reported?
You seem to be under the impression that ethnicity is fundamentally genetic. Why do you think so? It's not. Ethnic groups historically form and dissolve regardless of genetic relationships. Yes, certainly, some ethnic groups have very strong genetic bonds on average, but that doesn't preclude some members from being from unrelated genetic lines.

Ethnic groups are largely a social phenomenon.
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Old 03-16-2019, 09:44 AM
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You seem to be under the impression that ethnicity is fundamentally genetic. Why do you think so? It's not. Ethnic groups historically form and dissolve regardless of genetic relationships. Yes, certainly, some ethnic groups have very strong genetic bonds on average, but that doesn't preclude some members from being from unrelated genetic lines.

Ethnic groups are largely a social phenomenon.
I agree it's a loose connection, DNA and ethnicity. But it can be relevant sometimes. For example that commercial for one of the genealogy/DNA site/services where the guy was brought up thinking the family heritage was German but the DNA test said mainly British Isles and no German. I'm not sure those commercial tests are 100% reliable but that seems a plausible case IMO where the test puts the family lore in a different light. Although the implication of the commercial, that the guy is now going to dress up in a kilt, is ridiculous IMO. If you have no real connection to Scotland via any conscious connection or custom in your family, why would you be wearing a kilt just because the plurality of your DNA is from there according to a commercial test? But for some people this is a hobby kind of thing. Nobody is particularly judging or discriminating against them based on either what their family thinks it 'is' or what a DNA test says. It's kind of trivial perhaps but they can have fun with it if they like, it's no skin off my nose.

Again I think it's probable that for a lot of white Americans this sort of thing was very marginal in their upbringing and they assume that's the case for all other white Americans unless they just recently arrived. But again in some families it's quite real. My ancestors came over from sometime not long before 1830 to 1867 (latter date is exact). But the family is very Irish, or at least was until this generation. That really wasn't an affectation in my parents and especially grandparent's generation. It was really who they were, very typically in appearance, beliefs, behavior. In Europe this kind of idea doesn't go against the general idea of what their societies are as much as in the US. Concentrations of ethnic Germans in various places in Central/Eastern Europe were very real for generations (though not as much after WWII). In the US if you say you are X 'old' ethnicity it's common for others to then share stories of the person they know who had one great grandparent who was X so now they've embraced X as their pseudo-ethnicity regardless of the other 15/16's, etc. But it's not like that for everybody.

Last edited by Corry El; 03-16-2019 at 09:48 AM.
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Old 03-16-2019, 09:53 AM
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How would I know? My great grandparents were born in the US. By that time they were probably already a mixture of Irish, German, English, Swiss, Italian, and who-knows what.
By this time, "American" is a valid "ethnicity", defined as a mongrel delightful mixture of various European ethnicities.

My father told me he was mostly "Scotch-Irish" which I ignorantly took to mean a mixture of Scotch[sic] and Irish. (I don't if the substitution of "Scotch" for "Scots" is considered vulgar; one avoids the need to choose between Scot{ch,s} by using the term "Presbyterian Irish.")
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Old 03-16-2019, 10:00 AM
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In the U.S., ethnic ancestry mostly means where your ancestors emigrated to the U.S. from. There are some exceptions to this. People whose ancestors emigrated to the U.S. from Canada usually say whether their ancestors were French Canadian or English Canadian or some other ethnic group. In other words, they are giving their ancestry two countries back, not one country back, so they are saying that their ancestors emigrated from country X to Canada and a later generation emigrated from Canada to the U.S. People who are of Jewish ancestry usually say that they are of X Jewish ancestry, so someone whose ancestors were Jewish and who came to the U.S. from Germany will usually say that they are of German Jewish ancestry. Often, instead, they will say that they are of Ashkenazi or Sephardic (with some differences on spelling of these terms possible) ancestry, depending whether their ancestors who came to the U.S. were from the northern or southern part of Europe. People whose ancestors came to the U.S. from Ireland often say that they are of Irish Catholic or Scotch Irish ancestry. This is dividing Ireland into two pieces (Republic of Ireland vs. Northern Ireland or Catholic vs. Protestant or those who lived in Ireland a long time vs. those whose ancestors emigrated from Scotland a few hundred years ago). There are some other exceptions that I will skip for the moment.

Hermitian, what are the last names of your great-grandparents (including the maiden names)? We can probably figure out most of your ancestry based just on that. Do you honestly not know any part of your ancestry?
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Old 03-16-2019, 10:24 AM
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Thanks for the responses so far. I guess this is a part of life that is known or discussed in other areas of the world. It is just so foreign to me.
It’s important to keep in mind that ethnicity, like race, is a concept that is going to be pretty specific to a time and place. Like, in Rwanda, being Hutu or Tutsi is pretty damn important. But take a Rwandan and plunk them down where I live in SoCal — they’re going to be “black.” Once they speak, maybe “foreign.”
Where I’m going is that it’s not weird to be a white American and not have a sense of ethnic identity. There are historical reasons for this. For hundreds of years, being called white here has had not just social but legal significance. Even before the revolution, laws in the colonies kept marking clearer and clearer lines between white and black people. Those erased other identities, like national origin or class status.
Your sense of a lack of ethnic identification is similar — with obvious differences — to what led Malcolm X to adopt the X! America didn’t care where your people came from that much. Just what they looked like.
As the son of one European immigrant and the grandson of another pair, I grew up with a strong sense of ethnic identity. But living where I do today, I’m just white 99% of the time. It’s not nearly as interesting as being Danish-Swedish-Finnish, but it’s how it is. And that erasure took 1.5 generations.

You’re not alone
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Old 03-16-2019, 10:35 AM
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America didn’t care where your people came from that much. Just what they looked like.
I oversimplified a complicated and long historical process/trend here, but I hope my general point makes sense. Yes, we’ve “othered” some of the waves of European(ish) immigrants, but the overall trend has been to fit them into our (stupid, overly simple, unscientific) race-based classification.
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Old 03-16-2019, 10:58 AM
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It's also quite possible for a genetic test to not notice a fraction as small as (say) 1/64 of some ethnicity, even with good comparison data. It's even possible for a person to have no DNA at all from a particular ancestor, even though they really are an ancestor.
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Old 03-16-2019, 11:05 AM
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The usual way would be the older generations informing the younger. If they withheld the information, it makes me wonder how or why the normal communication broke down.
Sometimes it becomes garbled like in a game of telephone. Somehow we lost the details of where my great-great grandfather came from in Switzerland. My great-grandfather might have told my grandfather, but he died when I was 15 and evidently didn't say anything specific to my father. When i began investigating it seemed as if he might have been born in St. Gallen. When I mentioned this to my grandmother, she said that my great-grandfather used to say "Remember Svengallen" (as she pronounced it.) But she didn't think to mention it until I brought it up.

She also got her own family history mixed up. She said her grandfather had been captured at Antietam during the Civil War and died in Andersonville Prison Camp. She got the last part right, but he was actually captured almost two years later at Petersburg. When Antietam was fought, he was safe in a fort in Washington DC, and Andersonville hadn't even been established.

My mother would dearly like to know where her family was from in Ireland but her father was orphaned by the age of nine. (Most of the rest of his family also died while he was growing up.) She was born to his second wife when he was 50, and by the time she was growing up he was a grumpy old man who never talked about the past. We didn't know about all the tragedy in his family until we started doing the research.

Last edited by Colibri; 03-16-2019 at 11:06 AM.
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