Once in high school, one of my classmates asked me out of the blue if I was Swedish.
“Um…probably?” I replied. “I have Scandinavian ancestors, I’m pretty sure. Why do you ask?”
Instead he asked me another question. “What do you do if you’ve had a cookie, and now the plate has one left on it? Let’s say you want it, but do you take it?”
“Well, if no one else wants it,” I said. “Or we could split it.”
“But you wouldn’t just take it,” he said. “You would ask or wait to see how much interest there was.”
“Yeah, you’re Swedish,” he said.
Obviously my classmate’s methodology is deeply flawed, but I am in fact more Swedish than I knew growing up. In fact, my last name, Johnson, isn’t English like I’d long assumed. Johnson is anglicized, yes, but it actually comes from my great-great-grandfather Lars Johannson, who anglicized his name when he immigrated to the US. I’m about 1/8 Swedish, which seems like a lot given my ignorance.
Since learning more about my Swedish heritage, I’ve noticed it more. For example, at a wedding reception in an area of Utah where my Scandinavian ancestors settled, I noticed that the reception had speeches that took up a significant part of the program. Speeches aren’t unique to Scandinavia, of course, but they’re traditionally prominent, and I’m pretty sure that reception was planned by Scandinavian-American Mormons.
My family gave up Swedish traditions in the name of assimilation, and now as an adult, I’m slowly learning about my roots. My mom’s ancestors come primarily from England, Scotland, Germany, Ireland, and France. My dad’s come primarily from England, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Ireland, with a dash of Scotland and Wales. By incorporating traditions like English Christmas crackers and Swedish St. Lucia celebrations into my life, I’m slowly learning about my ethnic identity.
Last week, my ward Relief Society threw a Midsummer party, which made exploring my heritage both convenient and a ton of fun.
My ancestors gave up the traditions of our root cultures in the name of assimilation, and I was raised in a culture that considers ethnicity something that applies to non-white people.
And as many people of color and various scholars of racism have observed, this assumption has to change.
The people of the United States need a common American identity built on dedication to the principles and ideals our country claims, and for us to have a national identity that includes people of color, white Americans must differentiate between being white and being American.
Think about it — African-American, Asian-American, Latin American, Native American — we’re used to these terms, but when was the last time you heard a white person call themselves a European-American? What about an English-American, a German-American, or a Swedish-American?
What’s more, I and my fellow white people need to do a lot of research in order to identify our root cultures. Many white Americans don’t know where their ancestors came from. While groups like Native Americans and African-Americans have maintained and forged vibrant and inspiring cultures despite identity and record destruction, family separation, slavery, genocide, and a million other evils, white Americans often don’t take advantage of accessible resources.
While cultures and peoples are real, race is a cultural construct used to oppress people. We need to address it because the construct has power over the lives of people of color even though race has no biological basis or inherent validity.
I am a white American, but white American doesn’t mean much without racism. The “white” label evolves over time. On the other hand, through my specific ethnic roots, I can find a feeling of belonging in a cultural group that has influenced my outlook in life, whether I know it or not. I can embrace the good parts of my heritage while discarding the racism.
Getting rid of racism is a matter of human decency, but having an ethnic identity helps me avoid becoming defensive, angry, or afraid when my national culture and demographics change. Progress, justice, and diversity are ideals of my country at its best, and this ideal national culture is empowered by immigration, language diversity, minority voices, the sovereignty of indigenous nations, and other things white supremacists despise.
White people in the United States need to rediscover our ethnic roots in order for the country to embrace the liberty we claim. Now, please note that I am not saying that connection to white ancestors will dissolve racism; nothing can replace the hard work of learning about racism and dismantling it. I’m just saying that reclaiming your ethnicity is a wonderful part of that process.