What is an Identity?

As some people know, I am trying to finish a book right now on ancient identity formation and the way modern identities get built from them. There is a lot of scholarship on trying to understand ethnicity and race in both the ancient and modern worlds but not necessarily the interactions between the two. Maybe that is why I have enjoyed reading Greenberg and Hamilakis' Archaeology, Nation and Race book -- it does just this (and has led me to a lot of other work that also does it). I've also been looking forward to finishing someday Berger's The Past as History. There are so many books I need to finish reading.  And so many books I need to finish writing. 

As I was writing a chapter in the book, I also decided to work through some of the confusion that even a story like that of my own family can cause. I am not including it in the chapter, but it was a good clarifying exercise because it reminded me that for every sweep of history concerning "Greeks" and "Romans" and 'White people" etc, there are the microhistories of the people we lump under these larger identities. In recent weeks, at least one person mislabeled me as "mixed race", in part because of the confusion my name causes (one should ALWAYS be cautious of using names to track ethnicity) and because, while I personally am not descended in any meaningful way from anyone Asian, my step family with whom I grew up is. It causes confusion to many. 

The point is, however, that all of us have in our family histories some of these elements of confusion. It may be one of the reasons why some White people cling to that White identity so fiercely--they don't like the confusion, the uncertainty, the multiplicities. They rail agains "multiculturalism" having invested in a monocultural myth. They fear their "replacement" by ethnic and racialized others because White people are mostly descended from people who have committed genocide all over the world. And even if we happen to be from somewhere that didn't, we only have home on this continent because 1. others before our families did and because we were somehow allowed to immigrate and assimilate (eventually) to reap the benefits of that genocide. 

Anyway, these are just some thoughts on identities on a rainy morning after a day of racialized terrorism and violence while I try to work on finishing a book on the sometimes violent ways humans decide who is and isn't similar enough or worthy enough to be included in the category "human".  Here is the material I removed from the book on the confusions of even just my own family's identity over the last 100 or so years:

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Here’s an example from my own life: my father’s grandparents (and some of his aunts and uncles then children) immigrated to the United States from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. They and their children identified as Hungarian-Americans.They were either born in the “Old Country” (as they called it) or were raised in houses where the language and culture were still strong. The first generation were naturalized citizens, the second were a mix of naturalized and natural-born. I am of the fourth generation. The hyphen indicated for my great-grandparents that they held two identities, one cultural and by birth (Hungarian) and one by citizenship (American). For my grandparents, it held similar connotations, but slightly reversed; they were Americans by birth, but Hungarians and Americans by cultural practices. 

For my father and myself, we are basically Americans, but with a memory of cultural traditions from our childhoods practiced by our older family members, that we don’t much adhere to and certainly don’t consider our own. We are Americans by birth, cultural habit, and citizenship. Our name (Futo) is the only real marker of Hungarian descent – but even here, our name is often confused for being Asian (Japanese, precisely). Adding to the confusion, my step-mother is Japanese-American; born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father on a US military base. There is no hyphen in my identity, however. I might make a great goulash or paprikas, but that doesn’t make me Hungarian anymore. And, the fact that we ate more Japanese food growing up and immersed ourselves in Japanese culture more often (and still do), doesn’t make me Japanese either.


Citizenship, culture, and geography have all become American. Only the knowledge that my great-grandparents immigrated from a place other than where I am now remains of the Hungarian. And that memory isn’t enough to grant me the hyphen. Why? because in the world we inhabit today, we could become American and, perhaps more importantly, my family could become White. In tension here are my modern ethnic and racial identities. Culturally, I am American; this is my ethnicity; racially, I am White as “white” is the box I check on US Census forms. My great-grandparents were not White because they were Hungarian; I, however, am White because they were Hungarian. What a difference 100 years makes. Now imagine the difference 2000 years makes.


What made my family’s transition from Hungarian to White happen? Genetically, we didn’t change. Sure, my grandfather married a Croatian woman, but Croatians weren’t White either at that time. What changed were attitudes about what and who counted. What changed was how those with social, political, and economic power defined their opposition and who they needed to co-opt to maintain their power. That is what race is -- race uses ethnicity (mostly) and crafts hierarchies of degrees of difference from the dominant group. Sometimes it even offers access to formerly racialized others if it serves the purposes of maintaining its power.