The privilege of being a mutt

When I was fourteen I changed my last name.  It wasn’t legal until I turned eighteen and visited a judge, but that didn’t stop me from spreading the news of my changed nomenclature to everyone I knew.  I went so far as to use my school’s printing press to create hundreds of business cards featuring my updated name accompanied by earnestly selected clip art.  (What services requiring a business card I could have provided as a fourteen year old remain unclear.)

It was a relief to step away from a long and difficult to pronounce surname, but most of all, I reveled in the sweet freedom of not being associated with a specific ethnic group.  Since changing my name I respond to enquiries concerning my ancestry with “I’m a mutt.”

As a humanist I find the themes of resilience and adaption in stories of migration appealing, but the hobby of genealogy can be seem terribly tedious.  People are forever tracing their family line to royalty and famous explorers and bragging about it endlessly. Just for once I’d like to meet someone who says “My great, great, great uncle Franz from Germany was boring and had bad breath” and “Astrid, my Grandmother’s Norwegian cousin twice removed made decent soup and liked to sleep in on the weekends”.

For many Americans, cultural practice, rather than genealogy, is their connection to ancestry; they learn the language of their forbearers, observe traditional religious practices, prepare the same foods their grandparents once ate, and if financial means and opportunity allow, they travel to the places their distant relatives hailed from.

HOB had a loving and special relationship with his grandfather, an immigrant from Budapest.  He loved to hear his grandfather’s tales from The Old Country and begged him play his Hungarian gypsy records. Chicken Paprikash was a favorite family dish.  When we visited Budapest HOB felt close to his grandfather’s memory (and he was delighted to find versions of his own name—exotic in the United States—on everything from bottled water to street signs.)

HOBbudapest

HOB walking in the Hungarian National Day parade in Budapest. He’s wearing a Hungarian flag pin on his lapel.

I adore cultural practices of course, but when ethnic pride is divorced from culture and manifests as ethnocentrism and jingoistic slogans, it becomes racist and potentially dangerous.  I was often told that my last name was a source of pride and that my ethnic background was superior, but I never was sure quite why.  Nor did I engage in any cultural practices tied to my  heritage (coming from the rural Midwest my ancestral cuisine is tuna noodle casserole and Koolaid and traditions of my people are watching tv and high school football and taking the first day of hunting season off school to shoot a deer.)

This is why I was a bit taken aback when I received one of those DNA Ancestry tests as a Christmas gift.  Wasn’t this what I walked away from all these years ago?  Still, I was mildly curious and duly spit into a tube and mailed it in, though when I filled in the ancestry company’s request to allow others with related DNA to contact me I checked “no” (had “HELL NO” been an option I would have selected that instead.)

When the results arrived a few days ago, I laughed so hard I spilled my tea: the country—allegedly the origin of my former name—appears as only a blip of probability under “Europe West.”  My mutthood is affirmed!

Laughing fit aside, this morning I realized something that should have occurred to me long ago: being able to claim mutt is a privilege.  Many Americans are not in a position to choose.  There are those African Americans whose ancestors were stolen from their home countries to be slaves.  There are refugees and those who came to the US fleeing the holocaust and other periods of ethnic cleansing.  There are those who are persecuted for their religion.  And of course, people of color cannot simply choose what group to identify with—they will be viewed in stereotypical fashion, risk being shot by police, suffer from employment and housing discrimination—regardless of what identity they claim.

From the age of fourteen, most people respected my choice of a new name and called me by it.  Well, except for that one teacher—Mr. Howe, an odious bully.  He insisted on calling me by my former name right up until the day I stepped before a judge and paid for an extra, notarized copy of my name change order, which I slapped onto his desk.  I’m fond of the sassy teenager I once was.  As a sassy middle aged lady, it’s time for me stand up for my fellow Americans, those denied the freedoms I’ve taken for granted.  It’s time for the Mr. Howes of this country to be served.

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9 comments

  1. I was both charmed and enlightened by this reflection on identity and identification. Mutthood (or being a mongrel, as British have it) is really something to be proud of, as is the right to be an individual (as opposed to being an ‘ethnic’, member of an in- or out-group or maybe possible ‘inbreed’/blue blood/Chosen One).

    I did one of those silly free Facebook offers to do a DNA analysis based on a photo of me, of all things! (Reminded me of those chilling historic yet bogus practices measuring physiognomy to determine supposed Jewishness.) I submitted two slightly different photos, curious to see the outcomes.

    In one I was predominantly Greek, in another largely ‘Eskimo’ (that outmoded term gives it away, doesn’t it?). The fact that I have an Anglo-Indian background, with Irish, Scottish, English and Portuguese input was completely missed. And what ethnicity am I supposed to identify with? All and none really.

    We are all citizens of the world, members of the one and only human race. That should be enough, leaving us free to self-identify without denying others their privilege to do likewise.

    Another intriguing and thought-provoking post, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I rather like the idea of being called a mongrel, which I associate with homely pups with smiles and spots on their behinds. I’ll go by “Mongrel Citizen of the World” henceforth.

      I believe Inuit is the preferred term though who believes anything on Facebook. Let’s put together a phrenology quiz on Facebook and make a mint!

      Have you been to India? The country is so huge and there are so many places I want to visit that it is quite intimidating but I hope to make it sooner rather than later.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To India? Not really — my parents left before Partition and I was born after, and apart from an airport stopover when I was a kid never visited properly.

        Yes, Inuit is what I understand the preferred term is. Why stop with a spoof phrenology quiz though? A degree! A correspondence course PhD! A reality TV show! A cult! That’s the way to make gazillions, even become President! Er, or has somebody already done that?

        Liked by 2 people

  2. From one mutt to another…super post!
    I do cling to my Scots heritage, but I suppose that comes about by having happy memories of childhood there. I could not give two penn’orth of cold gin about my ancestors or their ethnic origins and refuse to become enraged – or even offended – at the idea that probably somewhere in all that background is a victimised Pict.
    About time we stopped obsessing about our origins and started to celebrate our hybrid vigour.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Helen. It is not an ancestral fantasy when you actually spent your childhood in a place—-isn’t it wonderful to have happy memories?

      While I don’t give any penn’orths of cold gin for my origins either, I did have a moment when I though “Hmmm…maybe my British heritage explains my ongoing attraction to puns?”

      I’m 100% for the philosophical order of hybrid vigour!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I agree! Citizens of the world unite!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Says the woman who used to work for the UN! High five!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Now I am morbidly curious to know your original name.
    Interesting post, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The next time you hear a person clear their sinuses and spit a big bunch of goo on the sidewalk you’ll have a close approximation of how my original name is pronounced.

      Liked by 1 person

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