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.)
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.