I’ve been reading Amartya Sen’s latest on how people define themselves. He makes some excellent points on the surprising degree to which individuals choose their identity, up to and including their religion and even ethnicity.
This is something I’ve had quite a bit of experience with myself, both through my own early flirtations with Irishness, and through having had the word gypsy flung at me more than once as a kid. I’ve also seen it in Americans. Blacks construct painful fantasy-lands of apartheid culture like Kwanzaa, while many whites will grasp at any straw to deny their Caucasoid status. I’ve lost count of the number of 1/64th Cherokees and Utes I’ve had to humour as they drone on about their native heritage and customs. To my mind, you’re not an Indian if you don’t have a casino, but I accept that these entirely fictional ethnic fig leaves give many an oppressed white an excuse to whine right back at chippy minorities at parties, not to mention to tick one of the “unsackable” ethnicity boxes on the HR forms at work.
Even I was blindsided, however, by a practical demonstration of this phenomenon with my boys, as a side-effect of our recent trip to Yorktown in Virginia.
Both were born in France, to an Anglo-Irish-Hungarian union. The elder (who is 6) thinks of himself as an American and gets very upset at any suggestion to the contrary. I always assumed the younger (who is 4) would follow suit, if and when he came to think about such things at all. But while we were watching the mini-documentary in the Yorktown visitors’ centre he abruptly decided that he wanted the British to win, and went into a massive sulk when Lord Cornwallis was marched out in humiliation. As far as I can tell, the root cause of this was that the British were wearing red, which is his favourite colour.
Argument was raging before we even left the museum, ending abruptly in the parking lot when the younger laid the elder out with a right hook. A pattern that has been faithfully repeated on every subsequent engagement.
Any hope that this was a flash in the pan were dashed when we reached the souvenir shop, where the boys almost literally nailed their colours to the mast…
Just as well the little monster wasn’t around in the 1780s, or America might still be British today. And then I’d have to move again…
There’s a good review of the book here if you’re interested. Meanwhile, a very happy Fourth of July to you all!