I used to have this idea that I was 1/4 this and 1/8 that. To some extent, it’s true: it’s many Westerners’ common way of quantifying our heritage and acknowledging where our ancestors lived, particularly given the US’s status as home to some many diasporic peoples. I thought that my “whole” was made of many parts, and I felt rather fragmented as a result. I mean, I don’t look Filipino, I don’t speak Gaelic, I didn’t know my Swedish granddad, and I haven’t been to Hungary or Germany. So am I really any of those things? What are the criteria? Am I just an American “Heinz 57” — is that its own culture? How do I connect with ancestors who weren’t American (or even white) like me?
In an effort to research and make sense of my background, I ran into the messy business of “blood quantum.” This was, and is still is in some places, a way of measuring the amount of Native American blood one possesses as a qualifier for membership to the tribe. It limits “Indianness,” and also dovetails with the contradictory “one drop rule:” for a large part of American history, if someone had any trace of Black ancestry, they were considered Black. So one might need to have 25% or more Native American blood to be considered Native, a criteria which decreased the perceived Native population. Yet, having just one drop of African blood rendered someone non-white, bolstering some idea of racial “purity” that persists even to this day. Ultimately, this is all white supremacy and colonial thinking, constructed to keep certain folks at the top of the social hierarchy. This thinking has permeated our culture and it’s easily internalized, though it has little to do with real ancestral ethics.
Many of the people I know are first-, second-, and third-generation Americans, and we seem to do the math reflexively. We do it without questioning its validity or any of the nuances of family dynamics and the long arcs of history. We forget or dismiss adoptions, lost stories and secrets, and sometimes even rape. We forget that colonizers imposed their ideas of race and ethnicity on people who might have had very different ideas of kinship. We forget that each of our ancestors had decades of life experience that we know nothing about. We just look at the math we think we know to guess at what we are — or what we’re entitled to be.