The Ins and Outs of Ethnicity

The U.S. Census Bureau announced that for the first time in a a twelve-month period ending July 2011, minority births actually outnumbered white births 50.4% to 49.6%. This information would seem to indicate that for America, the ethnic tide is inexorably turning.

In a manner of speaking, I am indirectly to blame for these percentages, not only through the births of my four children—and subsequent grandchildren—but in the changes in reporting of my own ethnic heritage.

Let me explain: In the early 1960s when I was born, to ensure I would be adoptable, and integrated into a white, middle-class family, the Department of Social Services cleverly omitted one item in my birth mother’s background, the fact that her father was part Cherokee Indian.

The iota of blood-quantum in itself would not have suggested that I couldn’t be adopted. My grandfather’s family came to Delano, California, from Oklahoma, and his own birth father had no hand in raising him. That responsibility lay squarely on the shoulders of Grandpa Hal’s stepfather. Although the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 was enacted long after my adoption, its inception would not have affected the chain of events, from my birth mother’s relinquishment to the final adoption of Baby Girl Oldham, transforming me into Karen Kennedy.

The omission was instrumental in adoption placement with a family who desired a child that would “fit in”. That was the key, and why Social Services failed to document my birth mother’s Cherokee ancestry. Initiating adoption proceedings meant that a hole was torn in the fabric of family for whatever the reason—sterility, multiple miscarriages, or, in the case of my adoption, because the family already had three biological children—all boys—and wanted a girl, without playing the odds (e.g., three boys dictated that odds were, a fourth pregnancy would likely result in yet a fourth boy). Adopting a child was a cure-all to patch the gaping hole of discontent.

When my birth mother was located in 1996, she claimed that she had informed the social caseworker of her Cherokee blood.

However, the papers that were supplied to my adoptive parents made no mention of this at all, only stating that I was “English, Irish, Danish, Swedish, and Portuguese”. You could explain away my olive skin and deep summer-tan by pointing a finger at my birth mother’s maternal grandmother, Josephine Noyer, whose ancestors emigrated from the Azores. The Irish blood came from Josephine’s ex, Buck James McFarlin.

When I caught up to the paper trail of my late birth father, I discovered that he also carried Cherokee lineage from maternal forebears who were living in east Texas under the English name of Howard.

A common genealogical terminology for people of Cherokee heritage was “Black Dutch”, used by Native people to escape death marches like the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and Indian-only census counts recorded on the Dawes Rolls. It was imperative to keep a white façade, and a Eurocentric lifestyle, because any persons classified as Indian were stripped of their children, culture, land and dignity. It wasn’t until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 (aka, the Snyder Act) was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge, that Indigenous People were even recognized as citizens of their native land. One can conclude that there was absolutely no benefit in being defined as Native American beneath the crushing weight of Manifest Destiny. The modern-day inspiration is the healing of a quietly simmering culture that managed to survive mass genocide, rampant disease and forced relocation to inhospitable territory.

There are individuals with a similar experience, unaware of intermarriage of whites with Indigenous people—because at one time in the history of this great nation, it was illegal to marry outside of one’s race.

In many states, anti-miscegenation laws were in place as recently as 1967, when they were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (Loving v. Virginia). As a sign of the times, the Supreme Court upheld anti-miscegenation laws in 1883 (Pace v. Alabama), citing that both whites and blacks were punished equally for breaking the law forbidding interracial sex and interracial marriage, and therefore anti-miscegenation was not in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Imagine an era when not only hate-laws defined individuals, but also kin on both sides of the ethnic rift, who shunned biracial and multiethnic people: not white enough to shine in the glare of entitlement, and disconnected from the culture deemed “of color”.

What’s ever more disturbing are the proposed anti-miscegenation laws that were considered as amendments to the U.S. Constitution in order to make interracial marriage illegal nationwide—1871 by Andrew King (D, Missouri); 1912/1913 by Seaborn Roddenbery (D, Georgia); and 1928 by Coleman Blease (D, South Carolina).

Roddenbery even went as far as to compare interracial marriage to the enslavement of white women, in this statement: “Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and adverse to every sentiment of pure American spirit.” He didn’t bother to mention that slavery, genocide and racism are the vilest forms of loathsome human behavior. How two people transcending their ideological and cultural differences in race—plus the added challenge of the illegality of such a love affair—being “repulsive” just makes me conclude that Roddenbery was a very sick son of a bitch.

For the U.S. Census from 1970 through 1990, my ethnicity was catalogued as Caucasian. Not until 2000, did I change my ethnic heritage to include Native American, in light of the revelations gifted me by my birth mother, and by my paternal aunt, who has in her possession a family tree going back to the Thirteen Colonies.  The 2010 Census was uplifting, the first to allow more latitude for biracial and multiethnic people to chart their ethnic origins.

But the question remains—given the steady melting of ethnicities in the great American pot, why are we still required to define ourselves? Is it to allow funding for community-based programs? Do these numbers dictate to governments at all levels how and when to police civil rights violations? Are these numbers and definitions intrinsic in enforcing bilingual election rules?

In the end, maybe the simple answer is just simply because we have a burning need to know. It’s the seed for the family tree, an excuse for a nationalistic expression of ethnic pride.

I am no more ethnologically Cherokee Indian, than I am a Celtic language speaker. I’m a conglomeration of experiences, which includes the Filipino cultural practices that I gained when marrying my husband, Clifford. I am as American as the jazz he plays, and as exotic as the ceviche we eat.  I’m a fraction, a facet of Americana, part of a magnificent quilt that binds the people of this nation—and what also occasionally threatens to tear us apart.

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About karenkennedysamoranos

I am an author based in Northern California, and co-manage a small music education business specializing in jazz performance for students ages 5 through 18.
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One Response to The Ins and Outs of Ethnicity

  1. penpusher1 says:

    Hi Karen, that’s a very thought-provoking post. Sadly, fear and ignorance are behind most of human misery, whether by causing it or perpetuating it. Society needs a way of defining people and we often fall into the same trap. Ethnicity – or perceived ethnicity – is a simple, first sight way of doing that, although it tells us nothing about the ‘real person’. In my case, I always knew, as a Brit, that there was a Polish seam, but it’s only recently I found out there was some Russian there too. It doesn’t change me beyond scratching my head a little at all the threads, decisions and journeys that have preceded me. I was particularly moved by your comment that: “Adopting a child was a cure-all to patch the gaping hole of discontent.”

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