Peter Griffin: The White(?) Ethnic Personified

Irreverent, polarizing, and controversial, the animated series Family Guy hardly seems like an appropriate topic for an academic essay; however, while reading Roots Too, one episode in particular kept coming to mind.

The main storyline of “Peter Griffin: Husband, Father…Brother?” revolves around the discovery that (white, middle-class) Peter Griffin has a black ancestor, a mid-19th century slave named Nate. In his search for and his attempts to embrace his heritage, Peter’s attitudes and actions mirror those of whites discovering and redefining their identity during the ethnic revival.

Early in the episode, Peter is alarmed when he hears his teenage son, Chris, “talking street.”[1] Troubled by this development, he brings Chris to the library to explore their family’s own heritage.  Though the white ethnic revival was inspired by the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-60s and the Roots phenomenon of the 1970s, it ultimately “universaliz[ed] whiteness by lessening the presumed difference separating “Hebrews,” “Celts,” and “Anglo-Saxons,” but deepening the separation of any of these former white races and people of color, especially blacks.”[2] In discouraging Chris’ contact with black culture, Peter represents whites’ self-created “separateness” from African-Americans.

Once Peter discovers a black ancestor, however, he quickly embraces his new ‘identity.’ In an attempt to “absorb the culture,” he attends the Apollo Theater, takes black history classes, and joins the local African American league.[3] Suddenly, being part of a shared history changes his perspective. Whereas individualism had once been of foremost importance, the Civil Rights movement emphasized “the salience of group experience and standing,” a philosophy that whites soon embraced in their own lives.[4] The late 20th century saw the creation of organizations, art, entertainment, and hobbies related to particular ethnic groups, and Peter’s desire to belong to an exclusive subset of the population reflects the feelings of many whites during the ethnic revival.

Finally, when Peter discovers that his wife Lois’ ancestors owned Nate, he becomes outraged and demands reparations from his father-in-law. Despite the preposterous situation, the idea of white grievance was powerful and visible in the news and entertainment of the period. The first two Rocky films, the Bakke case, and Liberty Heights used the image of the “downtrodden white ethnic” to profile—and perhaps protest—“power relations and justice on the American scene” in the post-Civil Rights era.[5] Peter’s internal and external identification as a middle-class white man—part of the establishment—is redefined with the discovery of his heritage, allowing him to become a member of a disenfranchised population despite never actually suffering discrimination as part of that group.

Despite being an animated comedy series, Family Guy offers an interesting commentary on the issues of heritage and identity raised in Roots Too. The formation of a ‘generic’ white identity in opposition to darker-skinned groups, the desire to belong to a group bound by a common heritage, and the resulting perception of ‘ethnic’ whites as a persecuted minority are all embodied in Peter’s search for his heritage.

[1] “Peter Griffin: Husband, Father…Brother?” Family Guy. FOX Broadcasting Company. 6 December 2001.

[2] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 35.

[3] “Peter Griffin: Husband, Father…Brother?” Family Guy. FOX Broadcasting Company. 6 December 2001.

[4] Jacobson, 20.

[5] Jacobson, 97, 116.

Photo credit: “Peter Griffin,” TBS website, accessed 8 March 2010.

2 thoughts on “Peter Griffin: The White(?) Ethnic Personified

  1. Throughout the entire “Family Guy” series, Peter Griffin and is family are a great example of the white ethnic revival. I can’t remember the episode exactly, but in one episode someone says “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a lower-middle class Irish family,” when talking about the Griffins. That line shows that after their class, the ethnicity of the Griffin’s is their most distinguishing characteristic.

  2. I have never watched a “Family Guy” episode. Maybe I should give it a chance. You brought up a great point about how entertainment of the period also reflected this need to find one’s place as a white person in America. Many popular shows today discuss race relations and class, but rarely does anything even touch on white ethnicity. I wonder why? Is it a “big deal” anymore? Are we too far removed from the Civil Rights era and the “Roots” phenomenon? I remember watching “Roots” for a ninth grade history class and I’m not sure anyone in my class was inspired to find their own “roots.” I think most high school students may have missed the inspiration and concentrated on the facts of slavery (which, of course, should be studied too).
    My first “museum job” was at a local historical society, where older women and men would come in to find their family ancestry. What will it take to get younger people interested? Should they be interested? Is it a good or bad sign that they might not care about it at all?

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