The only time I saw any person call herself something she was not occurred on St. Patrick’s Day. A Japanese student walked past my dorm room wearing a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” T-shirt. Six years before our reading of Roots Too by Matthew Frye Jacobson for graduate school, I sat in my freshman year dorm room in Washington, DC wondering whether or not it was important to define yourself by race. And here we are again.
“White” does not come from a country or a continent, it comes from your point of view. On the first page of his book, Matthew Frye Jacobson discussed white citizens’ inclination to “dissociate themselves from the history and persistent reality of white privilege by emphasizing some purportedly not-quite-white background.”  People do not want to be categorized into an entity that they are not. So they search for what they are (or what they can claim to be). In this way, as Jacobson put it, “Italianess, Jewishness, Greekness, and Irishness had become badges of pride, not shame.”  After the Civil Rights movement, white ethnics tried to distance themselves from so-called “white privilege,” basically trying to say that “the nation’s crimes are not our own.”  It seems that white Americans tried to individually define themselves by connecting to different nationalities, making sure they were not defined by the stigma of white men past. The largest group in America separated into much smaller groups so they would not be defined as “the bad guy.” Do you think the effort was worthwhile?
“What the hell do I have to do to be called an American?” Good question, Joseph Kennedy.  This is definitely the “hyphen nation.”  Long lists of complicated family histories and homelands? Let’s do it. I, for one, can say that I am Finnish-Italian-French-English-Dutch. If you looked at me, would you know that? Probably not. Do I call myself simply “American” most days? Sure. Do I check the “Caucasian” box on applications? Yup. Let me ask you this: if you stood in a room full of white people, would you say it was a diverse crowd? I would.
Group power is important when talking about race. When reading this passage, I was reminded of the saying “there is safety in numbers.” Inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots to find their own histories and genealogies, white Americans defined themselves by the homelands of their ancestors; Jacobson recognized each ethnic group’s need to prove that they were somehow oppressed, too. Where does this “underdog” mentality come from? Why is there a need to prove this status?
Alex Haley’s Roots, although written about Haley’s ancestors forced into slavery by white men, was a hit with white audiences. Could this genealogy phenomenon have anything to do with people wanting to prove that they had nothing to do with the evils committed in America? Or perhaps (rather, hopefully) it is because we all wonder, how did I get here? Why am I the way that I am? Why do I look the way I do? Would my ancestors be glad to see what this generation’s product is (me)? Perhaps we are all just double-checking on the American dream, making sure it’s still there and that you’re doing your part to reach it.
That could also just be pure American (which means Finnish-Italian-French-English-Dutch-landed-here-in-the-past-200-years) patriotism.
 Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 1.
 Ibid, 2.
 Ibid, 21.
 Ibid, 9.
 Ibid, 9.