14 December, 2020

Personal Ethnicity and Ancestry

"Eric, it's not that hard. You're mixed race. You can call yourself Latinx. Or native american, if you really wanted to. But you present as white and hispanic. Getting any more complicated that feels too much like an example of white privilege: you shouldn't say that you're 1% Bantu — even if you are! — because that just feels too much like a white person trying too hard to point out your non-white characteristics."

I was asked yesterday whether I consider myself white or non-white. The context makes sense; at Animal Charity Evaluators we are doing a session on Representativeness, Equity, and Inclusion later today where statements will be made that will make this query relevant. But it still took me off guard. What do I consider myself?

I guess I'll start with my broad family facts. My father immigrated from Bolivia, so I'm half Bolivian. My mother had an Italian parent and an English parent, though you have to trace back a few generations to get to the old country for them. So I'm 25% Italian and 25% English. In short: I'm white and hispanic. (Or so I've been saying for much of my life.)

Eric in the early 1980s.
When I was young, I never thought about race all that much. My imaginary friend from before I was seven years old was definitely black, although (being aphantasiac) I knew this not from the color of his invisible skin but from his mannerisms that I imagined him having. (His name was Tookie.) Yet I didn't think this was relevant enough to ever really relay to anyone else. I doubt that my parents were ever aware of the race I had assigned my childhood friend.

I experienced racism in Mobile, Alabama, back then, but it wasn't ever really something that affected me all that much, possibly because I spoke with what my fellow Southerners thought of as an "educated" accent. (Possibly it is just because I bothered with enunciation as a child.) I thought of myself as white throughout my school days, possibly just because that was the default for me, and possibly because I spent most of my family time with my mother's side of the family, which was all white. It wasn't until I reached college when a casual conversation about whiteness was interrupted by a hispanic friend of mine, who said: "wait — what do you think you are?" I remember stopping short, not fully understanding his question, when he continued: "You're not white; you're hispanic."

See full results.

My self-conception of white never really wavered, mostly because figuring out what race I should call myself didn't factor into anything I considered useful at the time. There were a few oddities over the years. One girl I dated for a few months was extra scared of showing me to her parents; this turned out to be because her father was a member of the KKK and he screamed at me for defiling his daughter when I finally met him in the emergency room ICU where he had just been admitted a few hours earlier. But, on the whole, the fact of my race never really came up explicitly among people I purposefully interacted with, and, if it did come up implicitly, I never noticed because I didn't really care.

Now, however, I have been learning a lot about racial equity, how I can be an ally, and the delicate balance between implementing a safe space and ensuring that there is a commitment to the enlightenment ideals of free thought and open discussion, even when it comes to uncomfortable issues. In the midst of all this, I've had a DNA ethnicity test done that explicitly shows the various percentages of each of my many ethnicities. And I've been asked: Do I consider myself white or non-white? The truth is: I don't know anymore.

Ruperto Herboso & René Barrientos
Mercado Fidel Aranibar
Cochabamba, Bolivia; 1966
Historically, I've always said that I'm both white and hispanic. This has made sense to me because my father is hispanic, being born in Bolivia, and my mother is white, with her father being a 2nd generation immigrant from Italy and her mother being a 7th or so generation immigrant from England. But this pat summary isn't quite true, is it? Sure, my mother's mother's family line is from England, but it's not like they hadn't intermingled along the way. And my father may be from Bolivia, but some of that is indigenous Andean ancestry from the Inca empire, with others coming from conquistadors that arrived from Spain. The DNA test shows much more: France, Sweden, Scotland, Ireland, the Middle East, Basque, Wales, Bantu, and more. The 2% Basque ethnicity really sticks out to me because it's one of the only ones I can really pin down. My last name, Herboso, comes from an extremely tiny village of less than ten houses in Basque Country, Spain. My ancestor, who had no last name, was born in this village and moved to Madrid where he sculpted statues in the year 1485. He needed a last name to be known by, so he chose "Herboso" after his birthplace, and it stuck. Later, in the mid-1500s, one of his line boarded a Spanish vessel that traveled to South America and assisted in conquering (and, presumably, raping) the Inca empire. His progeny later included an archbishop and, much later, my grandfather, who opened the largest mall in the country of Bolivia.

Wyche Family Arms

On ancestry.com, I can trace many such lines.

  • Sir Richard Jones, born 1570 in Denbigh, Wales, is my 9th great grandfather. He was a knight serving under Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, who was also the Lord of Denbigh. 
  • George Wyche, born 1680 in Surry County, Virginia, is my 7th great-grandfather. He owned the area surrounding the entirety of Beaver Pond Creek in Clarksville, VA; it is now nothing but forest with dirt roads so small that Google Maps' street view hasn't recorded it yet. He also controlled a fifth of the land surrounding Fountain Creek in Brunswick County, VA; it was given to him by Henry H. Cook, Sr., a major planter and initial settler of Brunswick County. 
  • The Moore House
    John Matthew Goodwin and Elizabeth Moore, born 1646 in London, England, and 1655 in Virginia respectively, are my 8th great grandparents. When John Goodwin's grandfather Peter died in 1661, John (at the age of 15!) received two slaves, Tom and Bess as part of his inheritance. Meanwhile Elizabeth Moore's grandfather John Moore (b. 1584) came to Virginia and patented land that stayed in the family for hundreds of years until 1942, when it was sold to the US Government. The Moore House, built much later, was where General Cornwallis surrendered at the Siege of Yorktown.
  • Mary Ann Matthews, my 9th great grandmother born 1602 in England, led quite an adventurous life.
    • She traveled to America as an 18 year old newlywed on the Chesapeake Colony Ship Francis Bonaventure in August 1620 with her husband, John Price. It took years for them to settle, finally doing so when she was 21 in the Neck of Land in Charles City, "upriver from Jamestown close to the falls". Unlike neighboring communities that had outbreaks of disease and repeated tensions with the Native Americans, the small Neck of Land area was "a hamlet of healthy married families whose concerns were sex, land, and status". Neck of Land is now known as Meadowville, and the area where they lived is now an upscale residential housing area. They had three children.
    • Around 1630, John Price had died and Ann remarried, this time to Robert Hallom, who had also came to America on the Francis Bonaventure from England. Unlike John, who had patented land for the King, Robert was a manservant in the Boyse household. When Ann and Robert married, they lived on Ann's money and 1000 acres of land she still controlled after John's death. When Robert died in 1638, the land was divided with 1000 acres to Ann and 150 acres to the children of Ann's first marriage with John, with none going to the three children of Ann and Robert, even though Robert Hallom did have a headright of his own. My understanding is that this was very unusual (at the time) legally speaking. Robert and Ann's female children were married off and their male child was apprenticed to a salter.
    • In 1640, Ann remarried a third time, this time to Daniel Llewellyn, who was previously claimed as headright from Captain William Perry. After she remarried, Robert Hallom's surviving family in England asked her if Daniel could take on the responsibility of managing the Hallom's interests in America. He did so, and ended up controlling 17 headrights, including 852 acres of his own in addition to the ones owned by Robert and Frances Hallom in England. The children of Daniel and Ann are where the line continues up to me.
Don Ruperto Herboso
My Paternal Grandfather
I don't really identify strongly with my ancestors. Nevertheless, I find learning about them fascinating, and, as you might guess, it has really opened my eyes as to just how diverse my line truly is. All of the above bullet points are people who are in the same line as my mother's mother's father's line. I haven't looked at my maternal grandfather's side of the family, let alone my maternal grandmother's mother's side of the family. That DNA test showed that I have genes from all over the Western world. Why should I call myself one race over some other, when I have ancestors from almost everywhere in the Global West?

I feel as though I should at least use reason when trying to determine what to call myself. Is it enough to just say "mixed"? Should I point out the quarter of me that is indigenous to the Andes, or should that side of me not be mentioned since none of that culture nor any names of those ancestors has come down to me whatsoever? Should I call myself white even though so much of me is different? Should I call myself nonwhite even though I have ancestors that held castles, ancestors that were original settlers of America in the 1600s, ancestors that are quite unambiguously white?

Herboso Island, Basque Country, Spain
As I look through my DNA results, as I browse through photos of the ancestral Herboso lands, as I read through stories of my Xth great grandparents, I find myself hesitating to take a stance. In just a few hours I will be attending a session on REI at ACE and I've still not responded to yesterday's question to me: Do I consider myself white or non-white? Somehow, it seems to be a question beyond who my remembered ancestors are, beyond who my forgotten ancestors were, beyond even how I navigate the world at large. I imagine most people looking at me would think I was hispanic, or middle eastern, or something vaguely more dark skinned than the average white person. But people listening to me might think something altogether different; am I just a tanned white person? Since I write a lot online with my last name visible, does that take over their assumption? Am I hispanic because my last name is hispanic (because my father is hispanic), and that overrides everything else? If it's a question of genetics, then should I say I am native american, even though I've never thought of myself that way, even though I don't know anyone I'm related to who identifies that way, and even though I have no understanding at all of where in my family tree that huge bulk of 25% of my genes comes from?

I dunno. I never really cared in the past. And even with all of the discussions around racial equity, I find myself still not caring about my personal situation, as I've never felt that race has ever held me back in anything that was important. But, in having said that, doesn't that mean that my experience has been, ultimately, a majority white experience? Doesn't that lack of being held back signify that whiteness has been the primary way that I've navigated the world and that the world has identified me as?

I dunno. Maybe.

I guess I'll just go with white and hispanic. After several hours of thought and introspection, I'm just back where I started. I'm not sure how I feel about this, but this is what I'm going to go with.

Edit 14 Dec 2020: Yes, Herboso really is a village with literally just ten houses in it.

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