My own ethnic identity 'fraud'

Crosscut archive image.

Vikings -- or wannabes -- at an event in Holland.

Before the scandal in Spokane over the racial identity of the now former head of the local NAACP, I was preparing to make my own confession.

It turns out my claim to a little ethnic cred is not supported by science.

I recently had a DNA test to see what could be learned about my heritage. My immediate family is participating as well and we’re comparing notes. I found out, for example, that 2.4 percent of my DNA is Neanderthal.

That’s a bit less than the norm for people with my background, and less than my wife’s. On whether that explains certain aspects of our relationship I won’t dare to venture any thoughts.

The general picture wasn’t a surprise, but rather it confirmed what I know about my family history: my paternal grandparents came from Norway and Scotland, my maternal line came from England, Scotland and Ireland in the mid-17th century. There was a rumor that we also had in our blood what my grandfather described as “a pinch of French.”

My chromosomes generally comported with known genealogy. Using available databases and trends in identifying ethnic groups, the genetic odds are I am 99.9 European, with nearly 57 percent of that being British and Irish, and .1 percent Asian & Native American. There’s also a dollop (less than .1 percent) Ashkenazi. As a Jewish friend of mine said, “I could have told you that!”

But the big shock was how little Scandinavian I am.

I have long known that my background was mixed, but my Nordic heritage was emphasized as I was growing up.

I was named Knute Berger, after all, the third of four Knute Bergers in a row. We ate lutefisk at Christmas, celebrated Norwegian independence day, ate Scandinavian cookies at Christmas. I had family in Ballard — I even lived in Ballard for some years, in a bungalow previously built and inhabited by a Norwegian sea captain. We had family friends and relatives named Viggo, Thor, Ole, Leif, Sven. I was in high school before I learned that “uffda” was not common American slang.

My Nordic roots have been a part of my identity.

Now I feel like a fraud.

The DNA test says I am at most 4.9 percent identifiably Scandinavian, and 1.5 percent Finnish, and perhaps much less. My identifiable Nordic ancestry could be as low as 1.3 percent.

In other words, Viking blood does not course through my veins, unless it returned to Scandinavia with those swept up from raids in other parts of northern Europe.

I feel as if I’ve been admiring the Leif Erikson statue at Shilshole under false pretenses.

My good friend Peter Jackson, son of Sen. Scoop Jackson, has always suspected this was so, jokingly reminding me that I was only a quarter Norwegian while he is at least half. Turns out, he sniffed it out. What’s the old saying? Just because the cat’s in the oven it don’t make him biscuits — or in my case, krumkake.

What explains it? I suspect that old world ethnicities were a lot less “pure” than our oral and cultural traditions would have it. My “Norwegian” grandfather likely got his genes from many places. He once described the Scottish as simply “shipwreck Norwegians,” suggesting kinship with his Scots wife. But perhaps his Norwegian ancestors were shipwrecked Irish monks.

Science will eventually untangle things with greater specificity and more accuracy than family tradition.

In the meantime, we live in a world where gender or race identities — and whether these can be a matter of choice — are the subject of public debate. But our ethnic identities have been more fluid. We Americans who are mutts of the melting pot have always felt free to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Syttende Mai or Columbus Day as we choose. We have cultural fluidity even while we grasp at aspects of heritage to give us some sense of stability, until our mood shifts. Many of us from European ancestry came from an even older melting pot that was frequently stirred.

And just like a stew pot, it can serve up some surprises.

The bad news is I was forced to ingest piles of lutefisk in my youth without any genetic predisposition to like the stuff. The good news is, I’ll never again have to feel as if my dislike of the gelatinous fish mass is a mark of ethnic failure.

Next Christmas, I'm switching to haggis.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.