Appearance, Ancestry, and Me at the Grand Canyon

Erin Whittaker, U.S. National Park Service's photo of the Grand Canyon in fog. (29 November 29, 2013) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
(From Erin Whittaker, U.S. National Park Service; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

I stopped for several hours at the Grand Canyon on my way back from San Francisco. This was about five decades back. The massive gulch wasn’t on the the most direct route, but I’d decided that seeing the Grand Canyon and Meteor Crater on the way was a good idea.

I haven’t been back since then, which suggests that I was right.

I’d bought a big topographic map of the Grand Canyon while living in San Francisco, and had it with me when I was there. At the Grand Canyon, that is. Near where the South Rim Visitor Center is now, probably.

I revisited the place via Google Street View this week.

Quit a bit has changed during the last half-century. Not the Canyon so much, since on a geologic timescale that’s a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ interval. But I don’t remember nearly as many services being near the visitor center.

I can’t even be sure that today’s South Rim Visitor Center is at the location I was at.

A Beard, a Cap and an Unsolved Puzzle

Pescaiolo's photo of the Grand Canyon in winter. (February 23, 2008) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
(From Pescaiolo, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The Grand Canyon in Winter, photo by Pescaiolo. (February 23, 2008))

At any rate, I’d been thoroughly enjoying myself, spreading out the map at intervals to see what I was looking at, and taking photos.

I was flattered, and surprised, when two tourists from Thailand asked me if I was Jewish. I explained that I’m a gentile — although I don’t remember my exact words.

We chatted a bit, which is how I learned they were from Thailand, and then I went back to enjoying the magnificent views.

I hadn’t asked them what suggested that I was a Jew, so that remained and remains a puzzle. A minor one, but a puzzle nonetheless.

After mulling it over, I strongly suspect they’d noticed that I had a full beard and never took my cap off.

Quite a few gentiles in America wore caps indoors and out at the time, and still do: but not many American men have a ‘haven’t shaved in years’ beard. The plain black jacket I wore probably helped, too.

Although I enjoyed being mistaken for one of my Lord’s closer relatives, my ancestors are about as gentile as it gets, west of the Urals. They probably hadn’t even heard of Abraham or Isaac until missionaries arrived, and that’s another topic.

Norwegian, Yes; Nordic, No

Watson Heston's 1896 political cartoon, warning against 'Single Gold Standard,' 'Interest on Bonds' and 'Wall Street Pirates.'I’ve only been asked if I’m Jewish once.

But a fair number of forms I’ve filled out over the years have asked, in general terms, who my ancestors were.

I’m a Euro-American with roots in southern Norway and the northern British Isles, so I generally check off whatever the current euphemism for “white” is.

There’s almost always a ‘prefer not to say’ option, happily, and that’s almost another topic.

Family records don’t say, but my Norwegian ancestors almost certainly lived near folks who are “Nordic:” tall, pale, blond and all. Now, I’ve got blue eyes, and the congenital melanin deficiency common to northwestern Europeans.

But I’m like most of the rest of my Scandinavian family: short, with black hair. We’re not, as far as I can tell, Saami. I’ve no idea “who” we are, or if anyone’s gotten around to labeling our particular stock.

I’m Not Arisch, Either

Popular Science Monthly's 1896 cephalic index map. (1896) Interesting, maybe not all that generally useful. From Popular Science Monthly, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.I suspect one reason there’s a ‘prefer not to say’ option in forms asking what ethnic group I’m in is how many folks reacted to a 20th-century effort to purge humanity’s gene pool.

One of these days, I’ll probably get back to ideas like cephalic index, eugenics, genetics, bioethics and why I’m not keen on preventing people like me.

But not today.

I’m still getting over whatever’s been ailing me since the end of January. So I reigned in my impulse to start discussing post-Enlightenment notions regarding “race,” “species” and why folks in Europe’s upper crust were better than anyone else.

Instead, here’s how one of the 20th century’s major writers — my opinion — responded to a ‘race/ethnicity’ question from a German firm:

“Thank you for your letter … I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”
(Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, #30 (1938) (Emphasis in original) via Wikipedia)

Politics and Acting Like Love Matters

Illustration from the H. Strickland Constable's 'Ireland from One or Two Neglected Points of View.' (1899) From H. Strickland Constable, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
(From H. Strickland Constable, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Sporki~commonswiki's (?) photo taken during World Youth Day, Rome. (2000) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permissionI’m no fan of race/ethnic politics.

Partly because I think today’s assorted ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ labels, based on ancestry, make as much sense today as yesteryear’s “Anglo Teutonic” and “Irish Iberian” categories.

And partly because I like living in a world where everyone doesn’t look pretty much like me.

That attitude makes it easy to accept two basic points the Church makes.

I should love my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2537)

Accepting those ideas was easy, once I worked through implications of believing that human beings are people, no matter what we do or where we’re from. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355-361, 1701-1706, 1928-1942, 2258-2283)

Consistently acting as if I take ‘love my neighbor’ seriously can be anything but easy. And that is another topic.

Finally, the usual links to allegedly-related stuff:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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3 Responses to Appearance, Ancestry, and Me at the Grand Canyon

  1. I just remembered when fellow Filipinos on the streets thought with fascination that I was Japanese when I was younger, which, unfortunately, I can relate to more now as a weeby adult. I’d say such fetishization is a Filipino thing, but I’m getting the feeling that we humans are more different in appearance than we are in personality, considering how I see that madness and more from the foreign cultures we self-loathing fools worship as well, hahaha~ X”D

    • “…more different in appearance than we are in personality….” Agreed. Although I could quibble over how “personality” is defined. 😉

      Looking at humanity’s records over the last few millennia, I see no basic difference in what I call human nature – and a fascinating diversity of different details in how our cultures go about the business of living.

      • Heh, I guess I’m just not looking deeply enough, then, huh? Maybe I’m just too easily entranced by the illusions of boasting like usual and forget that treasures aren’t really meant to be found that easily, then, hahaha~ X”D

Thanks for taking time to comment!