What makes a WASP?

Is it just a matter of ancestry, or is it a cultural thing, which anyone can adopt as their own? Articles like this one (and there are websites and blogs centered on this idea) seem to reduce WASP identity to styles of clothing, prestigious name brands, and manners.

“The hallmarks of the WASP — besides being white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant — are good taste and good manners, neither of which Trump possesses. When The Donald has nothing nice to say about someone, he says it loudly, proudly and repeatedly. When he has only nice things to say about someone, he is that someone.”

Actually the article seems to have been written as a vehicle for anti-Trump carping. It seems Trump is too brash, not modest and unassuming, which proper WASPs supposedly are.

First, it seems people are throwing the label ‘WASP’ around very carelessly, very imprecisely. I suppose it’s too late to correct this trend, but it seems most Americans, even those of Anglo-Saxon/British Isles ancestry, use the word ‘WASP’ to describe a cultural thing, namely, the Northeastern country-club set, the preppy-clad, socially connected upper class, of vaguely Anglo-Saxon origin.

However the people who describe Trump as a WASP are stretching the definition. As far as I am aware, his paternal ancestry was German, and his mother was actually an immigrant from Scotland. The Scots will tell you that they are not Anglo-Saxon/WASP, and Germans are, well, German. Though there is a region in Germany called Saxony, where the ancestors of the Saxons of England supposedly originated, the two peoples are not interchangeable.

Donald Trump is very much a New Yorker, culturally, and with that goes the brashness and the bluntness. I think all lifelong New Yorkers have some of those qualities, probably including whatever genteel upper class WASPs that may still exist there. Where are those legendary WASPs anyway? They seem to be pretty hard to find in New York City proper, or anywhere for that matter. And the English-descended families of the New York area, those of the old-stock upper classes, long since intermarried with the Dutch and other well-to-do colonial stock people. Many of the people described as WASP in the Northeast have mixed lineages, not all Anglo-Saxon by any means.

The linked article also refers to the Bush family, who are almost always held up as a (bad) example of WASP power in this country. However if you look at the genealogy of the Bush dynasty (which I have, being very into genealogy) you will find they are far from all English, having some central European ancestry among other things.  Yet people continue to refer to them as some sort of pur sang, quintessential WASPs. They are not. And as the article points out, Jeb Bush has Hispanicized his lineage, and opted out of being a supposed WASP.

This article, discussing the same article to which I link, is about how being a WASP is ‘bad politics’ in America these days, as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are out of favor, passe, and just out of step with the times. WASPs, allegedly, are too gentlemanly, in an era which requires manliness — not a trait of Anglo-Saxons supposedly. But wait: wasn’t Trump being bashed in the other article for being too blunt and rough in his manner? Isn’t that part of what constitutes manliness, being forceful and direct, as opposed to being self-effacing and deferential? How, then, can Trump be called a WASP? It’s all too confusing to me.

On the ‘Ivy Style’ blog comments, some people ask about other WASP presidents, like Bill Clinton. Someone replies that he was not truly a WASP because he was allegedly poor. First, I don’t accept that his supposedly poor childhood disqualifies him; second, to be somewhat blunt, his ancestry is uncertain on his paternal side; his surname is that of his stepfather. His mother was of Irish descent.  But what about the many, many Southern people of strongly English (Anglo-Saxon) descent who are not rich? The fact that there was once a wealthy English-descended elite in the Northeast, families like the Lodges, the Cabots, the Lowells, and others, hardly means that wealth and power (long since passed from the old-stock English descendants) are essential to being ‘WASP.’ Most English-descended colonial stock Americans were neither wealthy or powerful; many more were middle class or lower, and lived their lives in quiet obscurity.

To define WASP as a cultural category, and wealth as a prerequisite, is to deny an ethnic identity to most English-descended Americans. Most other ethnic groups would object strongly if the name of their ethnic group began to be applied promiscuously to any White person who was of a certain social class, wore the ‘right clothes’, exhibited good taste and etiquette, and attended the right schools. Why is this supposed to be acceptable for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, then?

Most of the English-descended Southern people would not describe themselves as WASPs, I think, even though they are (of course) White, Anglo, and Protestant. Often they’ve been the types to describe themselves as American, or as Southern, or a citizen of their particular state. They were still aware of their roots in England, however, until the recent confusion over identity (The Celtic South vs. Anglo-Saxon South).

The White people of Utah, many of whom were Mormon settlers, are apparently a very English group of people, by descent. Maybe that is because most of their forefathers left New England or the Midwest when their lineage was still very unmixed with the immigrant groups that had begun to enter New England, and they then intermarried within their Mormon ranks, preserving their ethnic ties. So Utah as a state apparently has the greatest percentage of English-Americans.

But they would not be culturally ‘WASP’ enough to fit the current definition. And maybe they don’t dress according to the prescribed style code. But White Anglo-Saxon Protestants is a description of who they are nonetheless.

With so much talk about ‘cultural appropriation’ should it be acceptable to appropriate another group’s ethnicity and their culture, even if that culture is reduced to merely dressing a certain way and adopting certain manners and ‘taste’? Being a ‘WASP’ or an Anglo-Saxon American is a heritage which is much more than such surface things, and it should not be trivialized.

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