I was in a restaurant where my server was wearing green clothes, a shamrock necklace and sporting a name badge saying ‘Kelly’. ‘Kelly’, I said. ‘You must be Irish’. ‘Why, yes’, she said with smiling eyes, so I asked where she was from.
It turned out that Kelly had been born locally and had never actually been to Ireland, but many years ago one of Kelly’s great, great, great (and maybe another ‘great’ or two) grandparents had immigrated from Ireland to the US. So Kelly felt herself to be Irish. Truth is I think I might have more Irish blood in me than Kelly but it has never occurred to me to think of myself as Irish.
This attention to origins means surnames carry extra meaning here. I’m not sure it works for ‘African American’ because I believe many slaves were given the name of the slave owner, but many surnames signal things like ‘Irish American’, ‘Jewish American’, ‘Polish American’ and ‘Italian American’.
I don’t fully understand all the connotations that come with the labels, but people seem to look at each other’s surnames and employ them to identify connections and make assumptions. I think they might be rather like old school ties in the UK and there’s a secret code operating beneath the surface here.