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Dear Mitch,

This is the first time I'm writing in to your website.

As a big fan of the television program The Real Housewives of New Jersey, I heard one of the housewives on a recent show tell another one that she was only 1/16th Italian.  I was wondering what fractions like that mean when people use them to describe someone's ethnic makeup.  In school, I was pretty good in math until high school, and didn't even mind fractions, but I never learned how you come up with the fraction that tells you what part of someone is Irish or Italian or Jewish or whatever.  I get that everybody has to have two parents to start, so if your parents are different nationalities then you are half of one and half the other, with one of the halves coming from each parent, but when people say they're 1/8th this or 1/12th that, I just don't know how they're calculating it.

So the other day, when one of the women on my favoite show was told she was only 1/16 Italian, and my daughter asked me which part of the lady was that, I didn't know how to answer her.  Can you tell me how?


Melinda B. 


Dear Melinda B.,


First I'll explain how one usually goes about calculating the 'fractional makeup' of a person for ethnic/cultural reasons, and then I'll explain why I tend to feel that the whole idea behind it is usually nonsense -- and sometimes far worse than mere nonsense.

So, just as you wrote, when it comes to calculating ethnic makeup of a person, 1/2 is easy:  If one of your parents is Italian and the other parent is Irish, for example, then you would be 1/2 Italian and 1/2 Irish.

Next, if each one of your parents is already a 1/2 + 1/2 blend, such as a parent being 1/2 Italian and 1/2 Spanish, and the other parent being 1/2 French and 1/2 Mexican, then you would be 1/2 of each of your mother's ingredients (or half of each of her halves) and 1/2 of each of your father's ingredients (or half of each of his halves), so, since the way to calculate 1/2 of a 1/2 is to recall that the word "of" means to multiply one by the other, and so we multiply each of the original halves by one-half, and we get 1/4 of each of the original ethnic 'ingredients'.  Therefore, you would be 1/4 Italian, 1/4 Spanish, 1/4 French, and 1/4 Mexican.

The way you check your work, by the way, to make sure that it makes mathematical sense, is you add up all your "parts" and you should get 1 because you are one whole person.  So, in that last example,

1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4 = 1 

So, so far it works!

Now, as we continue this process toward the 1/16 amount that you asked about, many people find it easier to visualize the idea behind all this with a simple fractional diagram. So, following this somewhat wordy explanation you will find an accompanying diagram.  Just scroll down this answer to find it. HOWEVER, please be patient, as you may have to wait a day or two for it to appear.  Basically, though, until then, using the same idea we just used to come to the 1/4 parts of a person, with four grandparents, you can probably already see how, when you take one-fourth of each of those four grandparents, you arrive at one-sixteenths.

First, I have a little confession to make.  I too am a fan of the show "The Real Housewives of New Jersey."  I became hooked on it this summer when, after swearing off television 6 or 7 years ago, I found myself in a hospital room for close to 3 weeks at Stony Brook University Medical Center recovering from emergency open heart surgery to repair a broken valve at an age younger than I have every heard another person having to deal with such a thing.

Fortunately, I am extremely lucky . . .   Not only was Dr. Sandeep Gupta, the cardio-thoracic surgeon who sawed me open and repaired my broken valve a doctor known to be a person of remarkable knowledge, skill, judgment, and dexterity, but also in possession of an interpersonal style equivalent to the musical gift of perfect pitch.  Also, as it turns out, other than the repairable situation of my valve, tests showed that I am completely free of heart disease and am assured that I will live to the age of a hundred -- unless, that is, I do anything stupid (but that, for me, is a big 'if').

So there you have it:  The method of calculating the ethnic makeup of a person, and the reason that I, too, after years of refusing to even turn my television on, happen to be a fan of that unusual program!

As for the reason that I feel it is a fruitless and/or poor idea to think too much about people's ethnic makeups, well, to use a simple metaphor, shouldn't it matter just as much which particular 'part' of a person is represented by each fraction?  In other words, if only twenty-percent of a person is Italian (to return to our earlier example), and that twenty-percent is concentrated in the person's heart, or mind, shouldn't that be considered a more important portion than, say, his knees or feet?  (Keep in mind that I am describing my thoughts from a metaphorical perspective, but I'm hoping my thinking is clear . . .)  Even more importantly, rather than devote our energies to calculating things that separate people and make thtem seem more different than we really are, might it not be a better use of time and brainpower to think about all the things all of us have in common?

I love fractions and appreciate their usefulness, but there are a few situations in life (and just a few!!) when we're probably better off putting our pencils down and using our hearts more than our brains.  Don't you think?


Thank you for your interesting question relating to one of my favorite shows, and thank you for taking the time to visit our website and writing in.

All the best to you!

-- Mitch