On What We Have
Ethnicity is a fact of life. Everyone is ethnic. You, me, everyone. No one can escape this truth.
Of course, if you’re like me, you’re wondering, “What the heck is ethnic?” Or rather, “What do people mean when they use the word?”
And when you look around, you discover it’s not so easy to define and often more difficult to apply.
The word is frequently invoked these days but that doesn’t mean it is clearly understood.
You hear it often because it is the new political catchword for both liberal and conservative policymakers.
Even worse is the fact that the word often connotes one of two negative vibes: condescension or smugness.
General discussions or even a passing reference to any ethnic group comes across as condescending:
Those poor people. How strange!
And if you happen to be a member of said group and you find no way to stop the conversational finger-pointing, you eventually develop a smug, defensive attitude, which becomes the impetus for political action or in extreme cases, revolution.
The last two US Presidents illustrate the point. Obama was perceived as ethnically generous. Trump not so much. Obama spoke respectfully of those who didn’t fit in with mainstream America. Trump wants to build a wall. But both, regardless the predisposition, spoke/speak downward.
And it must be remembered that the President, whatever his bias, presides in the highest office in a country whose message to every immigrant is:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free!
Those masses come from every possible direction. They have many things in common. Ethnic identity isn’t one of them.
Like it or not, the US populace is a living, breathing, ever-changing example of ethnic blending. The American Way is a hybrid and stays in a constant state of flux.
More importantly, the laws of the land, at least in the US, don’t define individual tastes. They don’t create ethnic boundaries or allow ethnic shaming but they do regulate how citizens respond when preferences conflict.
That is the important truth to remember. The US version of democracy doesn’t feature one ethnic background at the expense of all others. The ground rules are established for all. In theory, anyone breaking those rules regardless their ethnic background is judged and penalized accordingly, meaning fairly.
I’m sure some will blanch at the idea, but the US has slowly formed into an equal ethnic opportunity. All must work. All must pay their own bills and make a reasonable contribution. None are allowed illegal entrance but ethnicity is safe as long as it doesn’t abuse the law or the rights of others.
But back to the word itself.
The short definition is simple. Ethnic is a synonym for all those other people, the ones that aren’t us. The ones that talk differently, think differently, dress differently and observe different cultural practices. And, of course, the bigger the difference the more ethnic they seem to be meaning weird, strange, unusual or odd.
The earliest use of the word reflects this very idea.
It comes from the Greek word ethnikos and was used by Jews and early Christians to refer to anyone not Jewish or Christian. The term was derisive. Ethnikos were the heathen. That understanding, the idea that ethnic groups are by nature bad has carried over and it’s one reason no person thinks of him or herself as ethnic.
We’re normal! Everyone else is strange.
The word is popular because globalization changed proximity. Ethnicity moved in next door. Cultural isolation is no longer possible. Borders are no longer boundaries. Pristine neighborhoods no longer exist so we’re thinking and talking about ethnicity and the word is used in a variety of ways:
- Ethnic groups
- Ethnic foods
- Ethnic communities
- Ethnic studies
- Ethnic violence
And, of course, ethnic cleansing which unfortunately has nothing to do with personal hygiene.
What Ethnicity Is Not
Since it is used so frequently, it is important to take a stab at establishing the markers of ethnicity at least in broad strokes.
Ethnicity always refers to a group of people who have certain characteristics in common.
It doesn’t refer to individuals who happen to be unconventional. When an individual lives outside the norm, we call that eccentric, not ethnic.
But it is also true that not every group qualifies as ethnic. The question is what makes one group ethnic and another group not.
Let me clarify. Every person is ethnic. There is no such thing as a non-ethnic, absolutely correct way of living, the standard of which places everyone else in the lower realms of ethnicity. Every person fits into an ethnic group, at least in relation to other ethnic groups, but there are categories/groups that don’t qualify as ethnic.
For example, language doesn’t define ethnicity. Not every English speaking person owns the same ethnic identity, not even among those who speak it natively. I doubt people in the UK would identify ethnically with people in the US so language is out.
Nationality doesn’t define ethnicity. The Kurds are an ethnic group that inhabits several different nationalities: Turkish, Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian and Armenian. Not every German was a Nazi. Not every Russian agreed with communism. Nationality is not the synonym for ethnicity.
Even Southerners in the US differ distinctly from Northerners and legal arguments have actually been made to suggest the two groups are ethnically separate.
If you think this is going beyond the general understanding of ethnicity, you’re correct. These people are usually thought to be too close to strictly define as ethnically different but the attitudes they entertain tell a different story.
How many confederate flags have you seen displayed in Boston? How often do northern States vote parallel to South Carolina?
Plus, with so many people exchanging one nationality for another these days, you can easily see how the issue can be confused. Changing one’s nationality is not the same as adopting a new ethnicity.
Although the idea seems to prevail in recent discussions, ethnicity is also not defined by race or skin color and ethnic conflict in Africa is proof. Ask a Rwandan how the Hutus differ from the Tutsis. He won’t mention skin color.
Besides, race is genetic and can’t be changed. Ethnicity is very adaptive.
I think it is safe to say that most ethnic groups practice some form of religion but religion isn’t a primary marker either. Many groups identify with Christianity but their ethnic activities vary widely and happen outside the church. Marriage ceremonies throughout the Christian world vary considerably and very few, if any, mirror the wedding Jesus attended in Cana. These differences are influenced mostly by ethnicity.
The point is ethnicity is narrowly defined. The broad issues like language, nationality, skin color, religion or politics do not define one’s ethnicity.
What Ethnicity Is
Admittedly, clear definitions defy science. Isolated ethnicities change little and contrast markedly with mainstream ethnicities so they are easy to identify.
When ethnic groups share space the dynamic changes. Blending happens, contrast is lowered and distinctions are grayed out. Differences aren’t so easy to detect. But we still need a basic definition.
Ethnicity refers to cultural and social identity. It includes language, yes. It may include nationality but more importantly, it is based mostly on shared history and tradition. What people eat and how they prepare foods are characteristics of ethnicity.
Ethnic groups are groups within groups. The longer these groups mingle, the more blending takes place and the less recognizable each one becomes.
That doesn’t mean ethnicity is hard-wired. Blending can and does occur in successive generations.
You find Romani people (Gypsies) in many different countries but they only number 11 million worldwide. Only about a million live in the USA. The number is so small it’s possible to live a lifetime and never meet or see a Gypsy. It’s also possible to see one and not know it.
You’ll find a Chinatown in most major cities. These business/residential centers develop around ethnic identity. It happens naturally. People with a common cultural, social and traditional background band together to create commerce, provide services, maintain identity and foster a sense of security in an unfamiliar surrounding.
You could call this ethnicity on the move. The root is established in one country and transplanted to another.
The Restrictive Nature of Ethnicity
Generally, ethnicity isn’t very forgiving. Marrying someone outside the group, eating the wrong foods or ignoring rituals is like spitting in the collective eye of the community.
Moving house is stressful. Changing countries is even worse. But whatever the difficulties of moving countries, it’s near impossible to breach the boundaries of your ethnicity and keep the peace.
Amish kids are held at arm’s length if they marry outside the church? Jews are sometimes funeralized if they marry a gentile. My family grimaced when I became a Christian and were horrified when I joined a Baptist church.
Ethnicity Is Imposed Not Offered
Ethnicity provides security, a sense of identity and connection but it is never a choice. Ethnicity is inherited at birth and there are several reasons this could be a problem.
- Personal choice is limited.
Your first ethnic identity is imposed. The community you’re born into rubs off. The opportunity to consider your choices is never even thought of. You think like those around you, eat what they eat and act like they act. It’s automatic and later, when curiosity rises, it’s a scary idea. Acting differently makes you odd.
No one wants that.
Very few Amish kids actually leave the church following Rumspringa. It’s more comfortable to stay with what they know.
Making this worse is the fact that the skills needed to make personal choices are stunted. Learning from your social mistakes rarely happens because the group doesn’t allow it.
Parroting the first people we mix with is a solution only in the short term. It makes us and the group feel safe but eventually, we need to branch out and try the waters. Safe is not always secure.
- In whatever way your native ethnic group is wrong, you are wrong, at least for a while.
Ethnicity isn’t primarily a moral issue but it can be. The Dani tribe of Indonesia cut off segments of a woman’s fingers when one of her family members dies. I find it hard to believe the women are agreeable to this. They may not complain openly but surely there is emotional push back.
The Yanomami Tribe of the Amazon rainforest mix the pulverized bones of dead tribal members (or ashes from the bones) in their soup. Forget the gag reflex, how healthy can this be?
Reacting to these practices negatively isn’t a self-righteousness response. There are sound reasons these things are not allowed in ethnically civilized communities.
You can read about these bizarre customs here.
If these ethnic groups found their way into the main stream, you can imagine the conflict. What’s the answer? Well, to start with, a strong and ethnically diverse democracy, but that can be a problem also.
Why The Rub
Democracy and ethnicity don’t mix well. Democracy emphasizes human rights and individual choice. Ethnicity often doesn’t. The more democratic a society is the more difficult it is for any group to maintain it’s ethnicity. Let’s face it, tradition, which ethnicity loves to enforce, is rebuffed every day by democracy.
When ethnicity and democracy are shoulder to shoulder, it’s a tug of war, a constant arm wrestling match and it should be. The difference is democracy allows, encourages and insists individuals make personal choice. Ethnicity doesn’t allow so much wiggle room.
The more people get a taste of freedom and the benefits it fosters, the more likely they are to rethink ethnic values.
Ethnicity Isn’t Fixed
Even though you can’t choose your ethnicity you can change it and that is more likely to happen when one ethnic group is surrounded by others.
With exposure, ethnicity morphs. You wouldn’t think it, but pizza and tacos – dietary mainstays in just about any part of the world – were once considered ethnic foods.
Even Chinatown illustrates the motility of ethnic flavor. These developments aren’t strict representations of Chinese culture. They absorb local ethnicity. You can buy pizza in Chinatown too.
There are two perspectives on ethnicity: inside and outside.
The members of an ethnic group, the insiders, know who they are, how everything works and how they fit in. It’s personal knowledge. They see things from the inside out.
Those on the outside can’t see the whole picture and tend to identify individuals based on external appearance only, in other words racially. If they look Chinese, they must live in Chinatown and think and act like every other Chinaman.
The irony is individuals don’t think or act alike. That’s why we call them individuals. That’s also why there are 56 different ethnic groups in China and those living outside China wouldn’t identify with or fit in so comfortably with those who do.
Labeling people by how they look on the outside is bad enough but it doesn’t stop there. We also judge them by the worst individuals in the group, racial profiling. If you’re black you must be dealing.
This is one reason why ethnicity and race are often confused.
This type of labeling is really nothing more than name calling and needs to stop. You can’t judge a book by its cover.
Ethnicity also has little to do with character. You can find hard-working, reliable people in every group. Every group has its slouches too. Imposing a generalized narrative on every individual in the group isn’t just wrong, it’s stupid.
Ethnicity In History
It’s sad but ethnic history doesn’t make for enjoyable reading. Humanity has a poor track record.
Ethnic differences are usually measured vertically. The higher the better. Upscale is always the most moral.
Each group is always looking down, testing and prodding, and it isn’t unusual for each to judge the other as untrustworthy, questionable or possibly even bad rather than just different.
Ethnic cleansing, an extreme response, is expressed in different ways, none of which are good: isolation, expulsion or genocide. The worst, genocide, happens frequently. Our modern era is riddled with examples.
The good news is attitudes can change. Thinking can evolve. And it should.
It isn’t easy to change one’s ethnicity or attitude but you have to wonder. Is any ethnic group absolutely right? Is any group immune to error? If you answer no to those questions then stubbornly holding on to the way you’ve always viewed things may not be smart.