English 111: Ethnicity

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Historical Development of "Ethncity"

Most people think about color of one's skin or race when they hear "ethnicity". But can physical differences between the people in this photo really represent their ethnic identity?

Beginning the in 20th Century, the term “ethnicity” became significant in American social circles as means of individuals and groups identifying themselves a different from others; often citing linguistic, religious, or ritual practice as basis of cultural difference. Ethnicity proved to be an important social label because it bared a more intrinsic, cultural value as opposed to race, which bared a physical, biological connotation. As an alternative to a biological emphasis on racial hierarchy, “ethnicity” was became a popular social term particularly after the assimilation-driven WWII era had ended. As Americans, particularly white Americans, became increasingly unified in their social identities, a need to socially distinguish from others gave saw an increased social fascination with so-called “exotic art” and “ethnic music”. Access to these “other worlds” through culture became synonymous with a cosmopolitan lifestyle and eventually led to the commodification of ethnicity as an industry rather than a social category.

Although ethnicity was initially popular as an alternative to traditional social distinctions based on race, social hierarchies were still perpetuated. Additionally, with the embrace of “ethnicity” rose an industry focused completely on selling the culture of other people, rather than connecting others to the content (ie: “exotic art”). Overall, with the rise of new social distinctions comes more gray area and more opportunity for social empowerment as well as discrimination of other peoples (that are seen as belong to “another group”).

Henry Yu's keyword essay: Ethnicity

Henry Yu's keyword essay on the history and significance of the word "Ethnicity," analyzes the social implications of "whiteness" and its exclusivity. He states, "One of the ways in which individuals formerly excluded as racially or ethnically suspect could 'whiten' themselves was by embracing cosmopolitan ideas" (107). The illusive, indefinite nature of ethnicity Yu claims can be manipulated to some degree; however, the role and significance of ethnicity in different cultures can prove to be very varied. In his analysis of ethnicity, Yu suggests that social categorization by ethnicity can prove to be liberating from the constrictions of racial classification and that through the "cultural processes of assimilation could eliminate all differences between them” (104).

Many ethnic studies theorists argue that while ethnicity is an alternative to racial classification,"'ethnicity' has continued to be used widely as a description of and prescription for social life" (106). With the emergence of ethnic studies as a growing area of academic study, debate as to weather or not with it explored other ways in which people socially identify (based on traits such as nationality, birthplace) or was just an extension of the classifying constrictions that racist thinking had long established.

Race vs. Ethnicity

According to Webster's Dictionary


1 : a breeding stock of animals
2 a : a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock b : a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
3 a : an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a species; also : a taxonomic category (as a subspecies) representing such a group b : breed c : a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits


1 : heathen
2 a : of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background b : being a member of a specified ethnic group c : of, relating to, or characteristic of ethnics

Race and ethnicity are two similar, yet uniquely different concepts. Reading Webster's definition of race and ethnic, one can be confused as to how they are different. If you were to look up "race" in a thesaurus, the first synonym you find will probably be "ethnic group". Race and ethnicity can have similar meaning, but there are distinct differences.

Ethnicity is not just a person's race, it encompasses customs and traditions, history, religion, location, language and other learned behavior. These various characteristics of ethnicity are not totally inclusive, nor requiring more than one select aspect. One can identify themselves with an ethnic group, but maybe they don't share the same language as others associated with that group. The same goes with history, religion, or any other facet of ethnicity. For example, consider someone ethnically Jewish--this would include religion, customs, language, and location. The only thing we can assume is that they are a member of the Jewish faith, they don't necessarily have to know how to speak Hebrew, nor do they have to of been born in Israel. That person might not even be a practicing member of the traditions of Judaism.

Ethnicity is a choice of identity. It is something that you learn and not dependant on your physical traits or what race you genetically are. Ethnicity is a non-genetic characteristic of one's identity. In his essay "Ethnicity", author Henry Yu states: "Ethnicity became synonymous with cultural difference, and any theory dependent upon physical characteristics was dismissed as racist"(Yu 104). Therefore, people use ethnicity as a way to diversify oneself against broader racial stereotypes. Recognizing themselves as different from other ethnic groups and celebrating those differences.

Race is biological and not something learned or chosen. Race is associated with skin color and physical traits, rather than association with a group. Though some ethnic group are associated with certain races, there is no biological link of a certain race to a certain ethnic group. Race indicates your genetic heritage, regardless of any learned behavior. Some may even argue that race is something created by society, since technically, all people are part of the human race. There is no "race" of human that is biologically less human than any other. In fact, all human are 99.9% genetically identical, and most of that 0.1% variation is based on sex, rather than unique physical personal traits. Skin color is merely a varying human trait perpetuated through natural selection and the mixing of "races". So really, there are no distinct "black" or "white" races, everyone is a different shade of grey. And so, ethnicity is not anything physical, it is merely an idea in your mind.

Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz is a Dominican-American author whose writing revolves around themes of immigration.

Junot Diaz, a Dominican-American writer, portrays the story of a Dominican-Republican family's transition to the United States in search for security and stability in the plot of Negocios, Aguantando, and Fiesta, 1980. Diaz writes of the family's attempt to adjust and assimilate to a new nation, which they had arrived in with hope of a new and joyous life. The description of events as the family attends a party reveals the many conflicts in relationships and the diminishing of any hope for establishing or belonging to a certain ethnicity. The father’s search for success and wealth in a new nation, is written through the perspective of Yunior, the man’s younger son. The description of events and circumstances that Papi must face, as an immigrant chasing the wealth and prosperity that has thus far only been an object of his dreams, reveal the inner workings of the community of immigrants, and a form of ethnicity, that he finds himself integrated into. As he makes new friends such as JoJo or Chuito, the relationships that are formed serve to teach him of the ways of America as they offer advice and assistance through job opportunities and console. In order to achieve legal status Papi looks for marriage that then leads to the birth of a son, creating an entirely new life for himself in America. In the midst of working multiple hard labor jobs, Papi encounters both physical and emotional struggles, as he must balance his new life with that which he has left behind in, resulting is a conflict of interest. This conflict of interest refers back to the key word of ethnicity and the development of a given ethnic group.


"Nineteen Thirty-Seven"

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Dandicat

Within the short story "Nineteen Thirty-Seven" by Edwidge Danticat, the novel's profound theme resonates through the characters' past traumatic experiences and their newly found relationships with one another. Dandicat presents the idea of how ethnicity does not have a set and permanent purpose. Rather it is the way it is positioned within a group of people that determine how ethnicity is utilized.

Ethnicity's ability to destroy

The story of "Nineteen Thirty-Seven" is narrated through Josephine, daughter of a mother who is in prison after being accused as a witch.
File:Parsley massacre.jpg
Parsley Massacre was originally instigated by the President of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo. His order for all Haitians to be removed from the Dominican Republic represents the destructive power that ethnicity retains as thousands were brutally murdered in the year 1937.
The story reveals that Josephine's grandmother was butchered, along with many other Haitians, and thrown into the river dividing Dominican Republic and Haiti. This tragic event became known as the Parsley Massacre.

The Parsley Massacre, implied through the title “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” and throughout the text of the story, shows readers the cruel and unforgiving side of ethnicity that destroys and ruins the lives of thousands. The Parsley Massacre was instigated by the Dominican President Trujillo. He ordered the execution of all Haitians living within the border of the Dominican Republic. As race was determined by the physical and biological features, it was difficult to distinguish between Dominicans and Haitians as they very closely resembled each other. In order to overcome this confusion, the Dominican soldiers utilized ethnicity in order to truly find out who was Haitian. They began questioning those within the Dominican Republic by asking what the sprig of parsley was. Dominicans and Haitians had different ways of pronouncing the same word and those who could not pronounce it correctly were declared to be Haitian and were executed. As language is part of the cultural customs, traditions, and behavior, it is a major element in the definition of ethnicity. It is evident that through the usage of language, ethnicity was utilized as a tool of destruction.

This event is represented within the tale of the women, such as Maman and Josephine, who were affected by the massacre. Dandicat illustrates the powerful and shocking scene at the river in which Josephine describes how the soldiers were “chopping up [her grandmother’s] body and throwing it into the river along with many others” (40). This appalling image portrays the image of the dangerous destructive power that ethnicity retains.

Ethnicity's ability to nurture

Despite the dreadful potential that ethnicity carries, Dandicat assures readers that ethnicity also provides a healing effect for those in suffering. The women affected by the horrendous massacre were able to discover new relationships with one another as they carried a shared common experience. These new bonds provided the much needed assistance as these women were able to fully understand one another as they had endured similar past experiences together. It is because of these bonds that these women were able to tolerate the immense pain brought on by the destruction that ethnicity had left behind. After the massacre, they were able to relate to one another as they performed rituals together at the place of suffering. This understanding and caring that arises from ethnicity is also visible through Jacqueline and Josephine’s dialogue as Jacqueline states how she “‘knows who [Josephine] is’” (45). Although they may not have personally known one another, their shared experience forges the bond necessary to begin this new relationship that only they can understand. Jacqueline provides support and assurance to Josephine and the other women as “[the soldiers] will make these women watch, and that they can keep them company” (48). Ethnicity truly retains two sides as is evident through Danticat’s short story “Nineteen Thirty-Seven”. It is a matter of how it is positioned within a certain group of people that one can truly see how it is utilized and for what purpose.

"Caroline's Wedding"

In the short story "Caroline's Wedding," author Edwidge Danticat illustrates different ethnic identities within the context of an immigrant family. Danticat explores the social standards and implications of ethnicity between generations of a Haitian mother and her daughters --the Haitian-born narrator and her younger, American-born sister. Throughout the story, the mother attempts to maintain her native traditions whereas her daughter's values and social expectations have been shaped by her exposure to American culture. Much of the intergenerational tensions portrayed in Danticat's story can be attributed to identities regarding exile and belonging. Immigrant and theorist Edward Said, who grapples with many of the same issues Danticat does in "Krik? Krak!" in his writings, views banishment from one's place of origin as stigmatizing and something that can promote a sense of orphanhood, which contributes to the characteristically stubborn efforts of many exile in analyzing and explaining the harsh world that surrounds them. Without the support of others or the ability to identify as a member of society, people in exile are left to take full ownership of their work-- in the case of "Caroline's Wedding," it would be the widowed mother's raising of her daughters in America.

Living in America influences each of the women's identities differently, and the narrator finds herself as an intermediary between her mother's Haitian ways and sister's American identity. Her mother maintains that she is a Haitian living in America whereas Caroline, "had been born in America, something that she very much took for graded" (160). The narrator, who was born in Haiti and moved to America with her mother when she was young, officially gains US citizenship at the beginning of the story and thus can relate to her mother’s Haitian identity as well as her sister’s American identity which is why she plays an important role in helping her mother and sister communicate.

No Telephone to Heaven

File:No telephone.jpg
No Telephone to Heaven written by Michelle Cliff heavily revolves around the theme of identity. The characters within the story all experience a journey of change as their identities are molded and transformed by outside influences in their life.

In No Telephone to Heaven, the author Michelle Cliff introduces ethnicity as an identity that can vary, depending on one’s experience and upbringing in the environment that he or she is placed in. This understanding of ethnicity is explored in story of Clare, the novel’s protagonist, as she discovers that she can be identified with different cultures throughout her movement from Jamaica to the western world, and then back to Jamaica.

A Jamaican-American author, Michelle Cliff, explores the theme of one's search for ethnic identity in the novel, "No Telephone to Heaven".

How different cultures have collided and interacted significantly infleunces which ethncity that Clare is attributed with in each of these settings. Such collisions are labeled as “‘cultural assimilation,’ the process by which two groups communicated with each other and came to share common experiences, memories, and histories.” (Yu 105) How two cultures of European ethnicities and African ethnicities interacted is vastly different within white-ethnic dominated, western world society like United States; and in Caribbean, where influence of African diaspora in establishing its culture is enormous.

First, consider the case of United States, where the system of African-descent slaves existed for many years within the white-European ethnic dominated society. In America, white indentured servants were almost completely replaced by the black slaves from Africa even before the nation United States was established. Thus there was a clear sense that non-white ethnics from places like Africa, Caribbean and South America are socially inferior to that of European descendents. In United States, “European immigrants were transformed into white ethnics” (Yu 107) because it is easier for them, regardless of specific ethnicity that they originally belonged to, can easily integrate into American society as a “white” ethnicity, while such natural integration was almost impossible for people of different color. Therefore, in America, the notion of “race” was much more popular than defining one’s cultural traits, backgrounds and ethnic identities. Clare and her family, when they immigrate to United States in 60’s, experience racial discrimination and unfair treatment from others. This is because they are considered “black” in this society, in which collision of various cultures and ethnicities is not familiar. Clare’s school principal declares that there is no such system as “biracial” or “multi-ethnic”, but that she would just be considered a “white chocolate”, because there is “no room for in betweens”. (Cliff 99) Clare and her family were simply a “black race” there. With no clear understanding of ethnic identity, but just a hierarchical distinction between someone’ color of skin, cultural traits of Clare is largely ignored in America.

In Jamaica, however, the term “ethnicity” bears much more significance. Caribbean world is created by the migration of African-descent slaves and the force of European colonizers. The collision of cultures in Caribbean is described as the “new World presence” by a cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who claims that the region “is the juncture-point where the many cultural tributaries, meet, the ‘empty’ land”; and that every people who represent different ethnicities there, such as “black, brown, white, African, European, American, Spanish, French, East Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Jew, Dutch—originally ‘belonged’ there.” (Hall 243) Because the country has so much of African influence in its cultural identity, in music, film and etc, there is really no necessity to distinguish or discriminate race. Cliff states in the novel that Jamaica is a place where “everyone is Black, it’s just that some are blacker than others…it’s a question of degree…from ace of spades to white cockroach…” (Cliff 153)

It is also interesting that at the end of the novel, the revolutionaries assaulted the production of an American film company. It is the depiction of Jamaica in Hollywood and other media that produce the stereotypical image of a Jamaican which the revolutionaries are attempting to remove. These Americans producing the film clearly display the negative image of Jamaicans that has been embedded within their minds as they talk about how "Jamaicans will do anything for a buck.. the hotels... the private resorts... the reggae festivals for white kids... These people are used to selling themselves. I don't think they know from revolution" (Cliff 202). In order to truly uncover the true Jamaican identity, the revolutionaries must first dissolve the false images that produce these stereotypes and through the assault on the American film set, they are able to take the first steps in reestablishing their country's identity.

File:Little Jacob.jpg
Little Jacob is a Jamaican character within the video game Grand Theft Auto IV. Little Jacob is portrayed as a ganja smoking drug dealer Jamaican who speaks in creole. This character represents the type of stereotypical images that media from other countries instill within the population about Jamaicans.

In the end Clare choose to return to Jamaica, because Jamaica is the place that can recognize and accept the multi-cultural ethnicity that she has. Clare is not a character of simple dimension: she is all of “woman who has reclaimed her grandmother’s land…white, black, female, lover, beloved, daughter, traveler, friend, scholar, terrorist, farmer.” (Cliff 91). It is only logical that Clare feels personal attachment towards Jamaica where all her ethnic identities of Europe, Africa, and Caribbean can be equally represented; unlike in America or England where she can only be labeled as a certain race.

Further Information

Further information about Ethnicity through The Black Jacobins

Work Cited

Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Plume, 1996.

Danticat, Edwidge. Krik? Krak? New York: Vintage Books, 1995. 1-224. Print.

Diaz, Junot. Drown. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Hall, Stuart. Cultural Identity and Diaspora. In Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Yu, Henry. Ethnicity. Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

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