Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ethnicity and Identity.

Today I made my first summer trip to the coffeeshop. It wasn't just a quick stop to pick up a drink and run, but rather an extended visit by which I meant to catch up with some friends and good conversation. That's one of the pastimes that has fallen by the way side since I made the decision to bring more intentionality to my spare time. There were plenty of things worth writing about brought up in the talk today. But for some reason my mind keeps returning to the nebulous construct referred to as ethnicity. I forget the context that elicited the topic, but it might be illustrative to mention the fact that the friend I had this discussion with would be identified as being of a different ethnicity, merely on the basis of appearance. Yet our thinking on the concept shares a lot of common ground.

We are of the age to have experienced a shift in the way ethnicity is viewed. The civil rights era led to a close examination of the way people form their sense of self. Sociologists didn't want to limit their considerations to race, but rather wanted to explore the way one's ethnic identity affected the way he/she thought and behaved. While the desire to understand this factor had its positive side in terms of confronting perceptions based in ignorance and fear, it also led to some unintended consequences. Instead of a "melting pot", the United States was compared to a "tossed salad". This meant that people were to be looked at relative to their ethnicity, and group traits were supposed to be accepted without prejudice or judgment. Kids were taught to identify with the culture of their ancestral homelands. Children were expected to adopt their ethnicity as a source of pride, esteem and identity. This meant that everyone was expected to develop an awareness of diversity and multiethnicity. It was all well-intentioned and the academics who taught about these subjects believed that such education would prove wholly positive.

But there are several problems with such an assumption. For one thing, it tears down the notions of equality and shared values. As people got more vehement in asserting their own ethnic identities, the differences between folks became starker. While some people embraced the exploration of other ethnic groups as an adventure, there were many that began to fixate on ethnicity as a source of division. In this climate, it was easy for some to resent the "special privileges" that they saw extended to traditionally disenfranchised groups. There was a gradual disintegration in the belief of shared culture that transcended ethnicity.

At the same time there were many people who wanted nothing more than to assimilate. Especially among recent immigrants, there was a widespread desire to become more "American" and to blend in with the rest of the nation's citizens. Some truly resented being constantly reminded that they were "special". My maternal grandfather, whose parents were the most recent immigrants in my family line, turned his back on anything that made him seem like a "foreigner". Although he knew how to speak Ukranian as a kid, by the time he was a grown adult he had forgotten the language. This was a common story throughout the Twentieth Century. It would be foolish for us to believe that there aren't many who feel the same way today.

There are also a lot of US citizens whose families have been in the country for so many generations that they have no other true ethnicity aside from that of North American. My father's line can be traced back to a German man who moved to Eastern PA around 1730. I feel no real kinship to the German people today. In addition I have ancestors from England, France, and Wales. I am a mutt in terms of "ethnicity". It is much more common in our contemporary transient times to live in mixed neighborhoods than among people whose ancestors originated in the same foreign country. I have no problem with constructing elaborate geneologies and preserving traditions, but there are many cultural factors that inform identity as much as (or more than) "ethnicity". Religion (or lack of it), educational level, financial status, consumer choice, likes and dislikes, occupation, and political affiliation all play important roles in making us who we are. So why do we look for the easiest answer when someone asks us- "What are you?"

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