Nature of Ethnicity


photo of three Greek Canadian women in traditional Greek clothes

 Canadian women using
 clothing to symbolize
 their Greek ethnicity

All around the world, members of ethnic and so-called "racial" groups commonly use ethnic symbols as badges of identity to emphasize their distinctness from other groups.  Language, religion, and style of dress are common ethnic symbols.  In addition to such cultural traits, biological characteristics may be important at times as well.  The Canadian women shown on the right are using their clothing to strongly communicate their Greek identity on a special occasion.


African Americans

African American ethnicity is usually defined by dark brown skin color.  However, shared experience and dialect are often as important since the range of skin coloration is quite broad among African Americans today due to centuries of interbreeding with Europeans, Native Americans, and, more recently, Asians.

Ethnic group unity needs to be reinforced by a constant emphasis on what traits set the members apart from others, rather than what they share in common with the outsiders.  This is a universal means of boundary maintenance, or defense, between ethnic groups.  Ethnic symbols are convenient markers for making "we-they" distinctions and are the focal points for racism and other unpleasant manifestations of ethnocentrism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  They also mask in-group differences.  In the United States. for instance, they help propagate the myth that there is a single, coherent American Indian ethnic group.  The same goes for Hispanics, European Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders.

Whether or not individuals in minority ethnic or "racial" groups prominently emphasize their ethnic symbols may vary with the situation.  They may not emphasize them if they are trying to identify with or join the dominant culture in their society.  That is to say, they may de-emphasize the things that make them different if they wish to assimilate click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced into the dominant ethnic group.  For instance, the children of many immigrants to the United States prefer to speak in the local colloquial dialect click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced of English rather than in their parents' native language.  Likewise, they choose to dress and act like other Americans in their schools.  This has the effect of making them less different from their neighbors while estranging them from their parents.

Assimilation can be speeded up by marriage across ethnic or "racial" boundaries.  As intermarriage becomes common, ethnic/racial differences often are progressively blurred.  Not surprisingly, many ethnic/racial group organizations are opposed to intermarriage--they see it as a tool of ethnocide click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.

The effect of intermarriage on reducing ethnic group identity can be seen in the reduction of discrimination against each of the European immigrant group in North America after several generations.  In the case of Jews, discrimination lasted longer but has also reduced dramatically with the progressive increase in marriage to non-Jews.  In the early 1960's, only 6% of American Jews married outsiders.  By 1985, the rate had grown to nearly 25%.  By the mid 1990's it was 52%.  Over these four decades, discriminatory barriers to Jews largely disappeared.  Of course, there were social changes in America that also contributed to the reduction in institutionalized discrimination.

  photo of an "Interracial" marriage--an African American man and a Eurpean American woman

"Interracial" marriage

African Americans have had a relatively low frequency of intermarriage, though this is beginning to change also.  In 1970, only 2.6% of their marriages were with European Americans.  By 1993, the rate had increased to 12.1%.  The number of intermarriages by African American men has been 3 times higher than those by African American women.  However, the intermarriage rate for African American women is now growing at a relatively faster rate.

Asian and Latin Americans have a comparatively high intermarriage rate with other ethnic/racial groups.  Among Asian Americans, 12% of the men and 25% of the women have intermarried with others, especially European Americans.  The relatively high rate of intermarriage for Asian and Latin Americans likely is an indication of a lower resistance to assimilation in their communities and a greater acceptance of them by the dominant European American society.  However, assimilation is not easy or even possible for members of some minority groups since they are subject to more persistent stereotyping and discrimination.  This is generally the case with African Americans today.  Partly in response to this rejection, assimilation has ceased being a desirable goal of many African Americans.


When ethnic differences are strongly emphasized, as in the case of "black" and "white" Americans today, it inevitably leads to increased polarization.  It also leads to false notions of biological and cultural homogeneity within these groups.  In addition, it results in a selective blindness in looking at the past.  Polarized people easily fall into the trap of justifying an interpretation of history that favors their own group and demonizes others.  This occurred in a particularly sinister way in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990's, after the breakup of Yugoslavia.  Previously peaceful and overtly friendly Muslims, Croats, and Serbs living there brutally slaughtered each other to repay perceived past wrongs and to "ethnically cleanse" the land.

photo of five Filipino Americans in traditional Filipino clothes  

Filipino Americans  

The American mass media and government historic preoccupation with black/white relations has tended to make other smaller ethnic groups relatively invisible and discounted their concerns.  This is ethnic discrimination by not acknowledging the existence of people and not taking them into consideration.  An example of a largely overlooked ethnic group is the unobtrusive Filipino population concentrated in Southern California.  Few Americans realize that they are the 2nd largest recent immigrant group in the country.

Forms of

Prejudice and discrimination based on presumed ethnic/racial differences are universal--they are found in various forms in all societies.  Acts of prejudice range all the way from benign classification of people to cruel persecution.  However, the term racism has come to be imprecisely applied to all of these behaviors.  Kwame Appiah, a British and Ghanaian scholar of African American issues, has made a useful distinction between kinds of prejudicial behavior.  He uses the term racialism for the more benign forms of discrimination such as categorizing people for reference purposes on the basis of age, gender, and ethnicity/race.  He reserves the term racism for harmful discrimination such as not hiring someone because of their "race."  This distinction will be followed here.

We are all racialists.  It is normal to categorize people in our daily lives based on a number of traits.  It can be a useful aid in predicting behavior.  For instance, when you are lost in a strange city, you very likely approach an adult rather than a young child for help because you surmise that the adult will know more.  Similarly, when you want to take an out-of-town guest to a good traditional Mexican restaurant, you may ask a Mexican American friend for recommendations.  However, when categorizing leads to behavior that harms another person, it becomes racism.

  Map of racism hotspots in the world--former Yugoslavia, Israel, India and Pakistan, Indonesia, Rwanda, and South Africa
Recent hotspots of severe racism                          

No one ethnic/racial group has the monopoly on racism.  Even members of groups that are aggressively discriminated against by others may think and act in a vicious racist manner.  Racism has been a common element in American history.  However, the most pervasive racist acts are not being carried out in America today.  Far from it.  Over the last two decades, they have been in such places as the former Yugoslavia, Israel, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Rwanda, South Africa and Sudan.  In all of these countries, ethnic identities have been strongly emphasized as a government policy.  The result has been the rise of tribalism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and even genocide click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced in some regions.  Throughout history, there have been numerous atrocities carried out in the name of ethnic/racial purification.  If racism and ethnic persecution are indeed as much a part of human nature as ethnocentrism, we can expect that such atrocities will occur in the future as well.

While racism is universal, its focus usually changes in the transition from Small-scale societies to large-scale ones.  The smallest societies are almost always biologically and culturally homogenous without ethnic group distinctions.  In such societies, the target of racism is other societies.  Strangers are often thought of as being not quite human.  In contrast, large societies are often heterogeneous and have many ethnic groups.  The targets of racism are mostly other ethnic groups within the same society.  In Italy, for instance, Northern Italians often look down upon Southern Italians and stereotype click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced them as being ignorant, dishonest, and lazy.  Southern Italians often view Northern Italians as being impersonal, dull, and not trustworthy.  A similar north-south stereotyping occurs in China.

We have seen that prejudice in human interaction is a universal phenomenon.  The results of prejudgment can range all the way from relatively harmless racialist categorizing to vicious racist acts.  By strongly emphasizing ethnic symbols for boundary maintenance purposes, ethnic groups indirectly foster racism which, in turn, can become an effective tool in preserving and enhancing the distinctness of the groups.  However, racism and other unpleasant products of heightened ethnic identity can also diminish as a result of increased communication and intermarriage between groups.


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This page was last updated on Wednesday, July 05, 2006.
Copyright 1997-2006 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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