Ethnic Identification Process

One's ethnic/racial identity may result from self-identification or from an imposition by others.  Identifying other people's ethnicity for them has always been a powerful political tool for controlling, marginalizing, and even getting rid of them.  From the early 1930's through the mid 1940's, the Nazi's in Germany methodically labeled people as being Jews even though they did not always personally identify themselves as such.  In most cases, this label was tantamount to a death sentence.

photo of two elderly Japanese or Koreans?  

Japanese or Koreans?  

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the European American dominated political system in the U.S. restricted legal rights of people they defined as being African, Asian, or Native American in ancestry.  Their property and voting rights were limited and they were treated as 3rd class citizens.  Similarly, in Japan today, tens of thousands of 2nd and 3rd generation resident Koreans who have adopted the Japanese language and culture are given only limited rights if they retain their Korean citizenship.  They are not allowed to be fully Japanese because dual citizenship is not permitted.  This leaves them in  a marginal status and limits their job prospects. 

  early 20th century photo of African American servants

Early 20th century photo of
African American servants

People in political and economic power usually define their own ethnic/racial group as being superior and others as being inferior.  This can be done by laws that restrict rights and privileges.  It also can be done in subtle pervasive ways even when ethnic favoritism is officially illegal.  For example, throughout much of the 20th century in America, "white" became identified in popular literature, films, and the mass media with intelligent, good, pretty, and successful, while "black" was identified with the opposite.  The early 20th century photo (on the right) of African Americans depicted as an underclass of servants satisfied the common European American perception.

The unfavorable portrayal of African Americans still continues today, to some extent, with TV news programs focusing on black gang violence, welfare mothers, and relatively poor performance in school.  After generations of images reflecting this view, many African Americans came to define themselves negatively.  It was not a mere coincidence that the "black power" political movement of the 1960's created the catch phrase "black is beautiful."  This was a conscious effort to counter negative images with a positive one.

African Americans are not unique in having a relentless negative image of themselves portrayed in the popular media.  Mexican Americans, Arab Americans, and some Southeast Asian groups are also experiencing it to some degree.  In fact, most minority groups in heterogeneous societies like the United States have had a similar experience.  Even European immigrants, such as the Irish in the 19th century, were commonly portrayed in the press as being dirty, stupid, alcoholic, and violent.   Before the Civil War in the southern states, Irish immigrants were hired for construction jobs that were considered too risky for black slaves because they were monetarily valuable, unlike the Irish.  Even as late as the mid 20th century, unemployed Irishmen in the Northeastern U.S. were at times faced by signs saying "No Irishmen need apply."  

Hollywood's strongly negative portrayal of specific ethnic groups continues.  However, the targets have changed.  Today, Moslem Arabs, Iranians, and Afghans are consistently cast as irrational terrorists and villains in action films.  They have been impersonalized and stereotyped on-screen with derogatory slurs such as "rag heads."  They have mostly replaced Germans, Japanese, American Indians, African Americans, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, and Communists from any nation as the most dangerous "bad guys."

Whether you have a negative or a positive self-image stemming from your ethnicity/race, gender, or physical condition generally has a powerful effect on the way you relate to others and lead your own life.  For instance, a belief that you are not likely to succeed in education, because "members of your group are inherently less intelligent," can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Why try to succeed in school if you think that you will fail?  Likewise, a strong belief that most members of another group actively discriminate against your group is likely to lead you to be distrusting of the others and to even seek revenge against them.

In North American middle class "white" families today, it is not uncommon for teenagers to feel a lack of ethnic identity.  There is a perception that they are not anything.  This should not be a surprise since their education has generally emphasized the value of ethnicity for others but not them.  The use of terms such as "people of color" for African, Asian, and Native Americans in a sense stigmatizes European Americans as "people without color"--a negative classification.  This along with revised American history that emphasizes the unfairness of "whites" in their interactions with others leads many European American youths to have a somewhat negative image of their ethnicity and of themselves.  Subsequently, they become eager vessels to accept the ethnic traits of others.  This may be one of the reasons that they have readily adopted the music, style of dress, and slang of Black America.  Likewise, tacos, burritos, and other Mexican foods have become as popular as hamburgers for teenagers and young adults, especially in the Southwest.

Creation of New Ethnic Groups

During the 19th century, new ethnic groups were created by European colonial governments in order to facilitate ruling their new indigenous subjects.  This was the case in Australia and over much of Western North America where there had been small, independent bands of foraging societies.  The bands were combined into larger political units by government officials in order to simplify the control of them.  Indigenous leadership positions, such as chiefs, were created for peoples who previously did not have the concept of a leader who could act and speak for their societies.

  Map of European colonies around the world in 1938--Belgian, British, Dutch, French, Italian, and Portuguese

European colonial empires in 1938                         

Similarly, the colonial powers forced diverse ethnic groups to see themselves as being part of larger nations with common ethnicity.  This was the case in India, Malaysia, New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and much of Africa.  In part, these new nations were created to facilitate control.

Some ethnic groups have been created by themselves for the rational goal of gaining political and economic power.  It has been suggested that this was the case with Latinos in the United States.  Until the 1960's, their identity was mostly as distinct Mexican American, Cuban American, and Puerto Rican groups.  Since then, a feeling of shared cultural identity as "Hispanics" has been fostered by Latino leaders.  At the same time, the significant cultural differences between these groups have been underplayed in order to reinforce Latino unity.  As new Central and South American immigrants arrived, the Latino ethnic group redefined itself to incorporate them as well.  Even Portuguese speaking Brazilians have been included.  The creation and recognition of a homogenous Hispanic identity was fostered by the national government.  The term "Hispanic" was actually created by federal bureaucrats working under President Nixon in the early 1970's.


We have seen that ethnic identity is often complex.  It can change dynamically through time as situations alter.  It can be created by self definition or others can define it for us whether we wish them to or not.   The power to label others is the power to control them.  Our stereotypes of groups has a strong effect on how we view and relate to members of those groups.  It also can have a profound effect on how we see ourselves.  Definitions of ethnicity and "race" have immense political importance in America today.  Those ethnic groups that have a high public visibility generally have political clout.  Those that are largely invisible do not.


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This page was last updated on Thursday, September 22, 2011.
Copyright 1997-2011 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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