Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What does "ethnic" mean?

This is a postcard of the "Giraffe-Neck Women" as they appeared with Bertram Mills Circus, 1937. I use it as the image for my post on the term "ethnic," which it turns out is almost as slippery as the word race. A word we hear and use commonly but when pressed, cannot precisely put our finger on it. It is a little humorous to do a Google image search on the term and see the array of costumes and looks and dolls that come up. Which is how I found this Bertram Mills Circus photo (and others even more shocking). At any rate, here is part of Phil Herbst's definition of ethnic from The Color of Words.

ethnic. An adjective describing a group of people sharing common cultural ele­ments; also a noun for a member of such a group. It is derived from the Greek ethnos (nation, people, or foreign people). It was also once used in the re­lated sense of “gentile" or "heathen" and expressed chauvinistic dislike of outsid­ers. Usage is sometimes contradictory and elusive.

In its contemporary sense, in the so­cial sciences at least, the term is traced to the 1940s Yankee City sociological studies of W. Lloyd Warner. In Warner's first volume (1941), the noun ethnic
was used in reference to someone who con­sidered him- or herself a member of the group under study (Yankee, Irish, Jew­ish, etc.), or was considered so by oth­ers in the group, and who participated in the activities of the group. The term thus came to denote a group of people defined by a common culture, national­ity, language, or religion and by the sig­nificance attached to their shared back­ground.

Among many white, assimilated Americans, however, ethnic connotes foreigners or outsiders. Even Warner's concept of ethnicity involved an exclusivist meaning: it could refer to the Irish, Jewish, etc., but not to the native Yankees. At some times ethnic also con­notes something relatively uncivilized, as in the phrase ethnic politics, believed to be somehow more backward than mainstream politics. At other times, it suggests a desirable feature of one's identity, something glorified, even exoticized.

Ethnic is also associated with race and may be preferred to that term. Michael Banton describes the important differences between an ethnic group and a race as such: "The former reflects the positive tendencies of identification and inclusion where the latter reflects the negative tendencies of dissociation and exclusion" (in Cashmore 1984,86). Blauner discusses some of the ways black and white people "talk past" one another in using the terms ethnic and race: "When blacks are 'being ethnic: whites see them as being 'racial'" (Pincus and Ehrlich 1994, 25).

The use of ethnic to describe mem­bers of any ethnic group living outside their native country became popular in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States and Canada as a way to refer to minor­ity groups with shared origins, culture, or language. "Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, about twenty-four million ethnic Russians have found themselves living in foreign countries, outside the boundaries of their historic homeland" (John Kohan, Time, 19 July 1993, 41). At the same time, used to describe any people who form a minority within a larger society, the term may mean the indigenous people in a society in which others are perceived as foreigners. In Fiji, for example, the native Oceanic people are called ethnic Fijians (Europeans and Fiji Indians came to Fiji later).

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