Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Puzzle of Ethnicity

Here I am again, trying to understand the terms ethnic and ethnic group. I'm not saying I ever really stopped wondering. It's a slippery one. Could the people who live in a town like the one I do eventually develop enough of a shared identity to be considered an ethnic group? Could the people of Detroit, who have a sense of shared loss and challenge and identity? How about the people of New Orleans? They certainly have a shared identity, customs, even language (e.g., Who dat?).
     I began to ponder the question This Time because the past couple days, I’ve been listening to Michael Sullivan’s fascinating travelogue on NPR. It’s about his 3,000-mile journey along the Mekong river, starting in the Tibetan Highlands. So many amazing images. E.g., Tibetan monks dragging themselves over the frozen ground as they make a 400-mile pilgrimage to Lhasa (see photo on the NPR website). In the first installment of the journey, Sullivan stops in a village, and there he speaks with a young woman who says she is "troubled by the influx of majority Han Chinese that development has brought to the area." She also says that her father is from the ethnic Hui minority; she is a mix of Hui and Bai; and her husband is from yet another ethnic minority, the Lisu. The Bai view the Han with suspicion, and one interviewee says that there are more Han than the government reports. The ethnic minorities feel threatened by the Han. The older generations speak their own languages (Hui and Bai and Lisu, I assume), and the younger generation speak Chinese (Han?).

I will not pretend to be able to read this map, and Yunnan is not even the district being described in that part of the NPR story (I couldn't find an ethnicity map of the Tibetan Highlands). But by looking at it, you do get a feel for the complexity of the matter and the intermingled slipperiness.
     So I turn to Dr. Phil Herbst once again and his encyclopedia of ethnic terminology, and here is his definition of ethnic group:
Any category of people within a larger society who possess distinctive social or cultural traits, shared history, and sense of their commonness, regardless of the group’s size, power, race (the perception of certain common biological traits), or time of immigration. The term is popularly used for such groups in U.S. society as Jews, who identify themselves in terms usually of common history as well as religion, or groups designated by national origin, such as Polish Americans or Japanese Americans.
So it's a pretty subjective matter (especially that "sense of commonness), really. No wonder so many people wonder what it means when they hear that some one is ethnic Hui or ethnic Bai or any of the rest of the ethnicities we've heard about as the media bring the whole world to our door in ever-more-vivid detail. 



3 comments:

rasi said...

We seem to be a society in need of labels. "Intellectually Challenged" is the current label replacing "Developmentally Challenged" and "Retarded" "Retarded" has become a generic term most recently used by Rom Emmanuel to describe Republicans. One should wonder how fellow presidential advisor David Axelrod felt. His daughter has MS, with extenuating problems, possibly including some retardation. Speaking of cancer as a generic term ("like a cancer grows", Sounds of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel) for example does nothing positive for those of us who live with or have lost or cared for loved ones suffering from these diseases.

Using labels like "retarded"and "cancer" generically describe only a lack of compassion of the user. And I am being far too kind.

Continually changing the names of these and other problems supposedly described by labels are too often discriminatory and hurtful and in reality, hold no positive identification unless they are used appropriately. Otherwise such labels are divisive and suggest a dismissive attitude.

Those of us who watch Detroit continue to crumble after being left for dead in 1968 empathize with those in New Orleans standing on their roofs after Katrina destroyed their lives holding "Help" signs, while being similarly ignored as was Detroit before them. We do not need to be labeled. Help is still needed and still not forthcoming to these cities and all the labels we spew and change do not help because labels do not improve an untenable situation. However, I appreciate the discussion and awareness hopefully created by this entry.

rasi said...

We seem to be a society in need of labels. "Intellectually Challenged" is the current label replacing "Developmentally Challenged" and "Retarded" "Retarded" has become a generic term most recently used by Rom Emmanuel to describe Republicans. One should wonder how fellow presidential advisor David Axelrod felt. His daughter has MS, with extenuating problems, possibly including some retardation. Speaking of cancer as a generic term ("like a cancer grows", Sounds of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel) for example does nothing positive for those of us who live with or have lost or cared for loved ones suffering from these diseases.

Using labels like "retarded"and "cancer" generically describe only a lack of compassion of the user. And I am being far too kind.

Continually changing the names of these and other problems supposedly described by labels are too often discriminatory and hurtful and in reality, hold no positive identification unless they are used appropriately. Otherwise such labels are divisive and suggest a dismissive attitude.

Those of us who watch Detroit continue to crumble after being left for dead in 1968 empathize with those in New Orleans standing on their roofs after Katrina destroyed their lives holding "Help" signs, while being similarly ignored as was Detroit before them. We do not need to be labeled. Help is still needed and still not forthcoming to these cities and all the labels we spew and change do not help because labels do not improve an untenable situation. However, I appreciate the discussion and awareness hopefully created by this entry.

Susan Messer said...

Rasi, thanks for stopping by and reading. It's true that labels are a tricky business, which this whole blog fully acknowledges. Words, any words, are themselves labels, compressing a whole range of variants into one category. Think of dogs--everything from a Chihuahua to a Great Dane. Group labels can create a sense of solidarity and are sometimes enthusiastically embraced (think of JFK saying "Ich bin ein Berliner."). When the Saints won the super bowl, those who call New Orleans home came together like a tribe. If you read the Detroit Yes forum, you see the sense of solidarity many Detroiters feel (also the divisions). Labels can be used to insult as well as honor. These are central concerns of my blog.