What is Ethnicity?


Although the term ethnicity has some clear
and consistent overlap with definitions of race, it also differs widely from it’s more
physically/ phenotypically defined cousin. Because while race is often a topic of intense
conversation, ethnicity can kind of feel like another thing on the long list of identity
markers that’s confusing to pin down. It turns out that what we’ve come to determine
as “ethnicity” started with definitions by groups of social scientists in the 1920s
before being taken up in common parlance by the mid 20th century. But race and ethnicity have some very interwoven
roots, even though they aren’t synonymous. In the 1920s, social scientists at places
like the University of Chicago were seeking to study and define social groups outside
of racial distinctions. It was around that time that ethnicity, as
a term, began to pop up frequently in social discourse. In its roughest and broadest definition, ethnicity
is the understanding that a group of people have a shared cultural origin. This could mean something like national origin. Or it can be a narrower lens to view people
who come from a shared way of life, even if it’s within a larger ethnic group. For instance, you can identify ethnically
as Indian, but also as Punjabi. Or you can identify as African American, but
also be Gullah (an identifier for people from the coastal regions in South Carolina among
other cultural traits). In both cases the broader ethnic identifier
also encompasses or includes the narrower identifier. But this is where ethnicity becomes a bit
harder to pin down, because it doesn’t exist exclusively outside of race. Rather sometimes race is one of the markers
of ethnicity used by people within a particular ethnic group in order to define themselves. If you remember from our episode on “origins
of race in the US,” before the introduction of racialized slavery, race had a similarly
loose original meaning that spoke more to sets of common cultural characteristics or
a common genealogy rather than solely relying on phenotype. Phenotype meaning things like hair texture,
facial features and skin tone. Race was a large focus of both “scientific”
and social categorization in the 19th century, determining everything from legal status to
the assignment of assumed traits like intellectual capabilities or physical endurance. But by the early 20th century social scientists
were looking for ways to describe shared cultures that didn’t have racial markers or strict
national origins as the common thread, which is when they turned to ethnicity as a method
of categorization. Historian Matthew Jacobson notes that in
the US “white” or “caucasian” was not always considered a unified race composed
of anyone of European descent. Whiteness was often considered exclusive to
Anglo-Saxon descendants, while other European groups were broken into different ethnic categories
such as “Celt” “Slavs” “Iberics” and “Hebrews”. Those were considered separate races from
the 1840s to the early 20th century. But in the 1920s when there was a stemming
of migration from Europe, they were subsumed into the larger category of “whiteness” to shore up a cultural majority against other racial groups and new immigrants. So, when people talk about social and legal
discrimination in the late 19th century against groups like Irish, Italians, or Eastern European
migrants, they aren’t speaking ahistorically because those groups (in some instances socially
and in others legally) were considered distinct classes of people separate from mainstream
American culture. There were even pseudoscience theories about
skull shape, presumed intelligence, predisposition towards violence or addiction, and general
social inferiority that came along with these assumptions. But part of the differences that ethnicity
offers aside from race, is that ethnic groups can often (though not always) be more easily
assimilated into the majority culture than other racial minorities. For example, on July 13th of 1863, the deadliest riots
in US history were raging in New York City. At the heart of the riots were two divided
groups. On the one hand were working class white people, many of whom were recent migrants
from Europe and on the other hand were African Americans, some of whom were newly emancipated slaves. The riots were a response to the Civil War
draft lottery. Working class whites (many of whom were immigrants,
especially from Ireland) were infuriated that they couldn’t afford to pay the $300 draft
exemption fee. Coupled with that anger was the unfairly placed on African Americans because they were exempt from legal citizenship (including any of its
societal protections) and therefore could not be drafted in the war. At the heart of the conflict was an underclass
that had adjacent but still distinct social barriers largely related to class disadvantages
and an unfairness in the distribution of resources, job opportunities, and access to the privileges
of full citizenship. The resulting 5 days of riots saw enraged
mobs attack police officers, army recruitment officers, and hundreds of African Americans,
including burning down the building of the Colored Orphan Asylum. Now I mention this story to illustrate some
issues of the conflation of class, race, ethnicity, and social status I often see on videos I
post about the history of chattel slavery. A large portion of that stems from the
basic argument that, “This European descended ethnic group (e.g. Irish, Italian, Eastern
European, Polish, Greek) were also the victims of systematic discrimination and unfair labor
practices at different points in time. This means that all of these contemporary
complaints by people who are part of a racial minority group are invalid, because at the
turn of the 20th century European migrants experienced discrimination but eventually
were accepted.” There are some parts of this argument that
have truth, and others that gloss over necessary historical and socio-cultural points. The first misconception is that definitions
of race and ethnicity are stable. Because they’re not. I mentioned earlier that European groups we
now considered ethnicities were actually thought of as “races” in the 19th century. But you’d be pretty hard pressed to find
someone who would list their “race” as Polish today. And that’s because culture evolves to suit
the needs of the people engaging in it, and a lot of times the negotiations of cultural
markers lie in the hands of people with power and money. So in the case of the Civil War draft, men
able to scrape together $300 to exempt themselves from service (what some migrants would make
in an entire year), were also invested in distinguishing themselves as a different class
(or race) of people than the men who ended up having to serve in the war. But because human beings are often invested
in hierarchies (and many times to the detriment of other groups) they’ll often find ways
to invest in the majority culture, even if it’s to the detriment of other people from
their shared background. Henry Yu, Professor of History at the University
of British Columbia notes this in his working definition of ethnicity. Quoting W. Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole’s Social
Systems of American Ethnic Groups, from 1945 when they state that “host societies”
(or dominant cultures) are often more willing and able to accept or assimilate certain ethnic
groups over others. And the newly accepted ethnic group is often
determined by two things: First are changing definitions of race. And the second is class status and potential for class mobility. So an ethnic group that can access either
(or both) of these two determinants, will have an increased ability to move into the
majority class or the majority culture, although it doesn’t work identically in every case. But this explains how those Irish Americans
in New York in the 1860s were considered a separate race or class of people, while still
harboring anger towards another racial group (African Americans) that shared their same
class status. And eventually Irish Americans and other formerly
racialized ethnic groups were able to move more into the majority culture through changes
in how we defined race. So that brings me to my last point, which
is moving from the fluid, back to the concrete. Namely to say: ethnicity is expansive but
it doesn’t cover everything. Because I know there are going to be more
than one interested nerd confounder out there that’s thinking “Well if ethnicity is
just how you think about your shared cultural origins, then isn’t everything an ethnicity? Why can’t we just say we’re whatever ethnicity
we’re feeling that day? Who’s making the rules?!” I hear you and remember you curious overthinkers
from the comments section of my episode on gender, so listen up. I can’t answer your question about “who’s
making the rules?!” but I can offer a little bit of contextual guidance on why saying “I
love classic video games, all my friends love classic video games, we’re part of the shared
culture of people who like classic video games, so according to this PBS video, classic video
games are my ethnicity/culture/gender.” Yes this can seem somewhat sticky but ethnicity,
while fluid, is about shared culture/choices and heritage. Heritage is the key component that’s missing
in the “if it’s fluid it means NOTHING” argument. So heritage is a huge contributor to ethnicity
and can actually cause changes and new categories. For example, with migration new hyphenated
identities and ethnicities can occur. So someone can identify as Chinese because
that’s where they were born and raised, even though they now live in California. But their children, who are born and raised
in California, may think of themselves as ethnically Chinese American, which is an identity
that draws on both sides of their inheritance as children of Chinese immigrants and children
who are immersed in U.S. culture. The same principle applies for folks who,
through the process of globalization, have relocated to other parts of the world. So liking classic video games or vintage clothing
or collecting rare books is a subculture, not a heritage. Even if you’re a 10th generation diehard
nerd. I hope that clears somethings up. And if you want more on what the heck culture
even means, then check out “what is cultural appropriation?” right here on our channel. Say It Loud is a new series that celebrates Black history, culture, and context. Hosted by comedy writers Evelyn from the Internets
and Azie Dungey, the show explores the complexity of Black identity and finds joy in the many
ways Black folks have influenced American life. The link to their YouTube channel is in the description below. So what do you think? Anything else to add to this (admittedly brief)
history of the evolving landscape of ethnicity in the US? Want to throw in some larger cultural touchstones
to develop our shared understanding? Drop down into the comments with all of your
inquiries. And be sure to subscribe to Origin of Everything
of Youtube and Like us on Facebook. Also follow me on Instagram and Twitter if
you want more updates or places to send in episode topic suggestions. I read them and sometimes everyone on team Origin makes those fan pick episodes! That’s it for now and I’ll see you guys
back here next week!

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