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?”