Nathanial S. Roloff
Posted by zebu0001 at September 24, 2004 1:49 PM
The term Ethnicity recently developed into a very significant and emotionally charged statement in American culture. Ethnicity now signifies that which is pertaining to “ethnic character or peculiarity”*. In order to properly understand the noteworthy meaning of the word ‘ethnicity’ one must first understand the consequence of the base word ‘ethnic’. Ethnic has changed meanings several times throughout the course of history originally defined by monks and Christians. I will address the importance of different meanings of ethnicity in terms of class, race, culture and society as the meaning of the word contains immense significance in all of those areas. The changing significance of the term contributes to the issues of displacement in the minority status. These issues are sometimes manifested in movements in politics and culture demonstrated by Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
The different definitions of the term ethnic have varied quite widely and demonstrate an important progression of thought in the world’s history. Today we have many words in which ‘ethnic’ functions as a derivative. ‘Ethno’ has become a very popular prefix to many far ranging words in the English language*. The evolution of ‘ethnic’ from its first usage until contemporary understanding* has a direct correlation to our world’s constantly changing outlook on minorities in class, race, and culture. The changing meanings of ethnicity demonstrate societal power over the language we use to represent the minority status in our country. Societal power can be defined as the ability of the mass to unconsciously dictate the shift of popular understanding of a word or term. The affect of the term ‘ethnicity’ forces people of color into a state of otherness in relation to the white majority.
The term ‘ethnic’ is considered to originate from the mispronounced word “heathenic” to “hethnic,”* Thus becoming the term used today, ‘ethnic.’ The original definition of the word was simply “Pertaining to nations not Christian or Jewish; Gentile, heathen, pagan.”* Ethnic was considered a word denoting that of the societal ‘other’ or something which is not the norm in relationship to another group. Despite the fact that this definition has not been in active use since the 1874* it is important to indicate that the term was originally coined by the Christian and Semitic world. The terms association to the term ‘heathen’ demonstrates that originally the term was not innocent or unmarked. ‘Ethnic’ referred only to those who lived in a nation outside the established Christian nations of the world. The term heathen means something very specific and negative, “restricted to those holding polytheistic beliefs, esp. when uncivilized or uncultured.”*
Therefore the connotation associated with the term ‘ethnic’ is that races and religions who were not commonly considered Christian or Jewish were heathen or pagan and somehow lesser people. This definition contributed directly to the active participation of society in using a term which demonstrates otherness created by religion or race based upon generalized concepts of being “uncivilized.”
The relation of these meanings to our society today exhibits the ever-present lack of respect that our society, consciously or not, has had for minorities of race and religion throughout time. The previous definition remained popular until the late 1800’s and maintained significance after slavery was abolished. The use of ‘ethnic’ today continues to reinforce the systemically unequal status of minorities. Our common use of ethnicity illustrates how certain societies tend to marginalize the meaning of race, and to ‘whitewash’ difference toward achieving a homogenous culture. The connotation of ethnicity as a negative term presents those commonly considered to prescribe to a certain ethnicity (Italians, Arabs, Blacks, etc) a subversive attack, shaming them for their culture. The changes in perceived meaning of the word fail to absolve us of the discrimination the word’s history carries. It rather conceals the terms negative meaning throughout history so that we find today a total acceptance of a word which, originally, was significantly derogative. The change in meaning is akin to that of the word “nigga” in American dialect. Once being a term only used derisively by whites toward blacks, now it gains new importance as a word commonly used among blacks to refer to themselves. This demonstrates the ability of the mass to project a feeling of inadequateness onto another group causing them to enforce a sense of inferiority on themselves. The widespread use of the word ‘ethnic’ to denote cultural and racial identity may appear to imply a respect for difference. However it is clear that, in performing this action, it continues to reveal that difference is produced in relation to a particular set of racial and cultural characteristics taken to be the norm (e.g. white). In the United States ‘White’ is considered to be a race without any attachment to a particular ethnicity as opposed to the minority status where race is considered inextricable from culture.
The second meaning of ‘ethnic’ demonstrates the issue of word power to contribute to the creation of self-definition and otherness. The second definition of ethnic is “Pertaining to race; peculiar to a race or nation; ethnological. Designating a racial or other group within a larger system; hence foreign, exotic.”* This new definition carries special meaning in the United States because of the importance of other races to America’s characterization of self. The United States is a country comprised of different races. Therefore a term demonstrating the otherness of certain races is extremely significant to the progress of equality in that nation because it implies that there is one race from which to gauge all others. The first part of this definition comes as little surprise because of the relatively unassuming nature of the language used. The second part contains the importance racially, culturally, and in society. The term ‘other’ is important in the connotation of race because it designates primary and secondary positions. The usage of “foreign” and “exotic” to refer to ‘ethnic’ people demonstrates the inextricable link between otherness and ‘ethnicity’. This more recent definition was created in the 1850’s eventually overtaking our first definition of the term.*
It is obvious that this term still resonates within our society today as a significant meaning of the term ethnic. People of minority status will often find themselves referred to as ethnic especially when said person is not of United States origin. This usage of ethnicity was an interesting step in the direction of acceptance on the surface. The implications of shifts in definition throughout time camouflaging the old connotations remain crucial to understanding the marginalization of the identity of the minority in the United States. By using a more politically correct (in terms of our current society) explanation for that which is ethnic, we allow the term more leeway in its significance. Society’s acceptance of a non-criminal term for defining themselves in terms of race causes the unconscious consent to the decimation of their rights as equal races and cultures, instead perpetuating the imposed concept of societal otherness.
There is a significant literary connection to the displacement of the black and minority identity within books written by the minority which can be attributed to the gradual creation of otherness within minorities. Eldridge Cleaver writes, “since they constituted the majority the whites brainwashed the blacks by the very processes the whites employed to indoctrinate themselves with their own group standards. I intensified my frustrations to know that I was indoctrinated to see the white woman as more beautiful and desirable than my own black woman” (Soul on Ice, 29). This quote illustrates the subversive techniques that society utilizes in order to create a more dominant and powerful culture. The white race and culture has dominated America for so long that it is nearly impossible to remove from our current understanding of beauty and prosperity.
In the novel The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, she further demonstrates the ability of the concept of beauty to displace the concept of self-worth within a certain type of people. In the novel, a young black girl is forced to reconcile her understanding of what makes someone worthy and beautiful with her own looks. Eventually the young girl forfeits her understanding of self in order to imagine herself with blue eyes. This surrendering of self is a representation of the forced state of affairs in the country. Minorities are forced to give up their understanding of selves within a minority in order to assimilate to the dominant culture of White America. The term ethnicity, when used as an instrument to separate the peoples of America on a scale of oneness or otherness, serves to create a severely separated society in which only one type can dominate and the rest are forced to follow in line attempting to “pick up the table scraps thrown into their corner” (Soul on Ice, 164).
The evolution of this term allows for another, more recent invention of the term ‘ethnic’. The new definition continues in the same type of shift as the last. The third definition of ‘ethnic’ is “a member of an ethnic group or minority.”* The reading of this definition offers two interpretations. The first is that an ‘ethnic’ is either a member of an ethnic group or a minority. The second is that the meaning is either a part of the ethnic group, or the ethnic minority. The two interpretations vary only in the specificity of the reference. The important understanding to gain from the description is that in either case ethnic group is similar to ethnic minority. In an earlier sub-definition of one of our meanings the Oxford English Dictionary characterized groups and minority to be the same thing. The dictionary simply subtitles the definition ethnic group (minority). The inclusion of ‘group’ in both parts of the dictionary serves to relax the naturally read undertone of the definition. When examined, dual purposed meaning is merely another way of undermining the races and cultures that are not considered part of the majority by associating the term group and minority as one in the same. In doing so, society limits the ability of the minority to strike against such covert attacks. By creating a smoke shield around the implied meaning of the words, society simply masks a problem and demands the constant overlooking of that problem. This creation of societal otherness contributes to the social and economic differences that we have as a nation.
The class separation demonstrated by this definition is not apparent at first, but plays a vital role in understanding the underlying consequences of allowing this type of discrimination to exist in our documents. Continuing this clandestine and methodological maintenance of an oppressive social structure permits society to remain as disparate as it has throughout the years; only perpetuating itself generation after generation in an attempt to create a less definitive but more powerful upper-class that continues to defend the social position of the majority. The minorities are left to continue life within the caste designated to them at birth because of our societal structure built around the constant marginality of the importance of our racial differences. Racial differences do not include skin color, but rather socially acceptable position within our greater American culture. The words definition only holds significance because we constantly work, subconsciously, as a society to influence these types of differences in rights and treatment within our communities. The power of our words is pervasive on all levels of life and understanding of position in society. In order to change this situation, society must reconsider the importance of implication and meaning surrounding these words and actively pursue more sensitive definitions. The definitions of words are always subject to the societal whims and because of that truth, we must recognize that this problem begins and ends in our society.