Race, ethnicity and culture are terms which permeate society. These words lead to a sense of uneasiness, due to different takes on their meanings and their usually negative historical applications. In an attempt to decipher the true nature of ethnicity and culture, Joane Nagel takes a constructionist view in her work, “Constructing Ethnicity: Creating and Recreating Ethnic Identity and Culture”. Basically, the constructionist view is that “the origin, content, and form of ethnicity reflect the creative choices of individuals and groups as they define themselves and others” (Nagel, 237).
Michael Omi and Howard Winant undertake a similar task in understanding the essence of race and its role in history in their work, “Racial Formation in the United States From the 1960s to the 1990s”. The fluid nature of ethnicity as described by Nagel, leads it to be a constantly changing force, which is embraced and manipulated by groups of people to use to their own advantage. Race is nothing more than a stereotype, which people comprise over the course of their lives and impose on the people around them. Culture, on the other hand, is comprised of religion, traditions and lifestyles inherited or intentionally picked up by people. Ultimately, race and ethnicity are facades which mask the underlying reality of situations, as opposed to culture, which brings people together due to similarities in their everyday lives.
Ethnicity is constantly changing and being reshaped by people within and outside ethnic groups. Thus, it has many uses, such as advancing or oppressing a group of people, but no permanent boundaries that define the members in each group. In her work, Nagel argues that, though ethnicity has some basis in history, the shift of people from one ethnicity to another signifies the change in definition due to the social and political situations of the times. In reference to the nature of ethnic identity, Nagel writes, “Ethnicity is created and recreated as various groups and interests put forth competing visions of the ethnic composition of society and argue over which rewards or sanctions should be attached to which ethnicities” (Nagel, 239). People drop themselves and others into different ethnic groups based on how advantageous it is to them, using race or culture as some sort of justification for this manipulation of identity. Since groups have been coerced or worked themselves to move from one ethnicity to another throughout history, ethnicity really has no reflection on one’s identity, but is more of a tool used by people to gain the upper hand in life.
A situation that exemplifies the problems within the concept of ethnicity is the Asian population. My old high school was around 50% Asian, but what does that really mean? Does that include all people who can trace back their decedents to the continent of Asia? No, Russians never consider themselves to be Asian, so that can’t be right. Well, Asians look similar. You know: small eyes and straight, jet black hair? But Indians don’t look like that and many of them would consider themselves to be Asian. Similar cultures perhaps? That can’t be right either. Although Chinese and Japanese people do have some similarities in their cultures, such as Japanese kanji drawing influence from Chinese characters, they are still a very different people with very distinct, even competitive, histories. This situation exemplifies the almost arbitrary boundaries drawn by ethnicity. And with its boundaries being meaningless, there really is no justification of who belongs and who doesn’t in any ethnic group. Thus, ethnic groups are meaningless.
People use race as a means to link a group of people to pre-existing stereotypes. Omi and Winant examine race throughout history as a social construction that was once falsely biologically based to incorporate certain physical attributes with social characteristics. Omi and Winant note that most people are tempted to “think of race as an essence, as something fixed, concrete, and objective” (Omi, 74). Despite the assumptions associated with race having no firm grounding in biology, many people still believe that they can assume the characteristics, personality and even history of another person by looking at them. People use race, or their physical assessment of others, as an attempt to understand others. The characteristics or stereotypes possessed by different groups are a compilation of the experience of the individual. This process is inherently flawed. Assuming to know a person because of prior exposure to similar looking people is simply a defense mechanism used in a pre-emptive way to try and sum up the person. This is presumed to be necessary so that one can proceed “properly” in his or her interaction with others. The greatest problem lies in identifying an individual in accordance to their race, which ultimately prevents people from actually getting to know and understand each other.
Out of race, ethnicity and culture, race is the most shallow, meaningless and damaging of the three. In Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s “Racial Formation in the United States From the 1960s to the 1990s,” race is displayed in its various forms as a means of oppressing different groups of people. Although examples of race being used to advance a group of people, it was only used so as a reaction to prior racist oppression. The only appropriate function of race, as I have ever seen it implemented, is a general description of what a group of people’s physical characteristics are. It has surfaced many times in conversation amongst my friends and me in reference to which race we are particularly attracted to. Because my friend Yumu claims that he is usually attracted to “Asian” girls that does not mean that he likes girls that can cook Chinese food, are studying to be doctors or can do his Math homework in five minutes. It is only a reference to which physical characteristics he finds appealing in the opposite sex. Outside of the realm of physical characteristics, which tend to apply to most people of the same race, race has no other real meaning.
Unlike race or ethnicity, culture unites groups of people according to concrete aspects of their lives. Nagel’s description of ethnicity as compared to culture reaffirms this notion. In Nagel’s metaphor she claims that ethnicity is the shopping cart, which each individual fills with “art, music, dress, religion, norms, beliefs, symbols, myths, customs” (Nagel, 251). The real aspects of people’s everyday lives aren’t picked out in a struggle between the outside society and themselves, but rather through history and personal selection. Unlike ethnicity, whose nature is constantly changing, and race, whose nature is completely superficial, the traits which comprise culture are concrete aspects of people’s lives and bring them together accordingly. For example, Catholics gather together to pray at church or Indians attend an Indian concert. Also, unlike race and ethnicity, which are imposed on people by society, individuals pick out different cultural traits that they would like to incorporate into their lives, making culture a more accurate representation of one’s identity. The combination of culture being an everyday part of people’s lives and individually chosen since these traits are actually incorporated into their everyday lives, culture is greater force of representing and unifying groups of people.
A prime example of the very personal nature of culture would be my own life. Although I am ethnically Indian, I was born and raised in the and my culture reflects that. I don’t speak any Indian language fluently, but I do understand it somewhat. I also understand a bit of Spanish from studying it in high school, my Spanish friends and my predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. I don’t listen to Indian music at all, but instead opt for hardcore, screamo, indie rock and trance; none of which have any ties with or Indian people. My culture reflects more of the person I am than a stamp that reads “Indian.” These different traits were either passed down to be my family, like the understanding of Indian languages, or picked up myself through exposure in my environment, like trance music.
Race and ethnicity are problematic illusions, used by different groups of people to either advance or oppress people. Joane Nagel’s “Constructing Ethnicity: Creating and Recreating Ethnic Identity and Culture” sums up ethnicity as a social force constantly undergoing change in respect to the needs of the time. With the application of ethnicity being so steeped in social and political agendas, it fails to be a representation of people and serves more as tool to be manipulated. In Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s “Racial Formation in the United States From the 1960s to the 1990s”, race seems to play a similar role, although it seems to be applied on a much more general level. The reason that culture stands valid and both race and ethnicity prove to be meaningless is because culture is based on actual aspects of people’s lives. But why do we feel the need to make assumptions about the nature of others based on completely arbitrary things, like their physical appearance? Perhaps it stems from an instinct used by prehistoric humans as a defense mechanism to do identity enemy tribes. Whatever its origin may be, we need to do away with this arbitrary system of classification and actually get to know one another instead of just thinking we already know one another.