Ethnic Identity Construction
Ethnic Identity Construction
Abstract The point of this paper is to help the reader grasp the different aspects of human identity construction with regards to ones race and/or ethnicity. This is a topic that is incredibly important to all races of people regardless of economic class or whatever else is seemingly more important. It is quite impossible to go throughout life without forming an idea of who you are or where you have come whether you care to make it a part of your daily life, have no choice or acknowledge it when it is convenient; without that knowledge I find it difficult to fully make the most of life.
Through the readings from the semester and class discussions I have come to the conclusion that White ethnics choose to either assert their ethnicities thickly or thinly, or they chose to incorporate it into their lives symbolically. Blacks on the other side of the spectrum lack choice in their racial identity because their race is visible and so it is assigned to them. Asians have both the ability to choose to assert their specific ethnicities but they are racially assigned. The issue with racial and ethnic construction is that it is born of social construction-what others believe of your race to be true.
This can make the identity construction process much more difficult depending upon your racial or ethnic background. Regardless, I find this to be an important part of the identity construction journey. How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone. These words were spoken by the infamous French fashion designer, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. In America today, these words could not ring truer in the subject of identity. “Who am I? ”, “Where do I come from? ” All questions of self reflection which undoubtedly each individual asks themselves on a daily basis.
These questions are not elaborate in structure but hold a great deal of weight to them and contain countless answers. White ethnics face the decision of whether or not to include their ethnicities into their identity construction; their racial invisibility gives them the choice to identify. Racial minorities self define differently from those of the white majority-there often is no choice. There are many different facets of identity construction that create the varying formulas with which Black Americans must create their racial identity.
The blatant visibility of race for Blacks creates many of the difficulties that they face in the United States varying from the generalized stereotypes, entry into the coveted middle class of America. These are some of the factors that determine whether or not a positive Black identity is being formed. Lastly, Asian Americans, have found themselves in that strange middle ground of identity construction; their struggle is not exactly like that of Black Americans but they are also not easily accepted like the dominant white group.
The unique factors that help Asian Americans shape their identity are the same ones that make it difficult for others outside of their race to define them. It is with this unusual combination that Asian Americans have been given the convenient ability to choose to assert their specific ethnicities and to assimilate like white ethnics while still feeling the effects of racial constraint and having their race assigned to them like Black Americans.
White Ethnic Identity Construction Today we look at the possible ways the white racial group define themselves; how they appear to others of their same race as well as to non-whites and the impact of American societal expectations on the self, ultimately creating a portrait of how white ethnics construct their ethnic identity throughout the generations and the evolution of ethnic value over time.
It is all too common to hear an individual say “I don’t care what people think of me” or “Their opinion doesn’t matter,” although that may be their thought process, little do they know that it is the interaction with other human beings that helps form each person’s sense of self and that every person’s opinion of you matters a great deal. “Identity cannot exist apart from a group…” (Gans, 1991, p. 430). Each person bounces their personality off of other people and it is from their reactions to us that we base our identities on. This idea is called “The Looking Glass Self” developed by Charles Cooley.
Cooley argues that every time we interact with another person, we see ourselves in a mirror that they hold up to us and our reflections shape our sense of self (Butler-Sweet, 2011, Sep. 20). Essentially our self definitions are based on how others see us. We cannot escape it, the society that we live in is based on interaction with other people and humans, by nature are visual; we judge first by what we see. This is why race is the defining factor in American society but mainly for non-whites. The white race in America is dominate, however, it is not dominate because of the race itself but because of the culture that was formed from it.
This idea of “whiteness” stems from European ideals where historically white ethnics had the most education and were Christians opposed to the non-Christians who were also not white. When Europeans came over to America they brought these ideals with them and used them as a foundation for the new culture they were creating that placed large emphasis on church, family, and accumulating wealth and with that social status (Zack, 1998, p. 61). These ideals were the foundation of American culture and since this culture was created by whites, American became synonymous with white, white became the norm and therefore transparent.
If you are white in America it is highly unlikely that you will notice your race on a daily basis unless you are placed in a situation where you are surrounded by non-whites and forced into awareness. It is a definite advantage to have your race be invisible to everyone; when you are accustomed to seeing something, you do not think about it. That being said, according to the “Looking Glass Self”, hardly anyone, white or non-white will reflect a white person’s whiteness to them. Having race viewed as insignificant in a white individual’s identity.
Due impart, to the diminished importance of race to white identity construction, ethnicity among white ethnics is a choice. White ethnics can decide if they want their ethnicity to be a part of what shapes their identity and if they do chose to assert an ethnicity they chose once again if they want to assert it thickly or thinly. Growing up in Connecticut, I know that there is not as wide a variety of ethnicities as there could be among white ethnics but in a few of the less suburban areas in Connecticut, namely New Britain, certain white ethnics choose to thickly assert their ethnicity.
In New Britain there is a large population of Polish white ethnics; they speak the language and have ethnic markets and restaurants. They choose to incorporate their ethnicity into their everyday lives and associate with those of that same ethnicity. On the flip side, in my suburban hometown of Farmington, Connecticut, there were a decent amount of Polish people who attended my high school however, most choose to thinly assert their ethnicity mostly by only claiming their ethnicity when it came to soccer or eating polish food during the holidays. The importance of ethnicity to white ethnics is often asserted thinly if at all.
The amount of emphasis placed on the value of ethnic identity among whites is not the same as it has been in times past; the emphasis has now been placed on American culture and what is considered valuable. If white ethnics choose to include their ethnicity in their identity today, it would most likely be symbol of what once was. When Europeans first came to America from whichever country, their original ethnic background was everything. The language, food, traditions, clothing and music was a constant influence on their everyday lives as first generation Americans.
Community ties to people of your same ethnicity were incredibly important as it was an extension of your immediate family. Being the “new kids on the block” so to speak, was what kept these ethnic communities very tightly knit however, each generation after began to slowly back away from those original ties and started to assimilate into the dominate American culture. The acculturation process starts in second generation white ethnics where original ethnic traditions that they grew up with become not as important because now, fitting in to the dominate culture is the way to progress.
The third generation white ethnic, has fully assimilated into American culture and has little interest in their ethnicity because by now they have figured out that in being a white ethnic, they fit into the dominate culture and ethnicity is not necessary. It may not necessarily be a hindrance to their economic, intellectual or social success, but it also is not a part of them that they feel needs to be asserted; it is at this point, that ethnic symbolism begins to show up (Gans, 1991, p. 430).
Through intermarriage and acculturation, third generation white ethnics and beyond often know little about their ethnicity or by now ethnicities. Sometimes there are so many ethnicities to choose from, from either parent that a white ethnic will simply pick out the stereotypes of a certain ethnicity in their genetic arsenal that they feel they can identify most with as a way of feeling ethnic of their ethnic identity. Physical traits are often used as the indicator for which ethnicity a white ethnic will chose to identify with; one of my closest friends is Luxembourgian, German, Scandinavian, Swedish, Norwegian, and Scottish.
Despite the fact that her last name itself is German, she chooses to associate her fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes with her Scandinavian and Swedish ethnicities; this is probably in large part due to her mother’s family who’s history holds more interest to her as well as people who look the most like her. She uses her physical features as symbols of her ethnicity, nothing more. It is often that if one side of the family is more vocal about a certain ethnicity or ethnicities within the family that as a result, the children will associate more with that ethnicity or ethnicities (Waters, 1998, p.60).
The majority of white ethnics are of the upper middle class in American society because the race is not a constraint for them and so they have access to jobs and to education that non-whites may not have. This American culture or “whiteness” by itself leads to a sense of monotony to some white ethnics and so the symbolic ethnicity comes into play as a way to liven things and bring back a since of individuality; to not be “just American” (Waters, 1998, p. 90).
Non-whites in America maintain their ethnicity and embrace it because they are not given as equal a chance to assimilate into the dominate culture and without that opportunity, they are cut off from the jobs, that would provide money to become educated and progress in the American way and therefore stay very rooted in their original culture and maintain a strong sense of community which many white ethnics do not have. The constraints of white ethnic identity are few. The invisibility of whiteness gives white ethnics a definite upper hand and even further so, when it comes to their ethnicity they can make the choice.
The possibilities for white ethnic identity and furthermore, their identity as a whole would seem to be very flexible. They lack only, it would seem when it comes to the sense of community. In the American culture, as it has evolved into today, the majority population’s focus is on wealth and social status and so nothing else comes to matter. White ethnics as a whole suffer little if any because, being the dominant race and culture; it is rare to find any door closed; the invisibility of their race gives them an unseen advantage which racial minorities do not have. Black Racial Identity Construction.
As mentioned previously in discussing white ethnic identity construction, Cooley’s Looking Glass self was a prime factor in how identity is shaped, particularly for Black Americans. The mirror that is continuously held up to each Black person is a constant reminder that their race is a large part of how others define them. Unlike the dominant White group, race is nowhere close to being invisible for Blacks. W. E. B DuBois applies the basic idea of Cooley’s looking glass self, most specifically to the Black minority group with this concept of a “double consciousness” (Butler-Sweet, 2011, Nov.
3). Much like the looking glass, the double consciousness stresses that you will never be able to truly see yourself if you are of the Black minority group because others will see your race first and automatically reflect a negative image. If this double consciousness continues it can create, what Cornell West calls a Nihilistic threat; internalizing the negative impressions of your racial group and therefore yourself. Beverly Daniel Tatum points out in her book “‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
’” that young children do not view racial differences as an issue but rather as a topic of curiosity, however, as the child reaches, what she calls, the “encounter stage” around adolescence race becomes very noticeable and if parents are not careful, their child will internalize all of the negative connotations of what it is to be Black (p. 55). The rest of that child’s life they will be reminded daily of their race, not necessarily in demeaning racial slurs, but in indirect forms of racism and prejudices. Unlike their White counterparts, Black Americans do not have the privilege of letting their race be invisible in society.
Being the dominant group, White is expected and accepted-their race is invisible but as a minority group, Blacks do not have the choice of blending in; race is not only an assigned part of one’s identity if you are Black but it is thickly assigned which creates the boundaries and sense of separateness among the different racial groups. Identifying oneself as Black is essential for a member of the Black minority group if they wish to avoid self conflict. Wishing that you were not Black or attempting to be something other than Black only exasperates the issue.
This negative view has to do with prejudices which transformed into stereotypes about Black Americans and translated into the negative Black identity which Black adolescents begin to form and even take with them into adulthood. Ones view of what it means to be Black can be fuelled primarily through stereotypes which can lead to a disdain of your own race. This could be expressed in a need to be the opposite of all those stereotypes, which was manifested as the Black kid not sitting at the all Black table (Tatum, 1997, p. 67).
He refused to associate himself with those of his race because of the stereotypes that were reflected through “the looking glass. ” This can at times be rectified later in life through exposure to positive examples of Black peoples, particularly those who are college educated. According to the double consciousness, the fact that you are Black is already assigned and therefore asserting it further, is unnecessary. The idea that having a positive Black identity is contingent upon putting your race first is redundant because it is already visible to everyone you come in contact with.
It is as if you are a book and your race is the plastic covering around it; people cannot open the book because the plastic is sealed so tightly around it. In order for there to be a positive black identity all that is necessary is a full acceptance of your race and the positive aspects of it. The presence of positive Black role models in the life of a Black youth early on encourages a positive Black identity and expels most of the widely spread negative stereotypes. (Tatum, 1997, p.55).
With largely widespread negative views on Black Americans as a whole and stereotypes being perpetuated regularly it is easy for a Black person to feel victimized; caged into a role even. The most readily available images of Black people in the media are often those that portray blacks in dire, downtrodden striates or extreme poverty. Sadly, this generalized portrait of Black Americans is overly, the dramatized and filled with gang violence, illegal drug sale, and so on.
This type of life has been glorified in popular music; rappers especially speak of having been poor and having to live in the projects-the only way to survive being crime. Whatever is most commonly projected will be the easiest to accept as your only choice if you are Black. Lack of funding in lower income communities, the majority of which are populated by Black Americans, create low grade schools decreasing the ability or even the possibility for Black minorities to go on to higher education. America is a country built on capitalism; if one group cannot keep up with the dominant group financially they will fall back.
Only 30% of Black Americans are impoverished but as a whole, are widely accepted as poor because of the media’s attention on densely populated, majority black communities (Butler-Sweet, 2011, Nov. 10). When this negative view becomes the norm, it is hard for Black youth to see much else, which is often why the minority of Blacks who rise above the negative stereotypes their racial identity is questioned by others of their same race. Since the idea of a middle class and the suburbs is a social class largely dominated by the dominant white group, some would find Black Americans as a part of that middle class to be an oddity.
It is automatically assumed that because the White race is dominate in American society that they would have the jobs, the wealth, education and ability to enter seamlessly into the middle class realm and above. However, racial prejudices and stereotypes have made it so that it is quite uncommon to find a Black family in a predominantly White suburb; the symbol of the middle class. Somehow, through hard work, sacrifice or well-off parents, Blacks have managed to go on to higher education and thereafter; higher paying jobs, earning them a spot in the middle class.
Unfortunately, this kind of success among Black people of the middle class does not sit well with those that live below it. It is the truest statement to say that personally, growing up in a largely White suburb, endured an intense inquisition about my racial affiliation from my Black peers who were bused in from Hartford. I was told that I “dressed White”, “talked White”, and many a time that I was in fact White or an “Oreo” as they would put it. Many of my White friends would joke around with me that I was not Black.
There is nothing more offensive than being told, in so many words, that because your parents were educated, held well paying jobs, bought a house in the suburbs and educated you in a majority White school system, that you were no longer Black; worse even, being scrutinized and ignored by people of your own race because of a difference in social class. Tatum speaks of the same issues in her book, she even states how important it is for young Black people in predominantly White communities to connect with other Black peers to share experiences and increase awareness of daily life outside of the suburbs (Tatum, 1997, p.69-70).
One would think that coming to a university with a larger community of Blacks than in my high school would open doors, but sadly I find that the divide is almost completely the same. The Black friends I have made since attending the University of Connecticut have been ones that share a similar background as myself; rarely do non-suburban Black people and I become friends and it is not for lack of effort on my part.
I would like to think that I keep a positive attitude towards both Whites and Blacks but because of the stereotypes so deeply ingrained in many of us, it is difficult to lay them down and redirect our way of thinking. It is this reason, among others why other racial and sometimes ethnic minorities have difficulty being accept in America, Asian Ethnic and Racial Identity Construction The entrance into America for Asians is considered to be the first wave of immigration. This wave is relatively recent beginning in the early 19th century with the Chinese who immediately moved out west where the work they were given was largely agricultural.
Like all immigrants coming into the United States, the Chinese, Japanese and later other groups like Filipino, Korean, and Vietnamese, among others, all faced discrimination from the dominate White group. When the Chinese first entered they were very hardworking and skilled while working on the transcontinental railroad but having not been in America long enough and having so many Chinese coming in their seemingly flawless work ethic was viewed as a threat by their fellow White workers.
After the Chinese Exclusion Act was put into action in 1882, Japanese immigrants began to make their way into America but the same thing happened to them. Their advanced skills in agriculture were considered a threat to the Whites. They were taking their jobs and since farmland is not something that goes away, the Japanese were able to establish themselves a little better than the Chinese (Butler-Sweet, 2011, Nov. 28). The manner in which the group entered into the United States is the reason why their history is so important to their formation of a positive Asian American identify.
The entrance of the various Asian groups into the United States and the acceptance of them were bound to be a bit difficult. The size of the group was large enough to be considered a threat to the dominant white group and because they had a tendency to settle down together, making it difficult for them to assimilate into American culture. The second wave of Asian Immigration is a part of present day America and this idea of being threatened by the skillfulness of Asians is still something that the dominant group feels and makes a point to mention often.
In the first wave of immigration, the Chinese and Japanese succeeded because the work they found in the United States involved the use of skills they had already cultivated in their specific countries and so the excelled. Here in this second wave it is the same thing; whatever the Asian group is good at in their places of origin are the skills they will take with them when immigrating and that is why this idea of the Model Minority Myth has been created (Monk, 1996, p. 31).
Asian American’s ability to succeed so effortlessly it seems, in large part can be attributed to the fact that much like the dominant White group, Asian Americans have the ability to assert their specific ethnicities. Similar to Black Americans, Asian Americans have an assigned race; when it comes to their ethnicities, which hold more value to them than their race, it is of greater significance to how they identify. However, non-Asian groups tend to lump every Asian ethnicity under one “Pan Asian” label but Asian Americans refuse to accept this (Kibria, 2002, p.
73-74). Instead of agreeing with the reflection they see from other people about their race, as mentioned previously in regards to Cooley’s “Looking Glass Self”, Asian Americans place a great amount of emphasis on their specific country of origin and its traditions and cultures in order to define themselves. In the first wave of immigration, Asian Americans would settle in closely knit communities with their specific ethnic group; in those communities, they would all help each other out making it easier to survive in America.
Even today, there are large communities of Asian Americans who choose to live close to each other to keep that sense of having a culture and traditions that separate them from everyone else. Having these tightly knit communities makes it easier for Asian Americans to succeed because they have a constant support group and people to fall back on if they need it (Monk, 1996, p. 37-38). Being in such constant close contact with those who share your culture background and infuse it into daily life definitely helps with forming a positive Asian American identity, regardless of outside influences.
Some of the dominant White group believes that if given the chance, over time Asian Americans could have the potential to fully assimilate to American culture and become ultimately “white. ” This idea of racial ethnogenesis is that the later generations of Asian Americans as well as incoming groups of Asians will simply begin to blend into American culture to the point that they will just embrace the racial category they have been placed in and forget about their ethnic background (Kibria , 2002, p. 14).
What would this do for the identity construction of Asian Americans? Would their full assimilation into American culture really improve their quality of life anymore? The identity construction of Asian Americans would be so unlike every other identity if they simply assimilated completely into American culture. Letting go of cultural ties and accepting the general name for people of your same race will not improve the quality of life significantly because their race is still visible. Again, culture is a choice, race is not.
Although Asian Americans are capable of choosing their ethnic identity and asserting it like the White ethnics, they also share the disadvantage of being assigned to their race like Black Americans because their race like Blacks is very visible. Since their race is visible it creates this aspect of constraint which makes it difficult for people to not see your race and therefore puts limits on how people will treat you or what jobs you can attain. Regardless of the success Asian Americans have in academics and achieving higher paying jobs, there is still a “glass ceiling” they have to deal with (Monk, 1996, p. 42).
The visibility of their race keeps them from being hired as corporate CEOs or being in leadership positions in general. Excelling most commonly in mathematics and sciences often places Asian Americans in behind the scenes type of work that pays well but does not require them to be out in the open as public figures in the corporation. The added factor of an accent for more recent immigrants can also serve as additional restriction to entering into the higher echelons of business (Monk, 1996, p. 43). The positive connotations that come with being Asian American as well as the negative can have an adverse affect in identity construction.
Being considered to be a “Model Minority” definitely can create some hostility especially for second and third generation Asian Americans. When non-Asians assume that you get A’s in school and that you are inherently good at mathematics it becomes a burden (Kibria, 2002, p. 87). Just the same, negative stereotypes about the foods that different Asian American cultures eat or assuming that because certain physical features are similar among the different ethnic groups, they are all the same, can create negative feelings about being Asian American and that is not good for the development of a healthy ethnic or racial identity.
The saying “Asian Invasion” (Monk, 1996, p. 44) is very common I personally even have used it in jest and so have some of my Asian friends; I assumed that its use was okay. Generally, my second generation Asian friends will use this term when talking about either the Asian students who are studying abroad on campus, or in regards to first generation Asian Americans. This makes me wonder if my friends have assimilated enough into the dominant white culture that they no longer can see themselves associating with the incoming Asians.
It is hard to determine whether the statement is meant as a joke or a commentary against ethnic Asians. Conclusion Having explained the different forms of identity construction through the examples of White ethnics, Black Americans and Asian Americans it has been made clear that identity construction cannot be viewed the same for a ethnicities and races. White ethnic identity comes in many different shapes sizes and forms ranging from symbolic, non-exisistent, or thinly asserted to a large part of how one identifies or thickly asserted.
The option to pick and chose which part of your heritage you prefer over another or not at all is how white ethnics construct their identities. The majority of white ethnics who choose the route of symbolic ethnicity opposed to asserting either thinly or thickly a certain ethnicity is often because the dominant American culture has become of greater value to their identity than anything else and choosing an ethnic symbol to place on themselves is what will separate them from the rest of their fellow white ethnics or bring them closer to someone who holds the same ethnic symbol.
Just the same, the constant pressures placed on Black Americans to play multiple roles are a difficult task. Shaping a positive identity of any kind is difficult but to shape a positive Black identity in America holds a certain amount of extra weight to it. Black Americans struggle trying to advance themselves because of the constant racial stereotypes reverberating in the background. If you do manage to elevate into the higher ranks of American life your racial loyalty will then be questioned.
Is it possible that over time these stereotypes will dissipate or is there a reason they are kept alive? The unique combination of both ethnic choice and racial constraint makes Asian American identity construction the most interesting form of identity construction so far. Since the first wave of immigration into the second one, Asian Americans have dealt with a slew of racial injustices in America but they have also gained a great deal of merit mostly for being the “ideal” so to speak.
Being hard workers and keeping close ethnic ties have made Asian Americans competition for White ethnics. In the future, whether or not they will completely assimilate or not is questionable and what toll it will take on their identity construction. Having the option to choose a part of your identity which no one can see will never outweigh your racial assignment. What is it, or is it possible to have a truly positive White ethnic or Black or Asian racial identity in America? The constant changes in society make it impossible to know.
Subject: Race and Ethnicity,
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 24 December 2016
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