Questions about your ethnicity

Where were your parents born? or What’s your background? Questions that are referring to ethnicity in subtle ways. Yet, with all these questions, what does ethnicity really mean?

Not being an expert myself, I recently read a book by anthropologist, Manning Nash, called “The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World” and watched the EPIX docuseries entitled “Enslaved” featuring Samuel L. Jackson and came to an unexpected idea about ethnicity, something that surprised me and maybe helps you look at questions (and your answers) about your ethnicity in a new light.

First, it may seem like questions about your ethnicity are more direct than “Where are you really from?”. And well, although it may be closer to the person’s intention of understanding why we don’t look or sound like them, it’s actually a very complicated question.

How would you answer the question: what’s your ethnicity?

By the time you’re an adult you’ve probably answered it by choosing a box on an official, institutional form (Black, Asian, White, etc.). Maybe it’s “Other”, maybe you choose it if you’re mixed race or adopted or don’t know. And today, in some countries (i.e. United Kingdom) you can even write in your own ethnicity.

Which brings me to two ways we can actually view ethnicity:

  1. How institutions/governments or others (friends, co-workers) define your ethnicity.
  2. How you define your ethnicity.

When others (including institutions) define your ethnicity it comes from a reference point (based on historical policy). It’s how they (policymakers) view and group people together to create a narrative that serves multiple purposes.

At a societal level, it allows for resource allocations (time and money) and research inquiries and policy formation (law and order). Often, efficiency and self-interests interfere with societal effectiveness.

At a personal level, our brains want efficiency as well. It organises information about others into common stories or narratives. This allows the brain to do its one job: running efficiently. This helps us survive while riding a bike, thinking and conversing (and today using our hand held devices).

It’s, by far, more efficient for the brain to notice a difference in another and fit it into a predetermined narrative than it is for it to spend time and energy to evaluate all the differences it comes into contact in one day. And then decide if this difference is “safe” for our survival. And to do so for similar “differences” we encounter multiple times would run the brain amuck.

This is what happens in mundane, small talk conversations where questions like “where are you from” or “what’s your ethnicity?” create an efficient (and instant) way of determining who the other person is (erroneously linking ethnicity to our identity) and thereby determining safety. When our responses to these questions match societal standards, our brain also benefits from responding in familiar patterns.

But what is your reference point? That’s maybe the more salient question before deviating from society standards.

No doubt, it’s been influenced by society, culture, history, those official forms I mentioned above, media, and our family and experiences. We learn various reference points all throughout childhood and early adulthood.

Deciding how you reference your own ethnicity is, in essence, your power, your story. Your reference point is for you, not for anyone else. You get to decide knowing you can choose your reference point consciously and that you don’t need to condense it for someone else to hear your story better.

Your reference point might be the test you took to find out your lineage, it may come from the stories of your parents or it may come from your earliest memory of home.

However you choose your reference point, your story can be a part of the “everyday” narrative in society. It may not matter to the person asking the question but your story with all its differences has a place in all parts of society, ultimately to become part of the everyday narrative in society.

When we’re asked the ethnicity question, we can consciously choose to answer how we want. We can, then, change the dynamic of any conversation for ourselves. When we’re enabled to influence organisations in their reference points for the betterment of humanity, we change the world in which we experience.

I discuss the ethnicity question in relation to my personal experience and my learning from the book by Manning Nash as well as the docuseries, Enslaved, in the podcast episode 2: What’s your ethnicity?.