Ethnicity and Identity

What a heavy topic! And I dare to tackle it here. At least a part of it.

I finished up the book by anthropologist, Manning Nash, entitled The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World. And I drew so much insight from it on both ethnicity and identity.

First, ethnicity can be difficult to define and how each of us define our own ethnicity makes it more complicated. There’s a lot of emotion attached to it primarily because it represents our family of origin and how we live. It doesn’t get more personal than that.

But anthropologists have found a way to look at ethnicity without attributing definition to it. For starters, Nash views ethnicity from a build block stand point. So, no matter what ethnic group you belong to there will be one of these core three building blocks in it:

1. Bloodline, ancestry

2. Who you eat with (also including who you go to bed with)

3. Your religious beliefs

One of the most striking things for me is that language or nationality are not part of the core. They indeed make up the building blocks of ethnicity but Nash views these as secondary to the core 3.

And well, I agree with him. I’m often asked about my ethnicity from people that I share language and nationality with. All because I look different from. And this, of course, is attributed to my bloodline, my ancestry from South Asia.

Then, what’s ethnicity got to do with identity?

Do the three core building blocks of ethnicity link us to who we are? It’s a tricky question because the number one question we ask people when we first meet someone is where are you from?

Whatever you may think your reason is for asking this question, it’s most definitely linked to finding out more about the person. And then, in some cases, attributing the answer to a sense of who that person is.

The only thing this answer provides, according to Nash, is instant gratification to someone’s identity. We know that a person is more complex than their ancestral line. And it brings up the question, do you have identity when you don’t know your ancestry i.e. persecution, enslavement, adoption, mixed race?

If you link ethnicity, even if you include the other building blocks like language and nationality, do you have a better sense of yourself?

No. And that’s my answer. And Nash even addresses this in his book. He looks at identity like an onion. On the surface you have ethnicity and other outwardly features that distinguish you but there’s more to you than the surface. And like an onion, if you keep peeling back the layers you get deeper into your identity until you reach the middle – where there’s nothing.

And this concept of identity was further reflected in The Life Coach School podcast (I don’t remember the episode number) where the host said Identity is nothing more than the thoughts you think about yourself. Making the onion concept more blunt.

Identity is nothing more than what you think of yourself. If you attach identity to your race or ethnicity to the degree that defines you then that’s how you see yourself and your identity. If you think ethnicity is a smaller component and that the layers of the onion are based on your experiences and influences that aren’t visible, then that’s your identity.

Each of us places a certain amount of weight to the components of our identity. And like an onion and our thoughts about ourself, we have made up identity to be a construct in our head that can never be manifested outside of us.

If you’d like to listen to this topic, then head to podcast episode 9: Ethnicity and Identity.