Ethnic is a Eurocentric way of saying non-Western. In America since the 1920s it has meant something not part of White American culture: ethnic foods, ethnic beauty, ethnic neighbourhoods, etc.
“Ethnic” comes from the word for Gentile in the Bible. The Jews divided the world into Jews and Gentiles, into the Chosen People and Everyone Else. The Jews called the Gentiles the goyim, “the nations”. In the New Testament, written in Greek, goyim became ethnoi. That became, by way of Church Latin, the English adjective “ethnic”.
By the 1400s “ethnic” applied to anyone who was not Christian or Jew – the heathens and infidels.
By the 1920s White Americans were the Chosen People – American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny and all that. Now Italians, Jews, Poles and others who came from Europe who were not part of White American culture were “ethnic”, formerly known as “alien races”.
By the 2010s spaghetti sauce was no longer an “ethnic food”. Now “ethnic” was a nice-sounding way to say non-white: blacks, Latinos and Asians were now “ethnic”. But not Native Americans – they were still “tribal”.
By the 2050s America will no longer be mainly white. What will “ethnic” mean then?
Or what does it mean now if you look at the world as a whole? You know, that place where most people are “Asian”.
The truth is, everyone is ethnic. White Americans, just like everyone else, have their own foods, holidays, heroes, newspapers, neighbourhoods, restaurants and shops. They speak English with an accent just like everyone else.
- Thanksgiving is an ethnic holiday.
- Starbucks is an ethnic coffee shop.
- NPR is an ethnic radio station.
- Indie rock is ethnic music.
- The New York Times is an ethnic newspaper.
- The Upper West Side in New York is an ethnic neighbourhood..
- “Friends” is an ethnic television show.
- McDonald’s is an ethnic restaurant.
- English and history at American high schools are White American (ethnic) studies.
“Ethnic” beauty positions white beauty as “universal”. Women of colour are “exotic”, they can even appear on the cover of American Vogue or Maxim, but their sort of beauty is seen as a little something on the side, something to add a little “flavour”. You would never know that white beauty is itself “ethnic”.
Words like “ethnic”, “urban”, “mainstream” and not calling white things white (the white press, my white professor), allow White Americans to talk about their divided society in a way that does not make them feel too uncomfortable. It allows them to keep up the fiction that their society is colour-blind and has magically risen above race, that there is no such thing as White Entertainment Television and White History Month. Words like “black”, “white” and “people of colour” do not support this fiction.
White Americans talk about themselves as if they are beyond ethnicity and race – when all they are doing is being blind to their ethnicity and race.
That is not something to laugh at – due to their numbers and power it privileges them, it supports white privilege and therefore racism.
- style guide: Eurocentric words
- style guide: Briticisms - the comment thread has a discussion of the word “ethnic” in relation to Britain.
- white privilege mindset
- dichotomous thinking
- Eleven Nations of North America - this post is very much a piece of New Netherland thinking
- people of colour - means pretty much what “ethnic” means but does it more honestly in terms of race and without making whites the unnamed centre.