According to Mary C. Waters, social scientists believe that ethnicity is more of a social phenomenon than a biological one. Over time there have been many factors that have influenced ethnic identities. These factors include intermarriages, changing allegiances, and social categories. White Americans have the option of claiming a specific ancestry or just refer to themselves as plain Americans. The option not to choose any ethnic identity is present only for the white Americans. They may also choose which of their ancestries to include in the description of their identities. This is possible because the discrimination and stigma that was attached to European backgrounds has reduced over time (Waters 137).
Most Americans have opted to embrace symbolic ethnicity. Herbert Gans defined symbolic identity as ‘ethnicity that is individualistic in nature, without real social cost of the individual’ (Waters 138). This is seen in individuals who want to keep ties with their identity to feel special and to have a sense of belonging. She gives an example of Irish Americans who identify as Irish on occasions like Saint Patrick’s Day, family holidays, and vacations. They seldom let their identities influence how they lead their lives. Mary C. Waters argues that symbolic ethnicity comes with a cost to the community. Unlike white Americans who have symbolic ethnicity, African Americans, Latino Americans, Americans of Asian origin, and European Americans do not have this option. The lives of members of racial minorities are influenced by their ethnic background.
One of the implications of these identities is that they are individualistic. Symbolic ethnics tend to think that all racial groups are the same. They believe that everyone has a historical background which deserves to be acknowledged and passed on to future generations. Individuals under this assumption fail to recognize the difference between symbolic ethnic identity that is individualistic and racial identity which is socially imposed. This type of thinking has led to some misunderstandings among people of different backgrounds.
The following are Mary C. Waters’s deductions after observing how campus students from different ethnic backgrounds relate. Social scientists note that when people leave home for campus, they have an increased sense of their ethnic and racial background. They more often sort out people who share their beliefs and behaviors. This helps individuals relate to their origins and also own a sense of belonging. Living on campus involves meeting people who differ in ethnicity, class, religion, and race. Unlike white students, for black students developing their identity is difficult. This is because they are influenced by racial discrimination and racism. That is why black students like being around others of their kind who share cultural elements. They also band together in a reactive way when faced by racial harassment on campus (Waters 141). This is because though the harassment was targeted on one individual, the students react as though one was questioning their way of life, making a mockery of their origins or reminding them of the struggles that their ancestors faced.
In 1990, anthropologist John Ogubu documented the tendency for minorities around the world by developing oppositional identities. A component of oppositional identities is describing members of a particular group, who refuse to engage in the group solidarity as devaluing and denying their core identity. This explains the intense pressure by black students who don’t centralize their racial identity and opt to spend time with non blacks. The pressure is made worse by race being a defining marker in the American society. These people are seen as traitors, or some way think they don’t want anything to do with their ethnicity. This is a wrong assumption because in institutions of higher learning, students are bound to interact. It is a place where people not only gain knowledge from books but also socially, from their friends. If healthy integration is cultivated, it could bring an end to racial discrimination and harassment.
There are a number of problems that arise from different understandings and meanings of symbolic in comparison to oppositional identities. These misunderstandings are a result of questions that people ask one another. These questions, however innocent they may appear, are most people find them offensive. Example is when black people are asked about their hair. A question like this brings up a number of asymmetries between black and white experiences.
The following describes Eric Liu’s struggle with identity and the final outcome of it. Eric Liu in his early life struggled with his identity. He was referred to as ‘ABC’ – American Born Chinese – by his parents, ‘honorary white’ by other whites, and ‘banana’ by other Asians. This forced him to centre himself on being white internally. He was forced to assimilate. He learnt how to eat like them, talk like them, and even behave like them. Eric Liu also draws comparisons between his friend’s white family and his own. He describes the whole family as being organized, hospitable, and courteous around the table as opposed to his relatives back at home. Unlike those who are born white, he had to achieve whiteness. Eric explains that assimilation is a metonym for power and also means “fixed in whiteness”, whereas “fixed in shame” is what the colored were expected to feel for embracing assimilation. He admits that to become ‘white’ he had to downplay his differences (Liu 37).
Like Mary C. Waters stated in her article, symbolic identity for whites is optional, but unlike the minority, ethnicity defines them. In his article, Liu describes an aspect of oppositional discrimination, where a minority’s move up the social ladder is many a time misnamed and wrongly portrayed. The assimilist is portrayed as a traitor to his class, his kind, and family. As he looks back on his past and years of assimilation, he realizes that it has had a toll on him. He has neglected his ancestral heritage and admits not being Chinese at the core.
He neither wants to be white inside nor does he want to be white. His reason for assimilation is integration. He further explains that when he identifies with whites who have economic or political power, it is not for their ‘whiteness but for their power and so goes for their influence’. Over time, Liu has come to conceive assimilation as a series of losses. He allowed his Chinese identity to be diluted. This has caused him to do more to preserve and conserve his inheritance (Liu 55). Liu does not identify himself according to the framework that Mary C. Waters provides. He begins by stripping himself of his identity to fit in, therefore not wanting his identity to define him. Later on, however, we find him thinking about the changes that he has had to make and the sacrifices he made. He then resolves to do everything he can to preserve his identity and pass on the knowledge to future generations.
Maria Laurino also describes her personal struggle with identity. She takes us back to her most unpleasant childhood memory; in gym class where one of her peers referred to her as the smelly Italian Girl. Although she is a third generation Italian, it gave her feeling of insecurity about her ethnicity. She also recalls comments from her peers about her hairy legs and a neighbor asking her to bleach her dark arm hair. This caused her to associate Italians with being smelly. In addition to this, she also faced criticism about her previous home. It was referred to as ‘ghetto of short hills’. Unprepared to confront her fears, she started pretending not to be Italian. This is similar to Eric Liu’s experience as they both want to be accepted and integrated in the society.
Over years, she began stripping herself of her ethnicity. In her early twenties, she comes to realize that the girl who sparked her insecurities called her smelly because her father was having an affair with an Italian woman in Italy. She acknowledges the presence of a new fear that she lacks a defining odor. She realized that her constant obsession with new fragrances is a way of denying her identity. It is easier for her to censor herself with a new scent that accepts one’s body signature. Though she has managed to escape the boundaries of her youth, Maria can’t help but wonder what it would be like to uncover a voice that would tell of her past (Laurino 27). Laurino here uses Mary Waters’ tool of symbolic identity to identify herself. Where she chooses whether or not to identify herself with her origins. In the beginning, we find her trying to dissociate from her background, and only later does she start embracing it.
Judith Ortiz as Puerto Rican woman is also a victim of ethnic identity. She describes her story from London miles away from her birthplace. It begins on a bus trip to London when a man calls her Maria as a character from West side story. She comes to the sad realization that she may have left her home land but she still carries her ethnicity with her. This caused her to resent the stereotype that her Hispanic appearance brought. As Puerto Rican girl growing up in the United States she wanted to fit in like Eric and Maria. This caused her to dissociate herself from activities, foods, or even scents that would associate her to her identity. This is different from how Waters depicts identifying with one’s identity.
Puerto Rican mothers, as is customary, encourage their daughters to dress and act like women. They do this by persuading the girls to wear body hugging clothes which reveal some skin and that are in bold and daring colors like scarlet red. Outsiders view this kind of dressing as too mature for their age, hopeless, or vulgar. This caused Ortiz to stand out from gatherings that her peers invited her to. Mixed cultural signals have also led to certain stereotypes. Hispanic women are portrayed as symbols of sex as advertisers have designated adjectives like “sizzling” and “smoldering” to describe both the food and women of Latin America. This has led to harassment from members of the opposite sex.
She adds that media engendered image of Latina women and are partially responsible for denial of opportunities for upward mobility among Latinas in the professions. She acknowledges that books and art saved her from ethnic and racial prejudice that many Hispanics face. Many Hispanics are seen as whores, criminals, or domestic workers. To change this common misconception, the transformation has to be at individual level. For Judith her goal in life became that of replacing old pervasive stereotypes with a new set of realities (Ortiz 151). Like Eric and Laurino, she also tires to dissociate herself from her ethnic background. This is because of external pressure from the society. In the end, however, she chooses to start accepting her identity.
In conclusion, when analyzing the different articles, it was observed that most writers define themselves in a way similar to what Mary C. Waters describes. They all start by completely dissociating themselves from their ethnicities. Since they are part of the minority, they don’t enjoy symbolic ethnicity, they cannot choose whether or not to use their ethnicity to identify them. Society does this for them; in the struggle to fit in, they let go of anything that would link them to their backgrounds, and only afterwards do they start embracing their origins. When understanding one’s ethnicity and relationship to society and politics as individual, it becomes difficult to understand the importance of programs which highlight the need for group recognition. Racial discrimination must be dealt with in order to create a society where all heritages are treated equally and have equal rights to exist. In this regard, Mary C. Waters adds that for this change to take place, the developments should be made not on an individual level but in the society as a whole.
Laurino, Maria. “Scents.” Were You Always an Italian? Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America. New York: W.W.Norton and Company inc., 2000.
Liu, Eric. “Notes of a Native Speaker.” The Accidental Asian: Notes of a native speaker. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1998.
Ortiz Cofer, Judith. “The Myth of a Latin Woman: I just met a girl named Maria.” The Latin Deli: Telling the Lives of Barrio Women. Athens, Georgia: W.W.Norton and Company inc., 1995.
Waters, Mary C. “Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only?” Identity and Belonging: Rethinking Race and Ethnicity in Canadian Society. Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Scholars Press Inc., 2006.
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