Ethnicity vs. Race, or, The Loneliness of a Nomadic American

Every time I fill out a form here, it asks me for my ethnicity.  My options are usually:

  • NZ European/Pakeha
  • Maori/Pacific Islander
  • Other : ____________

How to answer?  First of all, let us examine the word “Pakeha”.

“Pākehā is a Māori term for New Zealanders who are not of Māori blood lines.  The word Pākehā is also sometimes used to refer to any person of predominantly European ancestry, including those that are not New Zealanders. It is also used in a wider scope to refer to any non-Māori. Opinions of the term vary amongst those it describes. Some find it highly offensive, others are indifferent, some find it inaccurate and archaic, while some happily use the term and find the main alternative, New Zealand European, inappropriate.”

According to my flatmate, Pakeha is not a derogatory term.  However I can’t help but reminded of terms like “Yovo” in Benin, or “Falang” in Laos, which, although not derogatory, I found irritating and generalizing.  Why would I be a “Yovo” in Benin, which literally means “white”, but my American friend, who happened to be black, wasn’t?  And Falang… even worse!  It translates to “French”, but they use it to refer to any white foreigner.  So, without being able to speak Maori, and never having had the opportunity to actually discuss it with a Maori person, I don’t feel comfortable refering to myself as “Pakeha”.  In Laos, and Africa, and other countries I have been, luckily I wasn’t often asked my “ethnicity”, and if asked, I would generally just say “I’m American” (and then hang my head in shame).

But is “American” an ethnicity?

What the hell is an ethnicity?  How is it different from race?

race 2 |reɪs| |reɪs|
each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.

What are these “major divisions”, as defined in 21st century politically correct times?  In the 1950’s they decided it was:

Caucasoid race
Congoid race
Capoid race
Mongoloid race
Australoid race

I can’t seem to find a newer list.  Wikipedia says:

There is no scientific consensus of a list of the human races, and few anthropologists endorse the notion of human “race”.[103] For example, a color terminology for race includes the following in a classification of human races: Black (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa), Red (e.g. Native Americans), Yellow (e.g. East Asians) and White (e.g. Europeans).

Yet, organizations such as the US Census still employ the term. even though the recognize that it’s an obsolete or undefinable term.  They ask us to tick a box next to a race, and say:

The racial categories represent a social-political construct for the race or races that respondents consider themselves to be and “generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country.”

So…. it’s not even physical anymore.  It’s about social-political constructs and people’s feelings, and reflects a “social definition”.  How much more ambiguous could these terms be?  Just look at the Wikipedia page about Race & Ethnicity in the US Census to get an idea of how confusing this all is, especially with regards to the Latino/Hispanic category… which of course is, genetically speaking, those who are descendant from the Spanish and Native American, so, technically, “Caucasian”, right?  But no, the US government must know how many brown people are living in our country!

I guess, according to the little bit of research I’ve done, no one can even agree on what a race is, or if we should even be using the term anymore.  As far as ethnicity…. there’s another ambiguous category.  The dictionary says:

ethnicity |eθˈnisitē|
noun ( pl. -ties)
the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition .

So… in that case, what am I?  Am I American?  It’s lovely to think of America as a color-less, class-less, giant melting pot of a social group… but we all know that’s not true.

What group do I belong to?  Who do I share my cultural traditions with?  Is it my European ancestors?  Is it my fellow middle-class, white Americans?

Uhhh.. none of the above?

For the time being, I will continue to check the “Other box”, and write in “Cacausian”, however obsolete and inaccurate a term it may be.  I’ve convinced myself it’s politically neutral, and actually identifies me as being American, without even having to write American, to people familiar with the wacky ways we try to classify people.

All this in the hopes of making it easier to stereo-type and generalize, put people in nice little categories, and assume we know something about each other, without really having a clue at all.


One thought on “Ethnicity vs. Race, or, The Loneliness of a Nomadic American

  1. I have been thinking about similar issues recently. The more I think about it the greater my conviction is that ‘ethnicity’ is a not particularly useful word. Given the imprecision of the definition (or more accurately, the multitude of definitions), it seems that in almost all situations a more precise or more accurate word can be found/used. If we are talking about culture then just use ‘culture,’ if we are talking about something else, then use a word appropriate to the situation.

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