Are Ethnicities Optional?



Course Instructor


Are Ethnicities Optional?

            Advanced technology in the world today, including advances in transport and communication has increasingly contributed to the strengthening of the process of globalization. The world has become a global village, as the advanced technology enables people from different geographical regions to communicate effectively, as well as move from one geographical region to another. This happens in the shortest time possible, compared to the ancient means of transport and communication. Therefore, in the contemporary world, people from different continents interact at a higher level and more easily compared to the past decades. We therefore, continue to witness a social and economic evolution in society, even as immigration rates increase today. With immigration, the immigrants are able to experience other cultures. This therefore, raises the aspect of ethnicity in the people because of the varying cultures. There are instances of stereotyping and prejudicing of different cultures, which most of the times is hurtful to them.

In her article Optional Identities: For Whites Only?, Mary Waters presents an argument about the issue of ethnicity, which is of great concern in today’s countries, which are mostly multi-cultural, owing to globalization. Waters argues against the aspect of ethnicity being considered a biological aspect. According to her, ethnicity is an aspect that human beings construct socially, and are not born with (Waters 1). She gives various reasons to show that when people claim to belong to a common ethnic group, it does not necessarily mean that these have a common ancestry. Waters gives an example of how the white people choose their ethnicity, due to the various economic, social, and political forces, which force them to choose an ethnic identity (Waters 1).

According to Waters, ethnicity for White Americans is symbolic, apart from being optional. People choose the ethnicity they want to be associated with regard to cultural symbolisms in the ethnic group. Waters likens this to an example of White Americans, who choose to identify themselves with the Irish, mainly because of their love for Irish, as well as the elements that make Irish an enjoyable ethnicity to belong to (Waters 3). However, Waters notes that not all people in society settle for optional ethnicity. This is because some of the people might not be interested in keeping up or identifying with the popular and attractive ethnicities, instead, these would be happy to belong to their original ethnicity, no matter the weaknesses it bears.

Waters therefore, identifies “Non-optional ethnicity.” The minority in the population mainly embraces this. In this case, members of a minority group will deliberately refuse to adopt the norms and values of the mainstream popular culture. Waters notes that such situations arise when a minority group wants to maintain their identity, which could be influenced by their history, or their uniqueness, with regard to other factors. The remaining members mostly judge the people who abandon this kind of ethnicity in a negative way. This kind of ethnicity is named ‘oppositional ethnicity.’ Waters attributes this ethnicity to the blacks and the Latinos. She believes that, “the oppositional component of a black identity also explains how black people can question whether other black are acting black enough” (Waters 7).

In the article Notes of a Native Speaker, Eric Liu, talks about his experiences that relate to his ethnicity, immigration, and race, during his childhood and teenage years. Although Liu was Chinese, after immigration, he became American. However, he was called ‘banana’ for emulating the White Americans. Liu experienced vast challenges adapting to life in America, especially with regard to culture. Even though he was a citizen of America, he still viewed himself different from the White Americans, who also considered him a Chinese-American, and not an American. In this case, Liu was Chinese on the inside, but American on the outside. He therefore, felt a conflict in him, as the two ethnicities failed to integrate. He said, “And the result is always more complicated than the monochrome language of “Whiteness” and “authenticity” would suggest”(Liu 10). He felt timid and lost his confidence. From Liu’s life story and experiences with ethnicity, it is possible to use Water’s arguments to analyze Liu’s situation. First, by choosing to change nationality to American, Liu defied his original ethnicity, which is Chinese. Therefore, we can call Liu’s Chinese-American ethnicity as an optional ethnicity. Liu chose this because of immigration and schooling reasons. Being among the minority groups in America, Liu was likely to attract attention from the White Americans, because of their different ‘ethnicities.’

In another article titled, Scents by Maria Laurino, different aspects of ethnicity are highlighted. Laurino uses her experiences in the US as an Italian to show the state of ethnicity “I can still remember the day when my ethnicity no longer felt like the tag line of my narrative, reluctantly affixed to my American self, but instead signified an inescapable me” (Laurino 14). Since she is Italian-American, it is possible to compare her to the oppositional ethnic, which is hard to run away from. This therefore, makes her experience some level of prejudice from her peers, who were mostly White Americans. Even though she tried to evade all the prejudice that comes with being an Italian in America, she could not manage to escape as she had all the physical features of an Italian, in addition to the strong stereotypes the White Americans had about Italians. It was therefore, hard for Laurino to move away from her oppositional ethnicity, no matter how hard she would try.

Jen Gish in her article An Ethnic Trump describes the experiences of her son and herself in America with regard to ethnicity. Although these are both Chinese-Americans, Jen wants her son to adopt the Chinese values, by enrolling him to a Chinese school. On the other hand, the son does not want to be identified with Chinese, including eating Chinese food, and attending a Chinese school. The young boy cries and says that he is American, yet Jin knows he that his son is Chinese, and nothing is going to change that, since his physique tells it all (Jen 20). With regard to Waters, both Gin and her son belong to oppositional ethnicity, and therefore, it is hard for them to identify with other ethnicities, even though they are American citizens. In this case, Jin is proud of her ethnicity, which is why she wants her son to embrace the Chinese values and norms.

The ideas of Waters are useful in analyzing the situations of Jin, Liu, and Laurino. Since Waters provides a framework with which one can analyze and interpret various ethnicity issues, these can be applied to the cases of the three authors. These three authors have one thing in common. They all struggle with the question of ethnicity, and are victims of ethnic identity. They struggle with this in the same way that Waters puts it. However, ethnicity is inevitable, and it is impossible for one to escape their ethnicity, just as Waters put it. Therefore, this is also seen in the case of the three authors, since in as much as they want to identify with a different ethnicity, they are unable to hide their original ethnicity, and the White Americans still identify them as immigrants, even though they have the American citizenship.

A contrasting view of Water’s argument is however, presented by Laurino. Laurino was able to overcome uncontrolled ethnicity after years of struggling with her identity. “I fear that after years of trying to rid myself of the perceived stench of my ethnic group and its musty basement class status, I sanitized my own voice, washed it away” (Laurino 14). Laurino later accepted that she is Italian, despite all the strong stereotypes Americans attached to Italians. Therefore, this might prove that people also choose their ethnicity with regard to their experiences and struggles with ethnic identity.

With increasing globalization, the levels of immigration will only rise. Therefore, more cultural interactions are eminent in future. However, the question of ethnicity in this case will always remain, where people from various cultures interact. Cultural consciousness is a historical notion, which still persists in people’s minds today. However, this is full of misconceptions, prejudices, and stereotypes of other cultures, which is inappropriate. Therefore, it is important that people learn to adopt immigration and embrace cultural tolerance. If this is adopted, the immigrants in different countries will be able to live comfortably without any discrimination based on their ethnic backgrounds.


Works Cited

Jen, Gish. “An Ethnic Trump.” New York Times Magazine, July 7, 1996 rpt.

Chicago Sun‐Times, <http://www.e‐‐


Laurino, Maria. “Scents.” Were You Always an Italian? New York: Norton,


Liu, Eric. “Notes of a Native Speaker.” The Accidental Asian. 1998.

Waters, Mary. “Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only?” Eds. Sylvia Pedraza and

Ruben Rumbaut.Origins and Destinies: Immigration, Race and Ethnicity in

America. Belmont: Wadsworth Press, 1996.

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