An ethnic group is a large group of people that defines itself, or is delineated by outsiders, as separate or set apart socially and sometimes geographically. The separation of this group of people is due to differences in national or geographic origin, religion, or other cultural factors, and race. National origin refers to the country or geographic region, for example, in Europe or Asia, where a person’s family came from originally or at least at one point in the past. Cultural factors that create ethnic group boundaries include language, dress, family structure, and values, as well as religion. Ethnic groups are also set apart by race. Although race is a socially manufactured concept, it has been, and continues to be, an important factor in creating and maintaining ethnic group boundaries in many societies.
Although everyone may not know the term ethnic group, the concept is very important to many people for everyday interaction. When someone asks, “What are you?” or “What kind of name is that?” the question indicates a desire to know one’s ethnic group affiliation.
Interestingly, the term ethnic group is often mistakenly equated only with recent immigrants. People who are newcomers to society and who might speak a different language, have different cultural or religious practices, or have different racial features are seen as “ethnics,” meaning that the newcomers are members of an ethnic group, whereas native residents are not. In fact we are all members of an ethnic group even though one person’s group affiliation might not be as apparent as another’s. For example, a white Protestant who has no idea when his or her ancestors first came to America, nor from where in the world they originated, might consider him- or herself as having no ethnicity compared with recently arrived Mexican Americans who seemingly have a clear ethnic group membership. But everyone has an ethnic group affiliation. To those Mexican Americans, for example, “ethnic group” could refer to white, Protestant Americans.
However, not everyone’s ethnic group holds the same degree of importance. Ethnic group membership plays a significant role in the everyday lives of recently arrived immigrants. Furthermore, ethnic group affiliation is meaningful to other groups that have been severely oppressed for many years, such as African Americans. Often Native Americans remain bounded by clear and significant social and geographic boundaries.
As in the United States, many societies claim to be egalitarian, arguing that their members do not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity. However, to varying degrees, it is important for many people who hold stereotypical views to be able to place individuals in the proper ethnic group. Just as awareness of gender is important for many people in trying to relate to others, ethnic group affiliation is important for those holding stereotypical beliefs of the people with whom they are seriously interacting.
The passage of time often makes a difference. Whereas the German American ethnic group was sharply set apart in many U.S. communities from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, today the German American ethnic group is largely symbolic.
- Gordon, Milton. 1964. Assimilation in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Spickard, Paul R. 1997. Japanese Americans: The Formation and Transformations of an Ethnic Group. New York: Twayne.
- Warner, W. Lloyd and Leo Srole. 1945. The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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