Ethnicity Essay

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Ethnicity is a descriptive concept. One’s ethnicity is something like a residential address. When you reveal that you live at 1402 River Street, Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the United States, the listener knows more about you, can locate you in the geographic world, and perhaps from this address can detect some clues about your social placement as well. However, what we might call one’s “social address” is equally important to many people. Ethnicity makes up an important part of one’s social address along with class, gender, and other factors, such as the community in which one lives.

When people ask, “What are you?” or “What kind of name is that?” they want to know your ethnicity. “Ethnicity” refers to the phenomena that create boundaries that separate a large group of people from other groups. The ethnic group itself, as well as outsiders, can create and maintain this separation. Some groups, such as Amish Americans, ardently maintain their ethnicity. Other groups, such as African Americans, encounter ethnic boundaries maintained by the larger groups in power through formal and informal practices and norms.

The phenomena generating ethnicity are national or geographic origin, religion or other cultural factors, and race. National origin refers to the country or geographic region, for example, in Asia, Europe, or Latin America, where a person’s family came from originally or at least at one point in the past. Cultural factors that create ethnicity include language, dress, family structure, values, and religion. Race may also be a defining part of ethnicity. Although race is a socially manufactured concept, it has been and remains an important factor in creating and maintaining ethnicity in many societies.

Ethnicity is not like an illness that comes and goes. We all have an ethnic background that is always part of us. Some often think that only recent immigrants possess an ethnicity, but this is wrong. Newcomers who might speak a different language, have different cultural or religious practices, or have different racial features are certainly visible “ethnics,” openly revealing themselves to be members of an ethnic group not that of native residents. However, we all possess ethnicity even if it might not be as apparent. For example, a white Protestant American with no idea when his or her ancestors first arrived, nor from where in the world they originated, might consider him- or herself as having no ethnicity compared with recently arrived immigrants. Yet that white, Protestant American group possesses cultural attributes that are recognizable by others.

Not everyone’s ethnicity is a conscious daily reality, however. One’s ethnicity plays a significant role in the everyday lives of recently arrived immigrants compared with the occasional ethnic self-awareness of fully assimilated individuals. Furthermore, ethnicity is usually most meaningful to members of groups that were severely oppressed for many years. Thus, being African American is very meaningful in the United States. Often Native Americans still experience clear and significant social and geographic boundaries.


  1. Goldstein, Eric L. 2006. The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. Jacobson, Matthew Frye. 2006. Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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