In Ore chapter 2, the author discusses ethnicity as an option. Seriously consider and answer the
question she poses in her first sentence, “What does it mean to talk about ethnicity as an option for an individual?” (p 29). Consider the ethnicities you claim. When, if at all, are these ethnicities (or ethnicity) a choice? When are they not? What influences when these ethnicities are and are not chosen? Give an example to illustrate your points.
In her essay, Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only?, Mary Waters posits the notion that, for a great many Whites, claiming an ethnicity is a choice. The notion that “ethnicity is primarily a social phenomenon, not a biological one” (30) means that those individuals who are sufficiently removed from the immigrant experience – and those whose physical appearance or attributes are such that society does not automatically assign them a label – are able to designate for themselves which ethnicity, if any, they choose to adopt.
As (primarily Caucasian) immigrant families experience more and more generations in one place (here, we’re assuming the United States), the link to an ethnic identity grows ever more remote (30). Further, the prevalence of mixed ancestry, which becomes more common as families grow farther from the immigrant experience, offers many people “the option of which ethnicity to identify with” (31). This willingness to identify an ethnicity – and to purposefully choose to adopt an ethnic identity for both personal lives and the public record – is made more accessible by the options for such designations on official documents (such as the census) and the perception that the adoption of an ethnic identity does not carry with it a stigma, but rather a positive means of identifying oneself against a “vanilla” (34) identification as an “unhyphenated American.”
The tendency to remain a “hyphenated American” seems to be a strong one, however, and is reinforced in a number of our social and political institutions. My own ancestry is relatively uncomplicated – I come from several lines of essentially undiluted and recently arrived Scots – but I am also disassociated from my biological family, so I do not have any emotional or social ties to them. As a consequence, I have no particular stake in finding and documenting my ancestry, but I’m finding that, as a regular part of my daughters’ school experience, questions of family history are pretty common. Once a year since they entered the 5th grade, one or both of my children has come home with some variant on the “family tree” assignment; in fact, my sophomore just finished another genealogy assignment last night. Because we all “look” like Anglo-Saxons – red-haired, fair-skinned – the narrative we tell about our family’s history is an easy one for others to accept.
The idea of outward appearance is an important one when we’re constructing ethnicity, both for ourselves and as a means of identifying/categorizing others. Because our genetics conspired to produce living versions of Disney’s Brave heroine, my husband and I don’t have to help our children navigate through the complexities of constructing an ethnic identity; people are willing to accept without question their claim to Anglo-Scots heritage. For those whose appearance is more ambiguous, however, the idea of self-directed choice in ethnic identification becomes more problematic. In their essay, Racial Formations, Omi and Winant observed that, “[b]y the end of the seventeenth century, Africans whose specific identity was Ibo, Yoruba, Fulani, etc., were rendered “black” by an ideology of exploitation based on racial logic – the establishment and maintenance of a ‘color line’” (24). Disregarding the distinctions of tribe by a dominant culture is a means of stripping individuals of a facet of identity. Taken a step further, reducing identity to the lowest social denominator was perpetuated in this country by the “one drop rule” which determined the racial identity of an individual based on what Marvin Harris called the principle of “hypo-descent.” “Americans [have been socially programmed] to believe that anyone who is known to have had a Negro ancestor is a Negro.” He goes on to say that this “rule” for constructing the social identity of others is intended “to keep biological facts from intruding into our collective racist fantasies” (21).
Waters claims that those who have the option of choosing an ethnic identity do so for several reasons. First, having a symbolic identity “combines individuality with feelings of community” (34). People reported that choosing an ethnicity helped them to feel “special” and distinct from the “bland” identity of “American,” which is often commonly thought of as a political, rather than an ethnic, identity. Adopting an ethnic identity also allows the individual to pick and choose those characteristics of the ethnicity they wish to identify with. Finally, “the option of being able to not claim any ethnic identity” exists for those of White, European background where it does not for people of color.