15 September 2006

The ethnic conundrum

The word or term ‘ethnic’ puzzles me. I believe ethnic means belonging to a specific community; sharing a language, a culture, a religion; practising rituals and exhibiting certain types of behaviour common to a group of people. I also believe ethnic means sharing a lineage, since it is common practice to marry within a group and procreate. However, I do not use the term ‘ethnic’ to describe my many friends, neighbours and colleagues at work who come from various parts of India, carrying with them various languages, religions, cultural practices, food and shopping habits. Nor do I use this term ‘ethnic’ to describe people who have arrived from other parts of the world and now live in my country. These people share their land with me. To me, they are all Indians.

Fortunately for me, this feeling is reciprocated. In India, with its 35 states and union territories, 23 official languages, several established and practising religions, food habits, costumes and cultures too many to name, I am never classified as someone belonging to an ethnic group. Yes, since I originally come from West Bengal, I am identified as a Bengali – perhaps explaining my mother tongue, some of my preferences for food and literature, and my work ethos – but the identification ends there. Never has my status in India been described or defined as ethnic… though it probably has every reason to be described so. Yet, in the UK, the US or in Australia, among other countries, I am clearly categorised as someone belonging to an ethnic minority group.

This makes me wonder: Does ‘ethnic’ mean not belonging to the mainstream? For, it is true that, in the UK, the US or in Australia, as it is in other countries, I do not belong to the mainstream white majority population. I do not share their preferences for food or literature or music in totality. And, when I’m not communicating in English in their presence, I’m using one or more languages unknown to the white majority population in that country, putting them through some amount of discomfort. Curiously, this also happens in India, and people in India do mind if I speak in Bengali which they do not understand. Still, in spite of my Bengali antecedents (and perhaps poor social decorum), they do not go so far as to describe me as someone belonging to an ethnic group, let alone categorise me as ethnic minority.

Across the seas in the United States, the story is somewhat different. In the US, the white majority, defined as European Americans, makes up approximately 80% of the population. The balance 20% of the population is made up of various ethnic minority groups (this nomenclature is used by the US government and seems to be a socially accepted term): African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Alaskan Natives, etc. Nobody seems to mind that the European Americans of the mainstream White America are made up of European immigrants and their descendants: English, Irish, Italian, German, French, Scandinavian, Polish, and Russian, among others. Even though, in this case, each group makes up a small portion of the majority European American population.

This makes me wonder once again: Is this classification of ‘ethnic minority groups’ really a matter of language or culture or religion? Or, is it about race and the colour of one’s skin? And, perhaps going a little further, is it something designed by the white population of the world?

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