Ethnic Identity

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Ethnic Identity

Ethnicity refers to the shared culture of a social group, which gives its members a common identity. Modood describes ethnicity as including culture (shared traditions, language, food, religion and norms and values) and descent (where your ancestors were originally from).

Minority ethnic identities often share the following features:

  • Common descent: this may be represented by skin colour or other racial characteristics.

  • Geographic origins: links with a country of origin are important.

  • History: members of minority ethnic cultures may share a sense of struggle and oppression.

  • Language: members of particular groups may speak the language(s) of their country of origin at home.

  • Religion: this is the most important influence for some minority ethnic groups.

  • Traditions: these may be religious or cultural.

  • Racism: prejudice and discrimination may be experienced.

Ethnicity as Resistance

Ethnicity can be used as a way of resisting racism and disadvantage. Sewell found this in anti school male black subcultures as a response to racism at school. Jacobsen also found that young British Asians have adopted a defensive Islamic identity as a result to the social exclusion, racism and lack of opportunity they encounter in British society.

By asserting an ethnic identity and drawing on the strengths of their cultures these individuals can resist the devaluing of their culture and identity by racism. This can also be seen by black youths adopting Rastafarianism.

Types of Ethnic Identity

White Identities

Identities of white British people in Britain don’t tend to be focused on as much because much of British society and the agents of socialisation promote and favour white people and their culture.

White British people do not generally need to assert their identities as they have the power in society that ethnic minority group’s lack, and do not face the racism and discrimination that ethnic minority groups experience.

The assertion of a white British identity is also associated with racism and groups like the British National Party.

It is also worth pointing out that ‘white’ is not an ethnic group with a shared culture, history etc. as there are different cultures amongst English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Polish communities in Britain. Some white minority groups, such as immigrants from Eastern Europe, often face racism from white British people.

African Caribbean Identities

Gilroy believes there is no single black identity or culture but that the historical experience of slavery affects the perceptions of black people.

For younger African Caribbeans who were born in Britain, certain styles of dress and tastes in music, the use of the patois dialect, dreadlocks and a sense of pride in their black skin as a form of resistance to racism, all help to establish a distinctive black identity. This may be reinforced by distinctive black subcultures like Rastafarianism.

Modood found that skin colour is an important source of identity to many young African Caribbeans. Some African Caribbean youth stress their black identity because of their experience of prejudice and discrimination from white society. Black pride and power may be celebrated, especially if black youth perceives itself to be excluded or stereotyped by white people and symbols of white authority, e.g. teachers.

Asian Identities

There are a diversity of different Asian groups with important differences between them. Modood et al did a study to explore what ethnic identity meant to people of Caribbean or South Asian origin. They suggest that the identity of different Asian groups is defined in terms of their different cultures, languages and religions.

In Britain the largest Asian groups include Indian Asians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Extended families and arranged marriages are common to all these groups, as well as enjoyment of Bollywood films and Bhangra music and dance.

However, these groups speak different languages (Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu), have different forms of dress (e.g. turbans for men and veils for women), have different diets (Hindus and Sikhs don’t eat beef, Muslims eat halal food), have different religions (Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity) and religious institutions (mosques and temples) and celebrate different festivals (e.g. Ramadan and Eid for Muslims, Diwali for Hindus and Sikhs and Versaiki for Sikhs).

Religion is particularly important in the different Asian groups. Jacobsen found that for many young Pakistani Muslims, Islam has become a central feature in building a positive identity in response to a racist, Islamophobic British culture.

Those wishing to assert their ethnicity as their main source of identity are likely to emphasise aspects of their minority ethnic cultures in their impression management to others. Mirza et al suggested the growing popularity for wearing the hijab by Muslim girls was mostly influenced by peer pressure and a sense that the headscarf marked an individual’s identity as Muslim.

Changing Asian Identities

Johal has suggested that amongst younger Asians there is the emergence of two new ethnic identities: British Asians and Brasians.

British Asians have two identities. The Asian one they learn through primary socialisation and the British one they learn through secondary socialisation. They adopt whichever identity is appropriate for where and who they are with. This is known as code switching. Johal and Bains argue British Asians adopt a white mask when interacting with white culture, such as in education or the workplace.

Brasian is a hybrid identity which blends both British and Asian cultures. They pick n mix elements of both cultures.

Back found that interethnic friendships and marriages mean that groups borrow ideas from each other. This has led to the blurring of boundaries between ethnic groups.

Butler found that for Muslim women family and religion were important but these women also wanted more opportunities in terms of education and careers and were challenging some of the restrictions that traditional Asian culture imposed on them.

Muslim: a Stigmatized Identity

The increase in Islamic fundamentalism, as well as events like 9/11 and the bombings in London in 2005, and the media reporting of the activities of a tiny minority, have formed the basis for the stereotyping of all Muslims. As a result, the identity ‘Muslim’ has become a stigmatized identity for many Muslims who have no sympathy with extremism.

Baroness Warsi in 2011, then Co-Chair of the Conservative Party and Cabinet Minister, complained of fashionable Islamophobia and suggested prejudice against Muslims was now seen as normal.

As Phillips pointed out, media reporting of Muslims in the 2000s resulted in the word ‘Muslim’ conjuring up images of terrorism. This is obviously negative and incorrect.

Nandi and Platt found that all Muslim groups were much more likely to identify themselves as British than even the white majority.

White European Identities

Bielewska found most members of the longer established Polish community they researched had strong, Polish ethnic identities. They often ate Polish food and tended to live close to other ethnic Poles.

By contrast, many of the newer migrants were not closely integrated into established Polish communities. They mixed largely with people of a similar age from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and their lifestyle generally was little different to that of non Polish people. They did however shop at Polish shops.

Bielewksa suggests the differences are partly explained through globalisation. The newer migrants could maintain links with those in Poland through digital technology, and many thought they might return to Poland to live.

More generally, Bielewska suggests the younger group constructed their identity more as individuals than as members of an ethnic group. Their identities were based partly on loyalty to brands and consumption. This suggests that ethnic identities might become less strong as consumer lifestyles become ever more important.

Hybrid Identities

Tizard and Phoenix found 60% of mixed race children in their sample were proud of their mixed parentage but said being mixed race wasn’t easy because of racism from both white and black populations.

Include Johal, Johal and Bains and Back as well.

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