Linking Ethnicity and Identity
9. How are ethnicity and identity linked? I tackle this challenging question after reading a book by anthropologist Manning Nash and reflecting more on the question “What’s your ethnicity?” that I discussed in Episode 2.
It's such an emotionally charged question, What's your ethnicity? I take on the topic of ethnicity once again but this time looking at it from the association with our identity. Or is there one?
I reference a book I recently finished reading called The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World by anthropologist Manning Nash. He provided a ton of insight into ethnicity after living in 3 different continents to study it. And, of course, raised more questions as all effective teachers along the way do.
Even with having more questions, I felt I had a better understanding in how I viewed ethnicity and even how I answer the question: "What's your ethnicity?" And even a better sense of what is identity. It's by no means a clear cut, easy to define concept but maybe that's really the beauty of it?
In tackling this topic, although I don't go into the docuseries much in this episode, I reflect back on the series, Enslaved (2020) featuring Samuel L. Jackson as I intermingle my thoughts into what ethnicity and identity really mean (to me, anyway).
The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World by Manning Nash (The University of Chicago Press)
Enslaved (2020) - EPIX
Enslaved (2020) featuring Samuel L. Jackson - BBC Two
I’m T. Vyas, you can call me T became most people do. I’m, as you’ve guessed, a person of colour who looks forward to chatting with you about some things identity, some things colour and ALL things Love! Tune in Tuesdays for a new episode! In the meantime, you can find me on Instagram @bareinmind.podcast
You're listening to Love How Brown Cow, Episode Number Nine.
A podcast about love, colour and identity, and where driving yourself crazy is totally sane and curable. Now, your host, T. Vyas.
Today, I'm back talking about ethnicity. And the first time I spoke about ethnicity was in episode number 2, in relation to answering the question that sometimes people of colour get. It's what's your ethnicity? And today I'm going to look at it from the aspect of what it means to your identity. And this comes after me finishing up the book, finally, The Culture of Ethnicity in the Modern World by anthropologist Manning Nash, and it took me a while, it wasn't an easy book as the... It's an academic book, and I had to look up a lot of words in the dictionary. So, when it comes to your own ethnicity, however you define your ethnic group, I think you'll find this journey fascinating, where I'm going to speak of Nash’s thoughts in the book and then intermingle my own thoughts with regards to ethnicity and identity. Ethnicity is really a complicated thing to define and especially since it involves so much historical context. So he clears it up by talking about the modern world, which is basically the last 500 years where all the different continents collided. And then he also further clears up the history that he's talking about when empires have been no longer.
And we now live in a world of nation states where we now have this thing called citizenship. So the idea of ethnicity really became prominent as soon as there were nation states, borders built up. And before, any sort of record from about 500 years ago, there are archeological and anthropo, anthropology differences that we could see, but yet there is no record before 500 years of what those differences actually meant to people. So, his definition really only applies to this modern world of nation states that we have. So no matter which ethnic group you choose to belong to, he puts forth the fact that ethnicity is based on three primary building blocks. So the first component is your blood line, which will then make up your body substance, your skeleton, flesh, etc. And the second component is who you eat with, which is then a little bit tied to, then, who you go to bed with, and the third component is your religious beliefs. Now, he does reference language and citizenship as part of a component of ethnicity however; it’s at a lower layer than the three primary layers, meaning they're not visible markers of a different ethnic group. So I have brown skin and I speak English with an American accent.
There are other people who don't have brown skin that also speak and sound like me, and so that would constitute the fact that we have both the same language, yet we belong to two different ethnic groups, which would then be based on the first three building blocks of ethnicity, with having to do with your blood line, who you eat with and your religious beliefs. So these building blocks help identify differences between the groups. And when you look at the differences, Manning Nash comes at it from an anthropology perspective; and the sociology and the psychology part of it, is what we attach... the meaning we attach to those differences in each other, so the meaning of how we look different from each other, how we eat, and how we practice certain values in terms of religion or just even other values in our life. So what happens from more of a sociology and psychology perspective is that ethnicity then gets blended into what we call some sort of innateness or what he says primordial ties, which by the way, I had to look up. And it's that ethnicity may have something to do with the social expression of ourselves, regardless of any experiences we've had, so I was born and raised in the United States, and if I was born and raised in India, there would be some sort of social expression, so something that you would see about me, that would remain the same, even though my environment would have been completely different. And that something at the deep core of me then makes up who I am, my identity. So, society has made this link that our ethnicity then has to do with somewhat with our identity.
And so, Manning Nash writes that there's this kind of immediate appeal to attaching ethnicity to identity. It’s an easy way to say: Hey, this is who we are. And that instant gratification is a nice reward into fixing an answer to that question. So when someone asks me: What’s your ethnic background? And I say Indian or South Asian. It kind of gives them that immediate answer into who I am, or at least they get somewhat of a sense of who I am. So if I flip that question around: Does knowing my ethnicity, understanding more of my origin, does that then help me understand who I am and give me some sort of sense of identity? So then another question that comes up is, if somebody doesn't know their ancestral ties, their blood line and they've lost trace of it, do they have a lesser sense of who they are, do they not have their own kind of sense of identity? And those were some of the deep questions I was asking myself as I was reading this book. And Manning Nash actually comes at identity from a different perspective, and he sees it like an onion, and that by peeling off layers.
So the first layer is the surface layer, which we can clearly see, which is our body substance, our blood line, the people that we eat with, and then our religious beliefs, and as you keep peeling the onion and you get into the other layers, you go deeper and deeper toward the core of identity, but like an onion, when all the layers are peeled away, nothing remains. And another definition of identity that I had come across before finishing up this book, it... Some time this year on the podcast, The Life Coach School, and it wasn't an episode about identity or... It touched on identity and the host, she just said, well, identity are the thoughts you think about yourself. And it's kind of interesting to have heard that podcast in this last year, and then to read this book, which was written in 1988. And when he talks about the fact that we see things on the surface and then when you actually take away all of the layers, then there's nothing left. And so that identity then just becomes something we’ve constructed ourselves, it’s what we think of ourself. And then how somebody thinks of our identity, it's how they have constructed our selfhood in their own minds.
So then if my identity is about how I think about myself, then what does that mean in terms of how ethnicity has influenced who I am? And Manning Nash offers a way to look at it, which I really liked. So I'm going to read it to you: “At the core, ethnicity is the consciousness of belonging to a group with whom one's humanity is inextricably intertwined.” And for me, how I looked at that was that ethnicity based on his three core building blocks, which are one: your blood line; two: the people that you eat with; or three: your religious beliefs. If you look at any one of those things, you can see that it's a means to human connection, whether it's your family or the people that you eat with, or your own spirituality, it becomes a way from the day we're born and into adulthood, that helps us, connect with humanity. So I'm going to wrap it up here with a quote from the docuseries entitled Enslaved, it’s featuring Samuel L. Jackson and I'll have links to the series in the show notes, and the quote is from musician Rhiannon Giddens, and she says: “You have that lineage here, you have that connection historically to that last ship that was sent over here...
You know where you come from. I don't necessarily know where my family comes from in the same way, but musically, I know my lineage, there's more than one way to be connected to who we are as a community. It's not just blood.” I'll check back with you next week.
Thanks for listening. Tune in next Tuesday for another episode. And in the meantime, check out Love How Brown Cow on Instagram @lovehowbc.