Why are non-whites often called 'Ethnic'

First of all, a definition:

You often hear things like ‘that city has many ethnic restaurants’. It seems to be associated with anyone that has brown skin.

People don’t call Denny’s or Burger King ‘ethnic’, but they would call a Thai take-out ‘ethnic’. It’s bizzaire.

The word has been grossly misconstrued.

I dunno, I’d count an Hungarian bakery, a Greek taverna, a British pub or even a particularly regional Italian restraunt as an “ethnic” restraraunt. The standards for what constitutes an “ethnic” restraunt also change according to the area. Around here, Mexican restraunts don’t make the “ethnic” cut. I think only American and maybe classic French are probably the only cusines that arn’t considered “ethnic” somewhere.

“Ethnic” is a tough word though. Sometimes it is useful to use a word that means “people who are something other than white”. “Non-white” is a toughie, because it makes it sound like white is this great standard that everything is measured against, and subtly implies that all non-white people are basically interchangeable. “Ethnic”, at least, implies that the people involved have their own cultural identies seperate from how they measure up to white people. At the same time, it is an imperfect solution because it perpetuates the myth that white people have no ethnic and cultural identity.

The best solution is to refer to whoever you are refering to by the name they call themselves. Anything else is a generalization thats gonna lead to problems. But what else can you do?

Ethnic is one of those great words that are essentially meaningless as it applies to everyone. We are all ethnic. None of us can be separated from our culture (total amnesiacs notwithstanding).

Its use (which is different from its meaning) is in opposition. Ethnic is a less offensively racist way of saying “people who aren’t the racial majority”. As I’ve only lived in Anglo countries it applies to non-Anglo people. Sometimes it is used (in news reports) to refer to people overseas (“ethnic cleansing in Serbia”).

If you go to a grocery store, chances are you will see an aisle marked “ethnic hair products”. I find this bizarre since it’s obviously in reference to “black hair products”. However, these items are sold alongside regular hair products. Why couldn’t the aisle just be called “hair products”? Why put the “ethnic” in it?

Because White= normative, in our culture.

“Ethnic” is a tough one to nail down. My last name could be considered “ethnic,” but I don’t think I seem too terribly different from the other native Americans (please note the lowercase N) I know.

I know a Japanese guy who works for a Japanese cable channel here in New York. When marketing his channel, which broadcasts exclusively in Japanese, he has to be aware that his channel is categorized as “ethnic.” Fair enough, he says. But he told me something interesting: the networks he talks to categorize all channels as “ethnic” that don’t broadcast in English—or Spanish. Channels like BET, he tells me, don’t fall under “ethnic,” either, even though their intended audience is pretty specific.

Non-ethnic channels get broader distribution and are automatically more appealing to advertisers. Considering these cable television distributors are in business to make money, it makes sense that thinking of Spanish channels as mainstream pays, and that that’s where the markets are. I realize that if you headed 100 miles west of the city you wouldn’t find any market for a Spanish-language channel, much less a Spanish-language radio station or newspaper—but the point remains that there are enough Hispanics in America these days that in some places they’re no longer considered “ethnic,” and I imagine that’ll be pretty much universal in this country after a while.

I guess the point is that “ethnic” is necessarily a relative term, and is useful, as long as there’s a context. My brother used to teach high school in a small town in Ohio. He took me to the local supermarket so I could marvel at their “ethnic” foods aisle. What was there? Spaghetti and Doritos. I am not kidding. That’s a bit over the top, sure, but my point stands: it’s all relative.

When I use “ethnic” to refer to things, I usually mean it as “based on a particular nationality and/or culture.” “Ethnic” restaurants would be ones that feature exclusively Italian, Polish or Japanese food, for example.

Ethnic music would be traditional music of Russia or Ireland.

Ethnic dress-traditional costumes.

I only use ethnic to describe people tongue in cheek, like a quote from MST3K: “Emotions are for ethnic people!”

monstro, I agree with you. That’s pretty bizarre.

Hmmm. We people in the Outer Boroughs with white skin but lots of strange vowels in our names are often referred to as “ethnic whites” in political discourse as opposed to I guess Waspy whites, of which NY doesn’t have an awful lot to begin with. Jewish people and darker-skinned Caucausians like Indian-Indians and Arabs also are considered ‘ethnic’.

I never heard “ethnic” as a simple shorthand for nonwhite, more as a term for white but diverse groups like Russians, Irish, Italians, Hungarians, etc. Nonwhite groups usually get their own appellation–BET is a Black TV channel as opposed to an ethnic TV channel, Chinese restaurants are Chinese restaurants not ‘ethnic’ ones, etc. It probably differs a lot regionally.

Monstro, maybe it’s so Black women won’t waste their time wandering all around the store amongst the Thermasilk and stuff? I agree it doesn’t make much sense, and makeup for dark-skinned women gets mixed up with all the rest, but I saw it last night at a Walgreen’s that had opened last week, so the term is still used. Besides, there’s plenty of Spanish-speaking folks who are racially ‘Black’ and don’t consider themselves simply AA, so maybe they’re trying to avoid all that.

In Japan, esuniku is the borrowed form of “ethnic”, and Japanese people use it largely to describe cultural motifs from Third-World countries. It’s not derogatory, but it does have the nuance of describing things primitive. Japanese people are usually surprised to hear that the word “ethnic” can be applied to things that are distinctively Japanese, such as food, costume, and other traditions.

I knew a white-suburban guy back in the States who used the word “ethnic” as a sneaky euphemism for blacks… that is, he’d say “ethnic” when referring to a black person who was within earshot. I think he adopted it from those “Ethnic Hair Products” signs in the supermarket.

I’ve heard ethnic used to mean non-white–but it has been extremely rare. Usually the word has been used correctly to identify a specific food, dress, or cultural community distinguished from among the larger society by its adherence to the cultural traditions of the society from which it sprang. (The last widely broadcast use of the term I encountered was as a euphemism to avoid saying “Polack joke” even though the characters were named Staŝ and Stan.)

Given the overwhelming immigrant nature of North America, ethnic simply refers to any unassimilated tradition encountered.

I don’t see how you figure the above definition can make “ethnic” a viable adjective for restaurants like Denny’s or Burger King. I’d say the “brown skin” connection is one of your own making, in this case. A country like the U.S. is a bit young and too culturally mixed to have its own ethnicity. So, while Denny’s or Burger King could be called “American” restaurants, they are hardly ethnic.

A Thai restaurant quite clearly fits the bill of being an “ethnic” restaurant, based on the definition you supplied, as do Greek, Russian, French, and Italian restaurants.

My hometown has many ethnic Catholic churches… each church bears the name of a patron saint associated with its parishioners’ country of origin… St. Columba’s is the Irish ethnic church, St. Anthony’s is Italian, and St. Casimir’s is Polish. These churches are located in ethnic neighborhoods, where the residents predominantly have common ancestry. Their churches are a center for their ethnic traditions, such as the food and language of “The Old Country”.

Surely you’ve heard of “Little Italy”, and “Spanish Harlem”, and “Chinatown”?

I’ve heard “ethnic” used to mean nonwhite, and I find it sort of strange, especially when used in reference to American blacks, most of whose ancestors were here two hundred years ago. Meanwhile, my non-“ethnic” roots are only American for three generations at most.

The way I see it, if you’re going to use a term specifically to describe people who aren’t white, why not use “nonwhite,” rather than “ethnic” or “person of color”? It eschews any obfuscation on the issue. Sure, it makes the concept a negative one (lack of “whiteness”) rather than a positive one, but no matter what term you use to refer to people who aren’t white, the signified remains the same.

The resturant at the place I work is planning an “ethnic food month”. The advertisement for it is illustrated with, among other things, an American and a Japanese flag. So that’s at least one place where American cuisine is considered ethnic :slight_smile:

I think the definition of the term “ethnic” can vary from place to place. In Buffalo, when people referred to “ethnics,” it meant those belonging to the city’s big three ethnic groups (Polish, Italian, Irish). When people referred to “ethnic restaurants,” it meant restaurants specializing in food from a nonindustrialized/developing nation. Italians were “ethnic,” but their restaurants weren’t. Indians weren’t “ethnic,” but their restaurants are.

I dunno … consider how you don’t find adult businesses in adult communities.

My definition of ethnicity is that it is not simply a recounting of one’s heritage and it is not skin color. It is how one’s heritage affects one’s mannerisms, etc. in a way which stands in contrast to the societal mainstream. A good example is accents. If you speak with the standard American accent, then fom the point of view of the American mainstrem, you don’t have an accent and you are not ethnic in that regard. Some blacks speak in a noticibly “black” accent and some don’t, therefore some black are more ethnic than others. Plenty of whites are ethnic, including the inhabitants of various regions as well as the descendants of more recent immigrants. The characters in “Fargo” are a little bit ethnic, but your average newscaster is about as non-ethnic as you can get.

It’s often very subtle and subjective, but again, the mainstream American culture is not defined as “white” (but it could be characterized as “bland”).

www.city-data.com has an entry for Buffalo, saying that the largest ethnic group are those of German heritage.

This concludes this minor hijack.

Maybe, but Buffalonian German-Americans aren’t as … well, they don’t make as big of a deal out of their heritage as the Poles, Italians and Irish. Hard to explain, really.

Probably the case. I live in an area that is traditionally English/Irish/German, and none of those groups make much of an issue about their identity, at least on the level back East.

It’s probably a case of assimilation into the theoretical mainstream.

Not really. If they weren’t brow-beaten into hiding their German ethnicity during WWI, then they surely were by the time WWII rolled around.

My grandmother’s family went so far as to claim to be Irish.


White=Notionally normative