Re. Variable Ethnicity

Ben Rempel (brempel@CC.UMANITOBA.CA)
Fri, 16 Feb 1996 11:05:44 -0600

Thanks Thomas (Kavanagh) for the good discussion of ethnic identity. I
appreciated Kunstadter's comment that "... political identification is
(1) not necessarily an empirical statement of cultural difference; and
(2) it IS an us-them (political) situation; it takes two to ethnicize" .
It takes us away from the question of what ethnicity 'is', to the issue of
what it 'does', which requires a political context. Or, to use the example
you mention, we move from the question of whether or not the small 'tabs'
at the bottom of the side seam in women's dresses are an essentially
Comanche mark, to the question of when, why, and where this distinction
became or becomes important.

The empirical observations of mixed lineages, shared traditions, and
diffusion only becomes problematic it seems when we try for absolute
definitions of 'ethnicity'. This must arise from the history of the
term itself. To use an example from my own area of interest: Saladin, the
nemesis of the crusaders, was Kurdish. As far as we can tell, this was never
an issue for him, the important part of his identity was something like
'Defender of the One True Faith', although when he went home to visit the
folks I'm sure he must have eaten what would have been considered Kurdish
cooking and maybe even listened to some 'Kurdish' music. This Kurdishness,
as Keyes notes, was likely primarily tied up with ideas of kinship, which
itself is a fluid and maleable concept. By the 19th century however
ethnic identity becomes complicated and mixed up with the ideas of 'nation'
and 'race'. Saladin becomes a Kurdish hero and an example of the Kurdish
contribution to Islamic history.

Raymond Williams notes that the history of the word ethnic is connected to
an earlier Greek work 'ethnikos' with the connotation of 'heathen' and
was similar in usage to such words as 'pagan' and 'gentile' - essentially
a boundary-defining term. Williams argues that the term 'ethnic' became
tied up with the idea of 'racial' in the 19th century. This seems to be
where it acquired some of its ideological rigidity. Because at the same
time that Kurds began claiming Saladin as a national hero, the Turks
began claiming that there were no Kurds, they were just 'Mountain Turks' and
scholarly treatises were written showing that all Indo-European languages
were originally derived from an earlier version of the Turkish language.

What interests me is how in the current era, the processes of ethnic
identification are affected by the experience of forced migration from
a region where such identification is in and of itself a subversive
political act to a region where the context is much more contradictory.
We encourage refugees, who become 'newcomers' or 'landed immigrants' once
they have been accepted, to preserve their culture so that they can then
take up their new role as an ethnic minority. Too much political expression
however, and they may be accused of 'being unable to leave their problems
behind them' and 'integrate' effectively. These accusations can just as
easily come from inside the community as from outside.

One final comment. I liked your example of 'playing the blues' because
musical interaction to me has often seemed to be one of the most interesting
areas of boundary crossing. The way we talk about music often
has an essentialist ring to it ('it just don't mean a thing, if it doesn't
have that swing', 'can blue men sing the whites?') but in practice you don't
have to be from New Orleans to grasp what is essential about that music.
In his recent collaborative efforts with American musicians, Malian
performer Ali Farka Toure apparently had no trouble communicating with
Ry Cooder (who is white) but he had trouble hitting it off with Taj Mahal
whose style was harder to integrate with the traditional Malian rhythms.

Best Regards

Ben Rempel