Re: A personal ethnicity query.

Daniel Maltz (
30 Sep 1995 16:46:48 GMT

Shawn Roske ( wrote:

: I am repeatedly asked the question "What is your enthic
: background?", and I do not know how to respond. I wonder if this is a
: common problem for Canadian's of 4+ generation immigrants. This is a


The problem with using a label such as "Canadian" or "American"
as one's ethnic identification is that it is also a label for a
national identity. It therefore implies that "true Canadians" or
"true Americans" are people who share your cultural
characteristics and it even tends to imply that you don't believe
you possess any cultural characteristics that might differentiate
you from other North Americans. These implications are going to
be offensive to many people whether you mean them to be or not.

To make matters worse, these labels are most likely to be
associated with certain cultural characteristics like being
English speaking, Christian (often conservative Protestant),
being native-born for at least three or four generations, and
having ones roots in Northern Europe (Britain, Germany, and


Three commonplace theoretical insights from anthropology may be
useful for thinking about the problem:

1. Ethnicity is about marking similarities and differences
between groups of people. It is ambiguous and ethnic
identity varies situationally depending on who you are
comparing yourself with.

2. Ethnic labels tend to collapse many more specific forms of
cultural identification that may sometimes be less
ambiguous: language, religion, locality, ancestral locality,
and general cultural style.

3. Ethnicity, like tradition and culture in general, is created
over time. It is not really about continuities with a
timeless past. One's ethnic identity need not be the same
as, or even refer to, the ethnic identity of one's
ancestors. Even for newly arrived immigrants, the content
of their ethnic culture is different from that of their


1. Think about what are the relevant cultural forces in the
world in which you live, or in Canada in general. How do
you place yourself relative to these forces? Who or what do
you identify with, independent of whether or not you think
of it as an ethnicity. Difference and variation is always a
part of a national culture, particularly in countries as
large as the US and Canada, and no one feels equally a part
of all parts of their national culture.

2. What characteristics of your cultural background
differentiate you from the other Canadians? Are you
Anglophone, Francophone, bilingual, multilingual? Are you
urban or rural? From Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, Ontario,
Quebec? Are you Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu,
Jewish? Which parts of Canadian society are you familiar
with, which are distant and alien? Which of these cultural
characteristics are important parts of your self
identification and which are not? Which of these cultural
characteristics most influence your view of life and of
reality? (That question is a lot harder than it sounds
because we are all basically ethnocentric in projecting our
views onto others.) At least these questions should give
you some sense of who you consider yourself to be culturally
(ethnically) even if it doesn't give you a label.

3. Begin searching for some labels or at least ways of
describing yourself culturally. They need not be
traditional ethnic labels, and they need not match up to
where your great grandparents happened to come from. But,
from an anthropological perspective at least, many of these
labels make perfectly good ethnic identification terms.

In the U.S. some examples might be: Mormon, Southerner,
Hillbilly, Texan, Anglo Southwesterner, Euroamerican,
Redneck, Yankee, Cowboy, Latino, Pennsylvania Dutch, WASP,
upstate New Yorker, Michigander, military brat, Irish

In Canada, highly relevant aspects of many people's identity
include primary language (Anglophone vs. Francophone),
region (Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario, Prairie Provinces,
etc.), city, province (Newfoundlander, British Columbian),
religious affiliation, continent or region of ancestral
origin, even if not ancestral country (Western European,
East Asian, South Asian, Caribbean, Eastern European, Middle
Easterner, South Asian, etc.). You claim to be uninfluenced
by your ancestral origins in Britain and Germany, but would
you be culturally different if they had come from France,
from China, or from Jamaica?

Perhaps you are a Ontarian, a Eurocanadian, a Lutheran, an
Anglophone, a fourth-generation Canadian with ancestors from
Western Europe, a suburbanite. Perhaps you are not.