Ethnic & Ethnicity

The usage of ethnic and ethnicity is perhaps more slippery and politically charged

than even the term culture. Famously, the English word ethnic is derived from

the Greek ἐθνικός which means foreign, and the later post-Classical Latin, where

Tertullian used the term ethnicus to denote pagan or heathen groups – those

who were neither Christian nor Jewish. Early Christian authors used ethnic as a

translation of the Hebrew term “goy” or “goyim”. It is a word historically aligned

with the idea of the outsider.


By the late eighteenth century the terms ethnic and ethnicity came to be used in

the senses that we now often associate with them, namely to denote nationality

or origin. The late nineteenth century saw the United States introduce the use of

the terms to refer to non-black minorities who were considered to have a common

descent, national or cultural heritage. As recently as 1961 the Times Literary

Supplement carries the following reference to: “The former ‘ethnics’, a polite term

for Jews, Italians, and other lesser breeds just inside the law.”58 However, ethnic

and ethnicity have in recent years lost much of their sting, although they are still

largely associated with cultural outsiders or others, especially when used in the term

“ethnic minority” – a term which is used much less frequently nowadays, though

still tucked away in the acronyms BAME and BME.


Diversity monitoring forms, like the census, do little to acknowledge vagaries in

the discourse of ethnicity. While monitoring is crucial in understanding the reality

of entrenched disadvantage, it is still beholden on us to persist in questioning and

revising categories which we take for granted. Faced with only one box to choose

from on an equality and monitoring form, the theorist Robert Young observes

“Officially therefore, ‘White British’ describes your ethnicity if you are … white

British. Yet who, in Britain, thinks of Britishness as an ethnicity? Being ‘British’

is not an ethnicity, it describes citizenship of the United Kingdom, a term cooked

up in 1603 by the Scottish King James I, after he had ascended to the English

throne on the death of Elizabeth I as a way of pulling together the parts of his new

kingdom of South and North Britain.”59


This expresses some of the slippage that goes on when we use the term ethnicity

– are we talking about national origin, racial features, or cultural origin? There is

little consensus, although there seems to be some agreement that ethnicity and

citizenship are distinct. Historically, this ambiguity is not new and it extends to the

related concepts of nationality and race. As Young notes “Within this discourse of

the nineteenth century our modern distinction between ethnicity and race did not

exist. For much of the nineteenth century the words ‘race’ and ‘nation’ were also

used virtually interchangeably.”60 The separation of our ideas of race, nationality

and ethnicity are relatively recent, and judging from contemporary elision, ongoing.

Young underscores the confusion around ideas of ethnicity and belonging when he

writes, “In today’s terms, Englishness may not be an ethnicity, but English was

certainly once used to describe a race, and a top one at that by all accounts that you

read of ‘this island race’.”61


In his influential essay, ‘What is an ethnic group?’ Max Weber placed ethnicity

alongside class, status and party as a social force. He defined ethnic groups as

those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent

because of similarities of physical type or of customs, or both, or because of

memories of colonization. This belief must be important for the propagation of

group formation; conversely it does not matter whether or not an objective blood

relationship exists.62


Importantly, in Weber’s definition, an ethnic group is self identifying. Moran

has pointed out how ethnicity has become a greater focus of scholarship since the

Second World War; the reality of ethnic conflict and migration has demonstrated

that people do not simply give up their sense of ethnic identity when challenged by

migration or political violence.63

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