April 30, 2002
(This was written for my “Identity Issues in America” political science class,
and while I think multiculturalism is inherently a racist idea, if you’re going to write about it, might as well do it well.)
POLS 306 FINAL EXAM
April 30, 2002
Geoffrey Fox argues that the “Hispanic American” identity is an American construct, and just like any other identity, it is an artificial creation, not an inherent or permanent characteristic of the people it describes. He presents a convincing argument that the history of the Hispanic American is a recent creation, one that is a “statistical fiction being turned into a social reality” (p. 23)
On page 16, Fox writes “There is no such thing as authentic identity, ethnic or otherwise. There are only the identities that we make up or that others make up and impose on us, and the one that stick evolves in an ever present process of assertion and reaction.” The heart of an identity seems to be that it is an ever-shifting balance between outsiders assertions and definition of the group and the group member’s own view of their identity. An example of this process is presented in Koreans in the Hood, in which Kwang Chung Kim analyzes in detail the process through which a new identity is shaped. Kim argues that the Korean-American identity was a response to the Los Angeles riots and on page 205, he says “the US society’s ideological constructions of who Korean-Americans are played a pivotal role in their peripheralization” and in response, they “consciously engaged themselves in the (re)construction and politization of their collective identity as a way to challenge the situation.” From Kim’s arguments, we can conclude that while the Korean immigrant population existed as a distinct group and served the role of a go-between minority before the Los Angeles riots, Korean immigrants and their descendants did not feel that they needed to organize and assume a political aspect until the media and general populace formed a negative stereotype of them. In response, they organized as an “official” minority group so that they could participate in the political process and claim victim status as a group when both the looters and the media assaulted its members (the merchants in particular) in the LA riots.
For Hispanic Americans, several actors shaped and created their identity, with the US Census Bureau and the Spanish-language media playing major roles. As Fox mentions, the current use of the word “Hispanic” originated as “Spanish-Hispanic” in the 1980 census. Not long after the category was created, politicians began appealing to the “Hispanic vote” and two rapidly expanding Spanish-language television networks began to solidify and redefine the group. Because both Univision and Telemundo were able to reach the great majority of the Spanish-speaking population, they became the “mirror of the community” (p. 46) and function as a medium through which language and news are standardized and presented in a common format that further differentiates Hispanics both from English-speaking Americans and they countries from which they came. Their news stories focus on the concerns of their nations of origin as well as issues influencing Latinos in the United States, and because everyone hears the same stories, a common worldview is created and perpetuated. The language used in Spanish language media is also a standardized and English-influence version of Spanish, and because the same news anchors are seen throughout the US, a standard language is developed among the ethnic group. Thus, not only is the Hispanic political identity a recent creation, but it is constantly being redefined and influenced both by its American and foreign roots.
If identities can be created and adopted, they must also be susceptible to being discarded and destroyed, or at least weakened. Fox gives a great example of such a case with the German immigrant group. Despite 58 million Americans having descended from German immigrants, their status as a distinct ethnic group has all but disappeared except for a few small pockets that celebrate German cultures in a uniquely American way. (p. 240) Just as German –language schools once aroused Anglo fears of an “invading” culture, bilingual education is raising the same concerns. In the meantime however, American language and society seeps into Hispanic culture and language as even Spanish language television is directed and produced in English with many of the staff having only a basic grasp of Spanish, and the anchors themselves using English conventions in their Spanish. While the stream of new immigrants reinforces the Latino identity, the experience of other immigrant groups demonstrates that identity needs to be constantly reinforced or it will be absorbed into the mainstream society. Similarly, the Korean – American identity, while first meant solely to emphasize the “American” part for political purposes is taking on the role of highlighting and educating the public about Korean culture and working with the larger Asian-American movement in a fashion typical of an American interest group. As Fox says: “identities are subject to change and must be actively defended if they are to be preserved” (p. 16) and both the Korean-American and Hispanic movements provide evidence for his claim.
In conclusion, a “Hispanic American” or “Korean American” identity is just that – an uniquely American phenomenon that is a response to both outside and inside recognition of group identity that lasts only as long as both sides continue to reinforce such an identity. Both groups originated in response to “home-grown discrimination” as Fox calls it, and both identities will last only as long as there is a perceived need for their use. For Korean Americans, the “American” part of the identity servers as a reminder to outsiders that they consider themselves to be Americans, not temporary visitors. For Hispanics, the “Hispanic” part of their identity reminds of them of a common language and common problems and interest that can be addresses when they organize. Thus, what makes the people that use these identities unique is not their skin color but their shared desire to recognize a certain heritage for specific political and cultural purposes — and their identity will persist only as long as those needs are present and recognized.
The basic principle behind postethnicity is the view that all group associations should be fluid and voluntary and an individual should be able to choose which of the various groups he belongs to, if any as his primary identification. Postethnicity views all identities as constructed, appreciates that an individual may belong to multiple groups simultaneously and encourages a cosmopolitan attitude of being able to borrow different elements from different groups and create new identities in the process. The primary challenges to the postethnic perspective are that groups are often defined by outsiders rather than group members, and that groups often serve a specific function, particularly of redressing past harms, that would be harmed by a view of voluntary group membership.
The primary goal of postethnicity is to view identities as constructed and dynamic. As David Hollinger says on page 117 of Postethnic America, “Boundaries between groups deserve more rather than less respect according to the degree to which these groups reflect the will of the people bound to them.” In other words, we can tell much more about a person by looking at the choices they make in joining specific groups than the groups they were born into and had no choice in. Postethnicity states that while we may not be able to choose which country we originate from or which skin color our parents had, we still can decide how much emphasis, of any to give to those factors. This view contrasts with today’s multiculturalism as conservative African Americans are sometimes criticized for being “too white” or “selling out” just as liberal whites fighting racism used to be called “nigger lovers” who betrayed their white skin. The idea that one could somehow “sell out” to a skin color would be equality ridiculous to a post ethnic person whichever way the supposed sellout was. Of course, what one really is selling out to is the idea that race implies a fixed and immutable political identity – which is precisely what postethnicity rejects.
Postethnicity adapts the view that a person simultaneously may belong to several groups at once and can choose which ones he identifies within the context of his particular situation. Geoffrey Fox presents the example of the second-generation girl living in a minority area whose parents are Korean immigrants, whose friends are Spanish-speaking coworkers. She may identify herself as Korean-American, Hispanic, a woman or an American depending on the context. An even better example would be my roommate – who was born in Taiwan, moved to and grew up in Honduras and has become thoroughly acculturated with American influence since permanently moving to the States to attend college. Despite his Taiwanese origins, his primary language is Spanish, though he chooses to be an active member of the Chinese Student Association – which to me seems all the more unusual, since Taiwan is on less then friendly terms with China. The sort of cosmopolitan attitude in which a person is able to pick and choose among the various groups he belongs to and may even join new ones is exactly the sort of postethnic attitude that David Hollinger proposes.
Postethnicity is not without its challenges, however. There are many politically and financially motivated individuals who stand to lose from a postethnic perspective. The primary problem with postethnicity seems to be that many group identities are formed in response to negative outside stereotypes of groups and may not be so easily discarded even if desired. Hollinger proposes that a couple adopt a child of another race as a postethnic act by virtue of the parents choosing a family bond over a genetic bond, (p.117) but that child will still grow up in a world where he and his parents are viewed as belonging to different ethnic groups whether they like it or not. Similarly, I could not suddenly assume a Japanese-American identity just as I could not discard my Jewish identity because to many Jews I will always be Jewish no matter how secular my daily life is. Nevertheless, Hollinger would reply to this argument by saying that one cannot form a new identity from scratch, and any new identity I assume would still contain elements that originally shaped my personality. Furthermore, the many competing groups in today’s society all clamor for as many members and as much influence as possible and will not easily let go of the notion of fixed identity groups. The Jewish lobby for example, will push for more support of Israel and include me in its count of “voting Jews” when trying to influence politicians – and even thought I live a totally secular life, I might well be biased towards Israel because of the many relatives I have there.
Finally, fixed identity groups – the ethno-racial pentagon in particular — serve to address past harms, and in such cases, it makes more sense to view identities are perceived by outsiders rather than individual group associations. It would make little sense to measure discrimination by asking people what groups they feel they belong to rather than asking the public what attitudes they hold about these same groups. However, this is more of a problem of superficial and racist attitudes on the part of the public, and promoting a postethnic perspective may well be the solution to such attitudes. They key would be to distinguish between how an identity is viewed by outsiders versus how an identity is viewed by the person claiming it and then use the outside identity for the purpose of addressing discrimination and the self-identity for the purpose of developing a postethnic sense of individuality and group membership.