What Exactly Is “Ethnic”? Is The Word “Ethnic” Relevant Anymore Today?

Do I see myself as “ethnic”? Someone of “ethnic background”?

I’m a Chinese person living in Australia, so I should, shouldn’t I?

Depending on where you are in the world, the definition of “ethnic” seems to vary slightly.

The word "ethnic" is about exclusion and segregation. Photo: Mabel Kwong

The word “ethnic” is about exclusion and segregation. Photo: Mabel Kwong

The dictionary definition of “ethnic” actually forms a firm basis to think about this word. This concept. According to these standards, “ethnic” refers to the “characteristic(s) of a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage”. Certain markers ascribe belonging to particular ethnic groups.

Ethnic is not to be confused with the term “race”. Although both are entwined, “ethnic” is more a sociological construct while “race” biological. When we speak of race, we tend to think about a person’s physical features – the colour of their skin and hair, the shape of their eyes and nose. “Ethnic” relates more towards cultural factors such as ancestry and traditions.

The mention of “ethnic” and “ethnic background” in Australia often triggers a stigma of exclusion and cultural segregation, “Us” and “Them” sentiments in the air. Here, “ethnic” is widely associated with minority groups who are under-represented (and I daresay also other Western cities in general).

For instance, on the few occasions we see Korean/Japanese/Indian personalities and their stories on Australian mainstream TV, I bet many of us think, “Look, Asian person on TV! Diversity and ethnic representation in Aussie media! Finally!”

In other words, “ethnic” is frequently thought of as someone who is not Caucasian or does not have Caucasian looks. Almost automatically anyone who is Chinese, Sudanese, Indian etc. comes to mind. Though sometimes you do hear Italian and English being referred to as “ethnic”.

And why don’t we call New Zealanders living in Australia “ethnic”? Oh wait, yes, we can actually according to the dictionary definitions of “ethnic”. It’s just not usually done so in Australian society.

On the contrary, although one race usually dominates in numbers and politically in South East Asian countries, “ethnic” is ascribed to each and every racial group.

In Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia for example, there are the “ethnic Malays”, the “ethnic Chinese”, the “ethnic Indians” and so on. So unlike in Australia, everyone is more or less outright ascribed the moniker “ethnic” – even the majority race – in Asian regions. There are “Us” and “Them” sentiments between ethnic groups here though, mainly because of race-relations/racism against other races.

Also, perhaps that is why “ethnic” isn’t used too much in everyday conversation in South East Asia – there is the general consensus that everyone is of ethnic descent and everyone refers to one another as “Chinese”, “Vietnamese” etc..

On a slightly different tangent, what about those who are of mixed heritage? I’m pretty sure some of them identify with one particular ethnic group, or two or more. Or maybe none.

What about people who shuffle around the world and are always on the move? Do they lose some of their cultural values and affinities and so claim to lose part of their “ethnic” identity?

I feel this way quite often. My parents are both Chinese and speak Chinese and Cantonese. I don’t speak Chinese. I speak Cantonese, but it’s not good enough to win intense, rapid verbal Canto arguments. I don’t like eating pork dishes like many other Chinese people.

I’m what you can call a Bad Asian, but I’m still Chinese given my Chinese blood and ancestry. So technically, I am an “ethnic” Chinese person in Melbourne.

Most of the time…I guess I don’t want to be known as “ethnic” in Australia as much as this is fact.

Why? By calling myself ethnic, in some sense I am psychologically pigeonholing myself into the shoes of an Australian resident who is underrated. I want to be an Australian who is wholly accepted for who I am regardless of my heritage as opposed to an Asian Australian who is forever looked at as second-rate to the next Caucasian Australian.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not ashamed of my heritage and I don’t completely dislike the concept of “ethnic”. It is indeed relevant today for some reasons. Acknowledging the presence of “ethnic” groups in society highlights and in a way preserves all the different cultures, customs, traditions, languages around us.

“Ethnic” also emphasises that no two people are the same; we all have our cultural differences that make us unique and a lot of times this makes us interesting people.

But at the end of the day, in an Australia where racist attacks are common, the word “ethnic” might just leave a bad taste in one’s mouth no matter how “multicultural” we claim to be.

What does ethnic mean to you?

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40 thoughts on “What Exactly Is “Ethnic”? Is The Word “Ethnic” Relevant Anymore Today?

  1. Such a nice post. It made me think of “What does ethnic means to me?”

    Ethnic means to me as preserving one’s moral principles and heritage. As a Filipino, with a culture influenced with several colonizers, it is only but right that wherever life would bring me, I will still practice my individualism as a Filipino (of course, stick to the law of the land that I am in) and cultivate the same.

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    • Thanks for stopping by and thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yes, I really like it when you say that ethnic means “preserving one’s moral principles and heritage”. Sometimes, with so many cultures and new ideas around us, it is easy to forget the important values and lessons of our heritage and the significance of traditional customs. I applaud you for sticking to your morals – it takes a lot of guts and dedication, resisting peer pressure, to do so.

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  2. Very good post! I was just thinking of the same recently, having gone back from an international academic exchange in the UK. It got me thinking about things like race, ethnicity, and the new buzz-word: “international”. Like you, I have a very difficult time answering the question of my ethnicity. Because I am Chinese by blood (my parents and grandparents speak Chinese, but I don’t!), but I am born and raised in Philippines. Growing up, others insisted that Filipino-Chinese are more Chinese than they are Filipino (there’s somewhat of a tension there). And yet, I cannot relate to mainland Chinese people at all… I can’t even communicate to them! What’s more, I have moved to Canada by the time I was 19 years old, and I seem to have a much easier time relating to North Americans than anyone else. I agree with the discomfort you have with the term “ethnicity”. In a rapidly globalizing world, that term is becoming more and more limited, since our cultures are now coming together. To narrow down our cultural background to just one source would be a huge injustice to our diversity…. Thanks for your thoughts!

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    • Your thoughts were arbitrarily and ambiguously constructed indeed, and I must also say that I agree with you, especially on your thoughts that Filipino – Chinese are more Chinese that they are Filipino. Our generation’s a stereotyped thingy already and it is already hard to get on our way without much thinking of what others may think. Thanks then!

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    • Come to think of it, I agree that the new-buzz word today is “international”. People are frequently on the move these days and come from mixed backgrounds and we have McDonalds and sushi everywhere. I’m in the same boat with you in that I don’t relate to Chinese people from China even though I’m a Chinese person born in Australia. Doesn’t help that I don’t speak Chinese too. Also, I have a few Vietnamese friends who call themselves “Vietnamese-Chinese” and some say they are more Vietnamese, but others more Chinese. Confusing, isn’t it? I guess your moving-around and your ability to speak awesome English contributes towards helping you relate to North Americans 🙂

      Ethnicity is definitely a complex term, and I agree with you that our cultures are coming together – converging! – and so making “ethnicity” rather redundant today. Maybe we need a new word to describe all this converging of cultures! Thank you for stopping by and reading, much appreciated.

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  3. Just because I am Asian and look like an Asian, most times whenever I visited a bank, even before completing my sentence on what I needed help with, I would be asked if I needed an Asian officer to assist me. That sounded like a great personal service but unfortunately I only have fair spoken Mandarin although I look like an Asian Chinese person whom I am proud to be. It is sad to say I never studied Mandarin/Chinese in school and English was my first language other than speaking some Hokkien (Chinese dialect) to the older folks back home. With this handicap, I cannot find my ‘identity’ in NZ where I lived for over a decade. Majority of Asians here are Chinese Asian (as in from China). I mingle freely with people from all races, I do not clique and yet from a local New Zealander’s point of view, being an Asian, I must be referred to an Asian (helpline etc).
    Thank you for this post and having stumbled upon it, have allowed me to ‘voice’ my experience being a Kiwi Malaysian.

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    • My impression of New Zealand was that racial categorization was a bit more formalized than it was in Australia. I felt there was a distinct category for Maori, then a distinct category for the Pakeha (whites). Both these two groups seem to carry the label of Kiwi. Then you had the Asians who were just thought of as Asians. I remember seeing the labels used in a discussion of education outcomes in a New Zealand newspaper and it surprised me. Then I read things that Winston Peters was saying about Asians and I was surprised by how popular he was.

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      • Majority of Asians (Chinese) from NZ are from mainland China other than Indians of course. I used to live in Perth and migrants (Asians) are a mixed from South East Asia perhaps due to its close proximity there are many Malaysians, Singaporeans or Hong Kong. Talking about finding my identity, in Perth there are lots of Malaysians and Singaporeans and we are never generalized as Asians from China (where in NZ everyone tend to think that any Chinese Asian are from Mainland China which was what Winston Peters was on about really. Today in the course of my work while trying to help a Pakeha customer (over the phone) who wanted written information on a promotion we were doing, I checked the record and informed him that piece of information had been posted out to which he replied ‘I will wait for the boat from China’. I was cheeky enough to asked him ‘ Oh, who is from China, are you?’. He lamely replied ‘No, I am not. I am just saying I will wait for the INFORMATION to arrive from China. Back to the topic on the word ‘Ethnic’, NZ refers all Asia (South East Asia, Eastern Asia) migrants as one ethnic group ie Asian. In Malaysia however, the meaning of ‘Ethnic’ means exactly as what is defined in the wikipedia – Ethnicity or ethnic group is a socially defined category based on common cultural heritage, shared ancestry, history, homeland, language or dialect. The common racist comment I heard is always ‘Go back to China’ even though this Asian person never arrive from China. It goes to show really how narrow minded some locals are, hardly ever travel out of their country and do not know the meaning of the word ‘ethnic’.

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        • Thanks for sharing Jess. I’m quite saddened to hear that in NZ people here general think that Asians are from mainland China and see all Asians as falling under the ethnicity of “Asian”. Sometimes this is the way in Australia too. Recently, I was just walking in the city here in Melbourne, a guy waved his hands in my face and said, “Hey chinky!” and laughed. Travelling definitely gives us different perspectives about different cultures. Sometimes, all it takes is for one to be just a little open-minded and less ignorant to see the beauty in the different cultures around us. But sadly, sometimes people are too stubborn and are too comfortable living in their own bubble.

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    • In Western countries, it is common for many here (especially Caucasians) to assume that just because you are from a minority background, you will be better off communicating with someone from the same background as you are. It is unfortunate such assumptions are still prevalent in globalised society, and I’m sorry to hear that bank officers don’t think you can communicate well in English when it’s your first language. I don’t think you need to be sad that you never studied Mandarin or Chinese in school or see it as a handicap. The worst outcome from this is that we won’t be able to communicate well with mainland Chinese people, but it really is not difficult to pick up simple Mandarin terms to have polite greetings/chatter with them.

      I give you props for proudly calling yourself a Kiwi Malaysian. This is the first time I’ve heard from someone who identifies themselves as NZ-Malaysian. Being Kiwi Malaysian or Asian Oz is definitely not what most people think of – we’re very open to embracing all cultures and we ourselves have non-stereotypical identities, which sometimes society warrants as undesirable. Thank you for reading and stopping by.

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  4. Important topic and one that I think really think needs to be debated because it lays at the heart of so many policy decisions. I think you are correct that common conceptions of ethnic propose that they are a non-Caucasian or non-English speaking minority in a dominant Australian culture. There are a few variances on this conception. For example, during a constitutional convention in the lead up to the republic, one politician said, “we are all ethnic” to the cheers of the audience. Then an Aboriginal man asked for the microphone and said, “we are not.” In short, there is that dictionary definition but not an agreed meaning in Australian society.

    I am descended of migrants and I have multiracial ancestry but I don’t define myself as ethnic, and I don’t tick that I am from a culturally and linguistically diverse background on those various forms (mum is a migrant for whom English is a second language). I guess that puts me in the category of “dominant Australian culture” but I don’t identify with the likes of Catherine Deveny etc who are also deemed to be the face of the dominant Australian culture. The only thing that those of us in the dominant Australian culture category have in common is that we don’t identify with a foreign culture or see ourselves as minorities, even though many aspects of our personality would signal us as minorities. Take the “ocker” Australian. According to some statistics, less than 10% of Australians match the ocker stereotype. In which case, are they an ethnic minority?

    The thing is, there are many advantages with not being defined as a minority or ethnic. In the case of the ocker, only around 10% of Australians speak with the broad accent associated with the ocker, but the accent is is over represented in the ranks of news readers and speakers in advertisements because it can resonate in ways that other ethnic accents can not simply because it is associated with being Australian.

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    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts RedEarthBlueSky, very insightful thoughts you have there. I like your ethnic constitutional conventional example a lot. It definitely shows that people think differently about the term ethnic. Are we really all ethnic? Or are we all ethnic and just one people? You know, these are both valid conceptions. Yes, your example shows there is not an agreed understanding of “ethnic”, especially at government level. At least it provides something re multiculturalism for politicians to debate about. Which I reckon doesn’t really happen in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon parliament or media.

      I’ve always proudly ticked the CALD background tick boxes of forms/surveys, but now that I’ve written this post and read your comment, I’m not too sure I’ll be comfortable doing this anymore. We’re Australian. Australia is a migrant country, we all have culturally diverse backgrounds. I’m not surprised that some aspects of your personality can make you (and others) seem like a minority within “dominant Australian culture”. You can be an Australian of Korean ethnicity who speaks with the broad ocker accent and still feel disengaged from the dominant Aussie culture all because of cultural reasons. It’s sort of like a minority within a majority, as opposed to minority vs majority.

      I don’t know if we’re better off being “ethnic” or just “one people” in such a diverse society like Australia – too complex for me to wrap my head around.

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      • In regards to whether we are better off as ethnic, my concern with the word ethnic is that for some people it seems to take a meaning that there are Australians and there are ethnics and I think there are some advantages with being more Australian. In the same manner, in America, there are advantages with being more American than others. Take Barack Obama for example. If he was ethnic and had been encouraged to hold onto an ancestral Kenyan identity complete with Kenyan dress, songs, cuisine, etc would he have been voted the President of the United States? I would say not. I personally believe that much of his popularity came from people being able to see his elevation to the American presidency as a kind of realisation of the American dream which proposes anyone can achieve their goals (provided they are American.) Of course, he has other positive characteristics aside from his story, but all presidential candidates have to develop a kind of cloak of patriotism that allows them to appeal to voters. Same thing happens in so many areas of life. For example, anyway, in China I once came across an employer who defined himself as an Aussie, but he had Chinese ancestry. At the time I was on the lookout for a visa and he said that because I was an Aussie as well, he might be able to help me out. I must say that I liked the touch of familiarity that came from just seeing ourselves as Aussies. It may be found in something as superficial as meeting someone who follows the same football team or likes the same movies but those little traits of familiarity do make a difference. We can find in many areas, but identity is an important one, especially in politics.

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  5. Excellent post. I hadn’t really thought along the lines of “ethnic” before. But you’re right, it’s used as a segregational term. We define distinctions with ethnic; it creates division… I wouldn’t mind if they did away with the word all together. Although I know it would apply to me, too, if I were back in Asia. I do, after all, prefer eating spaghetti to pork and noodles. 😉 I think any words or terms that emphasize differences ought to be considered a negative, honestly. Either that, or “ethnic” ought to be viewed as a positive. It’s well-known that Asians tend to be better students than most others around the world, haha…This post actually reminds me of a video I watched just today. You don’t have to watch all of it to get the gist, but, basically, a teacher years ago in the States teaches a class full of white kids what segregation really feels like. http://www.upworthy.com/watch-a-teacher-make-her-3rd-grade-kids-hate-each-other-for-the-best-reason-imaginable-2?c=ufb1

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    • Thanks for the video, it’s very interesting indeed to see the teacher teach segregation by making her students feel what segregation is. I’m not too sure if this method of teaching segregation would work well today though – I bet many classes in the US (and of course everywhere else) have students from white and non-white backgrounds. If teachers did adopt such an approach to educate children on ethnicities/multiculturalism/racism as shown in the video, there could potentially be riots in classes (this is an exaggeration, hahaha). Maybe it’s more difficult to discuss such sensitive topics in a diverse, naive mixed race classrooms today, though one would think students in mixed-race classes would have more racial tolerance. Hmmm.

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      • I completely agree. This video and experiment was done in a different era. Racial diversity and tolerance is certainly different these days… But condescension is still very real, whether classrooms are filled with multiple races or not. It’s sad to me.

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  6. In the US, at least in my experience, ethnic refers more to where your grand or great grandparents were from and nothing to do with it being mentioned in a negative manner.

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    • That’s very interesting to hear, Robin. I’ve come across a handful of people who think exactly this way too. They usually refer to “ethnic” as something historical, some culture(s) associated with their descendents, and are extremely fond and interested in it. I would say this is quite progressive thinking, and I agree that it is extremely positive.

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  7. The word “ethnic” is relative to the person using it. I am a white European. I took an online quiz where I had to guess the ethnicity of a person by looking at their face. All faces were Oriental. I did not do well. This made me think – what if an Oriental person did a quiz. Could he or she look at a face and accurately guess ‘French’ or ‘German’ or ‘Polish’ or ‘Swiss’ or ‘Hungarian’. It is wrong to judge. PLEASE watch the YouTube clip in Jessica’s comment (June 27). It is the morst powerful thing I have seen on discrimination.

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    • Yes, I agree with you there Vera. The meaning of “ethnic” is different for different people. It’s been a while since I’ve heard someone refer to Asians as “Oriental”. I do know that some Asians get offended when they are called “Oriental” – this is because the term is a Western construct, it originated in the West at a time when European imperialism was rife and is often associated with Asian stereotypes that can be outdated/not relevant anymore today. I’m not offended, I don’t like “Oriental”, but I do think it’s an interesting, complex term alongside “ethnicity”.

      Personally, I don’t think I will be able to accurately guess the ethnicities people in that online quiz. You are so right when you say it’s wrong to judge, and I love how Jessica’s video shows this (a great video!).

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  8. I’m what many call caucasian, born and raised in rural Utah, US. I don’t really like the use of racial terms, it has been proven that biological races don’t exist, we all simply have different physical characteristics, some more alike than others. By using them we are inadvertently suggesting that they do. Ethnicity refers to our cultural background, something we can choose to change with time. While our parents and grandparents can effect our ethnicity, they don’t always, especially in modern times. To me the dictionary definition defines ethnic as someone who belongs to a group with common values and interests, regardless of their ancestry.

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    • You bring up a very important point there when you say that our cultural background changes with time. I totally agree with this. As we grow older, we learn more and have more life experiences, experiences that can very well change our perception of how we look at certain values and people. I don’t like the use of racial terms too – it sort of makes us sound that being different is something to be avoided, when in reality difference makes the world more colourful and interesting.

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  9. Australia = America why? for many reasons because little brother wants to be like big brother and what have they in common other than being anglo saxons? well lets see they have no ethnic origin , no racial history they are both a group of people ( by group i mean many people) who didnt discover their respective countries but rather conquered them. To discover something you must come up either with a new concept or find something which has not been seen before. Both America and Australia had inhabitants before the courageous captains sailed to their discovery. Not only did they not discover the countries they call their own but they engaged in genocide along the way. That is another story. After forming laws and constitutions they named their countries and had people come from all over the world. One of the reasons this happened was not because people hate their countries and australia and america are beautiful but after WW2 many european countries were destroyed financially so people had to leave. They took in other words the best all countries had to offer by offering them money for work in return. There are those who are hypocrites and will tell you im american or australian but they are not. they are not , not only because their heritage states otherwise but because you cannot claim to be ethnically something that dosnt exist. even the most hardcore quicksilver, blonde , ginger , freckled faced australian is confused by calling themselves australian. if they look into their history or roots they will see they are either german, english , irish etc . Their relative either came with the discoverer captain cook as crims or as immigrants. I dont mean no disrespect and i dont mean to change anyones views. if you want to call yourself australian or whatever else you feel like go ahead. its great that you feel something strong BUT…. dont go pushing on the yankee probaganda that ethnicities dont exist and that we are all the same , cause we are not. Those lovely misguided yankees simply are responsible for every war, famine and human oppression that has taken place over the last 50-60 years. no matter how many wars they start or how many saddam hussains they kill they will never have the divine history the greeks, the romans, the chinese etc had. they will never be responsible for discovering things such as philosophy, medicine, astrology etc.. so which is why they want everybody to think they are the same so that they can brain wash future generations with a false sense of history. after all we are all the same, a number , mindless consumers who are taught not to know our history, not to be proud of our history. so it is only fair to say that future generations once the older folks are dead will lose all sense of racial dignity. i am saddened to say that so to in australia if you dare say when someone asks you that you are italian, maltese , greek or whatever else rather than australian you do get frowned upon to say the least. especially when you are born here. oh well i guess my parents when leaving their country due to the war didnt understand that their children will lose their identity and become a number so countries like australia can have a population so inturn they can flex their way on the global scene. truth be said if australia didnt have ties with england that is if they were not anglo saxons the likes of america would have never allowed them to prosper as they have. all autralia and america are , are financial hubs where the rich get to spend their money and live a normal life while they destroy other countries with war and probaganda

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  10. Correction: “race” has no basis in genetics. Science has proven this. Race is nothing more than a social construct. Just check with any anthropologist.

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    • You may have a point there. Some have argued that race is just a social construct, a sociological mode of grouping based on physical features so as to distinguish ourselves from one another. It is interesting indeed.

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  11. You are wrong unless you arent in melbourne. I often get people asking what ethnicity i am from. Granted not every day but at least a couple of times a year. As soon as they hear me talk and if they are not a foreigner and realise i have a bit strange accent for an aussie… cos im a kiwi yet i have been here so long my accent is neither there nor here… then i get i get stupid people asking about my kids who just dont get the concept of a chinese born australian or if you will an australian chinese. Yes an australian born in china… so silly they keep thinking they dont look chinese? i did eay the chinese australian looks australian either so why do they think an audtralian chinese needs to look chinese?

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    • I got asked where I am from twice over the last two weeks, and on both occasions I never spoke in front of those people. They could be curious, or could be ignorant. There are some who believe in certain stereotypes for one reason or another, and it can be hard to change their minds.

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