Race. Ethnicity. These are two words that seem similar. But they are two words that mean different things.
When I studied cultural studies at university, the terms ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ often appeared within academic texts that I read. The more I read about these two words, the more I realised they are more complicated than they sound.
Commonly, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ encompass grouping and categorisation. But each word is its own concept. As people and culture change, history and stories rewrite themselves; each word builds upon lessons of the past and revelations of the present.
Depending on when and where we speak about ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’, we usually have a different idea of what each term means – biologically, socially and emotionally.
When we speak of race, we often associate the word with physical features and traits. Race is often something we define based on what we see and unconscious first impressions in the physical sense. That is, race relates to the way we look, the physical features we are born with or exemplify. The colour of our skin and eyes, the texture of our hair, the clothes that we wear, our facial structure, our height and stature – all of this commonly defines a particular race.
From a biology and anthropological perspective, archaeologist William Haviland argues race is ‘defined as a subspecies, or a population of a species differing geographically, morphologically, or genetically from other populations of the same species.’ Similarly, author Raj S. Bhopal mentioned race in the biological sciences is ‘one of the divisions of humankind based on physical characteristics’. Commonly, white, black, Asian, European, African, Hispanic, Indian and Middle Eastern are just some broad terms deemed as race.
At a young age, I got the impression people look markedly different from each other. One of my first recollections of childhood in Australia: I was about 5 years old in preschool, standing on the grass under the sun during PE class. Two of my Western classmates took turns picking teammates for their basketball team. I saw white kid with blonde hair get picked, another white kid with blonde hair get picked, white kid with light brown hair get picked…until there was me with yellow skin, dark-brown-hair, much less stockier built than anyone else around me, standing alone. Waiting to be picked…last.
When we speak of ethnicity, we often think about the common traits shared by a certain group of people. The customs we practice, the languages we speak, our religion and heritage are some markers of ethnicity.
Author and lawyer Donald L. Horowitz argues ethnicity is a concept that ‘embraces groups differentiated by color, language, and religion’. Norwegian anthropologist Steve Fenton proposes ethnicity is ‘a group which fundamentally shares cultural values…interaction…a membership which identifies itself and identifiable by others’. Often, we feel part of a certain ethnicity or ethnic group when we relate to the values, mannerisms and life choices of others in the group – and as a group we relate to where we’ve been, where we are from, what we’ve experienced.
When differentiating the two terms, we can think of race as something that we see and ethnicity as something we feel emotionally and spiritually. Racial identities are typically thought of as encompassing multiple ethnic identities, as sociologists Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartmann suggested. More recently, philosopher Naomi Zack argues no single gene determines a person’s race in the context of biological sciences research, and so race is a social construction, ‘a changing idea and system of behavior that human beings invent and reinvent about themselves and others’. Building upon this sentiment, increasingly both race and ethnicity are seen as more than their traditional meanings, instead seen as social constructs as constructed by the choices we make.
On race as a social construction: in a research article on human genetics published in 2013, four scientists hypothesised ‘there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one.’ For a decade the Humane Genome Project mapped genes and sequenced human DNA collected across different continents and purported there is actually significantly less genes than thought; human beings are 99.9% similar in their genetic makeup and similar at molecular level (this argument has always been debatable with scientists uncovering that each of us have different copies of genes).
It has also been suggested in the US that racial categories ‘no longer exist…due to later policy changes, people from these groups began to be accepted into the wider “white” race’. Anywhere in general, the same can also be said of ethnicity: practices of a cultural group can and do change over time through assimilation, invention and adoption of new practices and acquiring of new tastes as we broaden our horizons professionally and personally. In other words, ‘race’ and ‘ethnic’ are ever changing, fluid terms. Racial and ethnic identities are constantly changing and never the same at different moments – different identities for each individual.
When I went to an international primary school in Malaysia, half of my classmates were Chinese, Malay and Indian Malaysians and the other half westerners from the US, Britain and Australia. Every day all of us learnt English, maths, science and Chinese under a shipping container-esque, tinned-roof classroom – learning was our common goal. We’d partake in Indian dances, fairy dances and Chinese ribbon twirling each year. Seeing and being a part of a class of kids with different physical features and different speech patterns wasn’t surprising; it was a normal part of life and most of us got along.
Notably, during this time of my life I realised although some of us look alike, we might feel worlds apart. There were times when I got a taste of ‘white privilege’. During recess, my Malaysian classmates liked shoving each other aside and running towards me going, ‘I want to hang out with Mabel. Because she’s Australian. She has such white skin’. Part of me felt amused (I didn’t see the sun a lot living in Melbourne before moving to Asia). Part of me felt flattered (popular!). But all of me felt very alone (popular for the wrong reasons). Too white to be Asian.
In Australia, the landscape of race and ethnicity has always been an evolving one. The British colonised Australia in the 1700s and 1800s and during this period convicts from Europe were resettled here. The White Australia Policy was adopted in the early 1900s along with the Immigration Restriction Act, restricting ‘non-white’ immigration. The policy was gradually abolished in 1973 and subsequently, migration has been steadily increasing. Today, Indigenous Australians are regarded as the First Peoples of Australia and according to the 2016 Census, 26% of Australians are born overseas with England, New Zealand, China and Philippines topping the overseas-born countries.
What it means to be ‘Australian’ has changed over the years. ‘Australian’ is a nationality, but it’s also a race and ethnicity, namely a way of life and also a social idea. Also in the 2016 Census, 33.5% Australians identified their ancestry as ‘Australian’ and 36.1% ‘English’. In the face of cultural diversity, one could feel caught in between the race or ethnicity or any group they feel that they should belong to – which they shouldn’t but can’t help it. One might not have the stereotypical features of a certain racial group yet are born into a family of that particular ‘race’ – think someone who has parents of two different ancestries. One might not feel or fit stereotypical ethnic traits and so don’t feel like they belong to a particular ethnic group.
Quite often I’ve never felt entitled to be Chinese, never Asian enough be Asian. When I went to high school in Singapore, for some strange reason then my dark brown hair was frizzy and curly, very much contrasting with the smooth, straight hair all my female Chinese classmates had. Every time my Chinese hairdresser gave me a haircut, she exclaimed, ‘Look at that curly hair! Like a gwai mui (鬼妹,white woman)!’. Also, my Mandarin was so bad that my school made an exception and allowed me to learn Bahasa Melayu as a second language (Mandarin was compulsory for Chinese kids in Singapore schools, Malay compulsory for those of Malay descent).
On the subject of changing populations, it’s worth noting Charles Darwin’s Theory Of Evolution. The English naturalist proposed species develop through ‘natural selection of small, inherited variations to compete, survive and reproduce’. Thomas Huxley coined the term Darwinism in April 1860, a term frequently used to describe a natural kind of physical change. Despite the heated debates against this theory, evolution of genes can happen in the most mysterious of ways and may come out of nowhere: in recent years scientists discovered ‘orphan genes’ aren’t duplicated from existing genes and despite further gene sequencing experimentation, these orphans didn’t return to a particular gene family.
At times hierarchical tensions, racism and discrimination manifest alongside different racial and ethnic groups, and some groups or individuals will be regarded as part of the minority in a given space. Sociologist Louis Wirth defines a minority group as ‘any group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment’.
As an Asian Australian living in Melbourne for about a decade now, some moments I feel comfortable in my own skin and other times indifferent. My frizzy hair has become straight and no one pokes fun of it now. Some days I’d get people coming up to me all friendly asking for directions. Some days on the tram to/from work I’d get guys trying to pick me up with the phrase, ‘Where are you from?’ – guys who are as yellow as me, darker than me, much fairer than me in terms of skin colour but almost always gregarious in terms of mannerisms.
The other weekday around 6pm I was grocery shopping at Coles. The store was peak-hour packed, and I was trying to make my way down the spice-rack aisle. Someone with dark hair was looking at the spices, blocking my way. Two blonde hair girls much taller than us stood next to us, looked at us. They looked at each other and one of them said, ‘Those Asians are in the way.’ And then they both laughed. I looked at them. They were engrossed in laughing. I looked back at the dark-haired girl. She was gone. I looked behind me. No one was behind me. With what sounded like condescending laughter ringing in my ears, I moved through the emptiness.
When you’re different from most around you and feel worlds apart from those whom you want to connect with, you feel caught in the middle. Never feel part of the crowd big or small. Feel nowhere inconspicuously here nor there.
There are many perspectives on what is race and ethnicity, and probably endless perspectives since each of our lives are individual, never the same.
How do you define ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’?