Is ethnicity fundamental to who we are?

Arja Kumar (TheLorian)

The other day I was on the phone with my friend, when we had been talking for an hour and I asked a question. “When you think of me, what do you think of?” Now this may have been a terrible question, but I was genuinely curious what another thought of me. The whole context of the conversation was casual, and we had been talking about knowing what one is meant to do with their life. I confided in my friend that I was confused in my life and what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. My friend thought and was silent for a lengthy minute, until saying, “You’re an open-minded introvert who’s good at English and Philosophy.” He then elaborated something along the lines of “You are smart…blah blah blah…are nice…”

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear — since that’s stereotypically what everyone said. I said, “Ok? That’s it?…” I then asked something flowery but foolish like, “When you hear my name what do you think of?” He then thought for another silent half minute and said, “Wellll…I mean…” Hesitance. My friend then said my name in reflection — it sounded so bulky and weird coming from his mouth. I knew just then what he was going to say, so I said, “I know what you’re going to say. Just say it.” He asked me what I thought he was going to say, and we went back and forth in banter for a minute until he said, “Well when I hear *my name*, I think ethnic.” I knew it. 

I felt a whole mix of emotions after my friend said that. I felt hurt that one of the most prominent things he saw in me was ethnicity (and those stereotypical traits that come along with it). I felt devastated that any of my other good qualities were not mentioned. And most of all, I felt disappointed — in myself that I was expecting too much from my friend, and disappointed in my friend that he couldn’t say he saw something more in me. What he thought when he heard my name was ethnic. Hmph! He didn’t think “my kind friend, my friend who cares for me, my funny friend, or my creative friend.”

Although the word ethnic itself is not offensive, it is offensive being one of the most protruding things to see in someone. Ethnicity is an important part of identity and who we are, but it should not be a marker of who someone truly is as a person, unless they so choose to boast about and take pride in it. Instead of noticing others’ ethnicity, I think we should notice others’ humanity. Ethnicity is an unimportant part of human life in comparison to our humanity and character as a person. Recognizing someone based on ethnicity might have been a good or useful thing to do in the past, when travelling people were not familiar with the world and a global culture. But we have progressed so far that it should not be as necessary to recognize or understand each other based on where one’s ancestors are from or what was their culture. Instead, we should have a radical recognition and celebration of humanness and human character qualities in others (e.g., benevolence, compassion, bravery, honesty) rather than prodding them about their dusty historical ethnic heritage that they were born into. Understanding each other based on humanness rather than ethnicity — this would be a mark of an advanced, more enlightened, understanding humanity. 

Moreover, being told that you’re ethnic makes no sense. Everybody in America is ethnic, as we have all come from different nations. According to Cambridge Dictionary, the word ethnic itself refers to a group of people who can be seen as distinct, different, or interesting because they have a shared culture, tradition, language, history, etc. (typically because of coming from a culture or tradition that is not Western). In a way, it can be seen how people like myself who have been raised and live not in a 100 percent Western way can accurately be called ethnic, yet, nobody in America has been raised in a 100 percent Western way. The 100 percent mark is the theoretical “ideal” first ancestor who we imagine in our head to be representative of America — and this is just a mere fantasy image. In this country, we all are ethnic in a varying degree, but for some like me, it is more prominent to others that I am “different” because of the inevitable showcase of physical appearance, family customs, or any other external observation. Therefore, treating others as being more ethnic than you is a delusion. If one’s ethnicity has wore off over the centuries more than other peoples’, it doesn’t mean that one did not have the same degree of ethnicity at one point in time. 

One should not be sensitive about their ethnicity or culture. We should accept and feel proud of who we are. But, one should be sensitive about how others perceive their humanness or them as a person. Hence, when someone places ethnicity at the forefront of who one is as a person, one is bound to feel misunderstood or let down. 

Therefore, why I find it utterly saddening and terrible when one of the first things someone new I meet observes or asks is, “Are you Indian? Kumar, ah yes, that’s a big Indian name. You have such nice tan skin and dark hair — India is a great country.” I want to throw a rock at them and scream, “Don’t you see I’m just a person! Why can’t you see anything else about me! Why is that the first thing you have to say!” One does not go up to Joe, William, or Marie and say, “Hi! So nice to meet you! Are you from Hungary? Are you from Poland? Are you from Lebanon?” No. One would go up to them and say, “Hey, the lawn’s lookin’ mighty nice today. Is your car fixed yet? Wanna grab a pizza together?” For individuals like them, one of the first questions or first things noticed about them is not ethnicity, but their personality or character. I would never ask a person in the beginning stages of knowing them, unless it’s absolutely necessary, about their ethnicity. It means nothing to me. This may seem radical, but this is because of being aware of and deeply respecting people’s humanity over all else. Ethnicity should be asked and conversed about in later conversation down the road from when you meet someone. It should fall among the lines of when asking someone about their family, what they like to eat, what are their favorite movies, and other things that are secondary to who a person truly is as a human. 

In this case, I really wanted my friend to affirm my inner character traits — to tell me that I had something in me as a person that was meaningful to my humanness. Undoubtedly I still love my friend, but I just wished in the midst of that conversation to be better understood as a friend and as a human. Towards the end of the talk, my friend then asked me what I thought of when I heard his name. I bit my tongue and said a whole poetic description that would make a person feel good about themself. I had told him what he wanted to hear about himself, and he said a peppy, agreeable “Ok. Ok!” There was a long silence. I was waiting for an apology for some reason. There was nothing, I said I had to study for a test, and hung up. 

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