By contrast with ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’ is still widely used to describe differences between groups, although like ‘race’ it is a contested term. The terms ‘ethnic’ and ‘ethnicity’ are commonly used to denote groups of people who share common national or geographical origins, values and beliefs, and customs and traditions. Unlike the notion of ‘race’, ethnicity does not imply innate biological differences but rather similarities derived from belonging to, or being brought up as part of, a specific group (Nazroo, 1997).
As with all terms in this area, there is a need to be wary about how ‘ethnicity’ is used. Sometimes the word ‘ethnic’ is misused to denote ‘otherness’ from the (white British) norm, as in the terms ‘ethnic dress’, ‘ethnic food’ and ‘ethnic music’. This assumes that white people do not have an ethnicity, and constructs ethnicity as pertaining only to minority groups. Often the category ‘white’ is used in the UK context to obscure differences between people from a wide range of ‘ethnic’ groups, such as Irish or Italian. Moreover, the idea of ‘ethnicity’ assumes that everyone can be categorised as belonging to one, fixed grouping, which can then be used to explain their behaviour and needs. But some people are of dual or mixed heritage and do not fit neatly into the categories offered, thus calling into question the whole process. How should you define your ethnicity if one of your parents is African–Caribbean and the other white, for example, or if (like the British fomer Labour MP Oona King) you are both black and Jewish?
In Activity 3 you reflected on your own identity. How easy or difficult was it to define your ethnicity? How important was your ethnicity to you? The next activity is an opportunity to focus specifically on your ethnic identity.