Stop confusing ‘ethnic’ with ‘nonwhite’

Setting “white” and “ethnic” as opposite ends of a binary serves to perpetuate systems of racism.

by Alia Jeraj

A few weeks ago, as I was browsing through the racks of a secondhand clothing store, I noticed that among the typical sections in women’s clothing — sweaters, T-shirts, dresses — there was one category that I wasn’t used to seeing: ethnic. 
A recent discussion in one of my classes turned to race and, specifically, multiracial people who can “pass” as white. One of my classmates shared an anecdote about her roommate, who is multiracial. To my peer’s apparent surprise, people often perceive her roommate as white even though, in the worlds of my classmate, she “looks ethnic.” 
Both the inclusion of an “ethnic” clothing section in a store full of dresses and blouses and my classmate’s comment about looking “ethnic” reinforce the inaccurate and damaging notion that “ethnic” means “nonwhite.” 
It’s in relation to foods that we see “ethnic” used most frequently and with the least amount of critical attention. For example, the website Yelp! will tell us about “ethnic restaurants” in our area — not mentioning local Italian pasta bars or Irish pubs but instead directing us to places like Indian or Ethiopian diners. 
Using the term “ethnic” to encompass anything nonwhite creates a harmful dichotomy in which ethnic becomes one end of a binary and white becomes the other. This is dangerous for a number of reasons. 
First of all, it erases the numerous ethnicities which are found within both “white” and “ethnic.” In doing so, it reduces complex identities to a simple binary in which there is no middle ground. 
This dichotomy also reinforces the erroneous idea that “white,” by being the opposite of “ethnic,” has no ethnicity. This places white as the norm, while anything else — anything “ethnic” — falls outside it.
Thus, “white” becomes the standard by which we measure ethnicity and, by implication, the standard which “ethnic” strives to be. This serves to reinforce the structures of racism that place whiteness as the pinnacle of the racial hierarchy.
Additionally, by placing “white” and “ethnic” at two opposite ends of a spectrum and by accepting “white” as the norm, we perpetuate the idea that “ethnic” is “other” or non-normal, thus creating harmful notions of belonging and nonbelonging. 
There is nothing inherently wrong with the word “ethnic.” However, it becomes troubling when we apply it only to select ethnic groups and not to others.
Rather than using “ethnic” as an umbrella term to encompass anything nonwhite, it’s more helpful and accurate to name clothing, food and people by their actual, specific ethnicities. 
Instead of an “ethnic” section of clothing, stores could label any shalwar kameez or kimonos as they do their other articles: by name. Instead of going out for “ethnic” food, we can check out a new Thai or Vietnamese restaurant. Let’s acknowledge that, in fact, all of our friends “look ethnic” — for we all carry one or more ethnicities in our personal identities and histories. 
Alia Jeraj welcomes comments at [email protected].