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The difference between ethnicity and culture The difference between ethnicity and culture
by Joseph Gatt
2019-05-12 07:36:40
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When you discuss diversity, do you discuss ethnic diversity or cultural diversity? What are the varying degrees of ethnicity and culture? When providing citizenship do you take ethnicity into account, culture into account or both?

Let me try to define the terms first. Ethnicity around the world is understood as two distinct, almost separate features. The first feature is physical traits. If you have dark skin you are considered Black and if you have White skin you are considered Caucasian. The second, distinct feature, is that of being the direct descendent or a geographic, historical or religious group. If your parents, grand-parents, great-grand-parents were from Lithuania, you are Lithuanian. If your parents descend from the slave trade in the Western hemisphere and that you live in the United States, you are African-American. If your parents or grand-parents are Jewish, you are Jewish.

ethn01_400Note ethnicity is very complicated to define. The United States mix skin color with cultural heritage to define ethnicity. Cultural heritage in the United States tends to be grouped in broad geographical and cultural zones that don't always fit the cultural diversities of the areas represented. That is because until the 1960s Europeans mixed and inter-married a great deal, leading to the emergence of an American “European ethnicity” while African-Americans mixed and inter-married a great deal leading to an “African-American ethnicity”.

In some cases ethnicity deals with social status. In Latin America, a “Blanco” or “White” only refers to wealthy white Latin Americans, while disadvantaged white Latin Americans are not referred to as “Blancos” even when they're blond and with blue eyes. In Korea and Japan, a “Westerner” only refers to a wealthy European or North American, as a modest immigrants from Poland, the Ukraine or Albania won't be referred to as “Westerners.”

In some countries ethnicity refers to the language spoken along with economic social status. In Korea and Japan, an “English-speaker” refers to a White, wealthy inhabitant of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or the United Kingdom, while a “French-speaker” refers to the wealthy White inhabitants of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxemburg or Quebec. You can be an English-speaker or a French-speaker, but if you're not white and from those geographic zones, you are not considered as such. A Filipino can speak perfect English and not be defined as an English-speaker.

For a very long time, “Middle Eastern” was not considered an ethnicity in most European countries. In the United States, North Africans and those from the Levant were considered White, while in France they were considered Arabs. Asian in the UK means Indian, Pakistani or from Bangladesh, while Asian in the US tends to refer to East Asia.

So in the end the availability bias plays a big role in defining what ethnicity is. Most White people in Korea and Japan are Americans, thus for a long time Koreans and Japanese people assumed that all White people were American, or at least had a culture and a way of life similar to that of Americans. The low proportion of East Asians in the UK meant that for a long time the Chinese were considered “Chinese” and not “Asian” simply because there were not enough of them.

So ethnicity is defined differently in different countries, and tends to mix physical features, heritage culture, wealth, social status and culture and mannerisms.

But what is the difference between ethnicity and culture then? Ethnicity is the group you belong to based on your physical attribute, wealth, social status and heritage culture. Culture is the actual practice of the culture, including language, the name you have, your mannerisms, the feasts you celebrate and the way of life you follow.

But then again cultures tend to be grouped in one big group when there are vast differences within the group. Take the Muslims for example. There are vast differences between Sunnis and Shias, Ibadis and the various Sufi groups, Alevis and Ismailis among many other Muslim groups. Some are secular, others conservative, others orthodox in their practices. Yet many Muslims themselves claim that there is only one Islam and that there are no vast differences in the way Islam is practiced.

There are also vast ways Islamic culture is practiced. In some communities prayer is mandatory, in others it's optional. In some Islamic cultures fasting during Ramadan is mandatory, in others it's optional. Islamic feasts are not celebrated the same way in different Islamic traditions, although there is uniformity when it comes to the dates of festivals and the manner of praying and fasting.

Arabs are not all Muslims. Out of 300 million or so Arabic speakers, 40 million or so are Christian. And Christian Arabs are not one big uniform group, you have Maronites, Copitic Christians, Catholics, Evangelicals, Greek Orthodox, Aremenian Orthodox, Chaldeans among many other groups. And that's just Arab culture.

African-Americans tend to belong to three distinct groups: the descendents of American slaves, immigrants from the Caribbean, and recent immigrants from African countries. While the three groups tend to be grouped together, they tend to have vast cultural differences. Immigrants from the Caribbean tend to be wealthy and predominantly Christian, descendents of slaves tend to have economic difficulties, while African immigrants are a mixed group, some being the descendents of Africa's elite, while others are refugees or economic migrants from Africa, or just won the diversity lottery.

Even European culture tends to have vast differences no one really considers. Sicilians have the kind of conservative cultures reminiscent of Islamic cultures, in terms of marriage, dating and family ties, while many Mid-Western American communities are also very conservative, and like the Muslims, abstain from drinking alcohol and dating before marriage. Germans have very inflexible laws and if you break the law, you get whatever penalty the law mandates. Portugal and Spain on the other hand, have many formal laws they never apply.

So do you grant citizenship to someone because he's ethnically from your country, culturally from your country, or both? Most countries mandate that parents have to be citizens of the country, while others grant citizenship to children born in the country. Yet children born in the country can leave the country and have no cultural ties to the country, while those whose parents are citizens can be from one of the many cultures of the country.

Some countries, especially in Europe, are considering only naturalizing those citizens who show a clear grasp of the local culture. But then what is meant by culture varies greatly. Some want naturalized citizens to grasp the language, others to grasp the history, geographic and cultural elements of the country, while some want an academic grasp of the language and culture of the country, the kind only those with graduate school education can grasp.

I know I have done a poor job at defining ethnicity and  culture. But if you have the perfect definition for those terms, hit me up with an email!   

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