General Question

squirbel's avatar

Why does "ethnic" or "cultural" always refer to something non-white?

Asked by squirbel (4277points) May 21st, 2011

This is a race question, yes. This is not flame bait.

I genuinely want to know why this is – when we live in a multicultural society. “Ethnicity”, “ethnic”, “cultural” – these words always refer to a non-white group when uttered or written.

It’s a subconscious nuance that whites tend to not see.

Please let it be known that although my wording has been generalized, my intent has not. This is a disclaimer – if it does not apply to you then it does not apply to you. I’m just asking you to step in someone else’s shoes to answer the question.

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23 Answers

incendiary_dan's avatar

Because white is implied to be normative.

DominicX's avatar

The assumption is the white is the default plain form of a human being and anything else is worth a special mention. Hence why “colored” refers to non-white because whites are seen as having no color; they’re the default “blank slate”. It’s really quite strange when you think about it…

laureth's avatar

Not always. It depends on who is using the word.

“White” covers a lot. When I hear “white culture,” I usually think first of NASCAR or Stormfront (a white supremacist group that I don’t want to dignify with a link). However, lots of groups of white people have interesting ethnic cultures: I have gone to the Scottish highland games, Oktoberfest, Renaissance faires, Asatruar blots and Druidic ceremonies. I have eaten pierogies, sauerkraut, kielbasa, grav lachs, corned beef and cabbage, mead, lasagna, bangers and mash, pasties, madeleines, and shortbread cookies. There is actual white ethnic culture if you know where to look.

Perhaps it is a sensitivity, I hate to say, for darker-skinned people to feel that they’re the ones always being referred to?

filmfann's avatar

My wife is deaf. There is a large community of deaf people in the South Bay. This collective have their own culture and standards. For example, many deaf people frown on intermarriage between hearing and deaf people. They want their children to be deaf as well.
This is not, by any reasoning, affected by race.
There is also a different culture for the well-to-do. Yes, the rich are predominately white, but not exclusively, and it does not bar them from being in that culture.
Gay and Lesbian groups are refered to as Cultures. So are white trash and Blue Collar.

trickface's avatar

In ‘white countries’ there’s no need to separate their own standard way of life.

Everything else needs that prefix to make people aware they’re not living the average white american/english/european life.

Jeruba's avatar

I don’t think it does. It doesn’t to me. I think of my own ethnicities—Anglo-Saxon/Celtic/Western European—as ethnicities. I think of the culture of those regions and also of the Northeastern U.S., where I grew up, as cultures and subcultures.

What does bother me is that when “ethnicity” and “culture” are to be “celebrated,” people of my background are automatically and tacitly excluded.

jaytkay's avatar

Yes, it usually means “not of European descent”, but not always.

“Ethnic” can mean Polish or Orthodox Jewish where I live. And “white ethnic” refers to voters who dependably vote against Hispanic and black candidates.

everephebe's avatar

What is considered normative can become invisible by being accepted, as the normative. (To be mildly tautological.) If you have privilege, you often don’t recognize your privilege, and therefor disassociate yourself from it. When you don’t recognize your own culture, it’s a good sign that, yours is the one in charge.

Of course, I’m really just speaking for myself.

ETpro's avatar

@hat @Jeruba siad. It was very common before they became so well integrated intoAmerican culture for the Irish, the Polish, the Germans and the Italians to be referred to as distinct ethnic or cultural groups, particularly when they tended to all gather in a particular neighborhood of a city. Our past history is marred with ethnic hatred, persecution and slurs directed at such groups, as well. I an sure that European migrations of one white nationality into the space of another have been marked by similar behavior. Racism is, at its heart, fear or hatred of “otherness” and that same bigotry fuels persecution for secxual preference, religious affiliation, gender, you name the difference.

Check out this honest gentleman expressing it with great clarity. Hang in there 4 minutes or so and be sure to catch the speaker addressing the crowd at a rally in Dobson, NC.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

I think this reflects an extreme narrowness in thinking and rigid understanding of the words. Possibly a rigid mind to go with it. If one understands the definitions of these words, the usage you describe is obviously wrong.

ETpro's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus Excellent point. There is nothing inherently negative about ethnic or cultural. Far from it. People of all races, nationalities, skin-colors and creeds visit cultural centers all the time and go out for ethnic cuisine.

Jeruba's avatar

I think this use may have evolved as a euphemism. The very idea that a euphemism is needed marks the beginning of error in thinking.

When I was a young person, people simply said “Italian,” “Jewish,” “Mexican,” “Black” (and, before that, “Negro”), and so on, as readily as they said “English,” “Irish,” “Protestant,” etc. And then the tyranny of PC made it somehow wrong and judgmental to use any terms that designated a minority. Very confusing because so-called “minorities” were enjoined to be proud of their heritage and celebrate it while members of the “mainstream” were forbidden to notice the ethnicity of the “minorities” because to notice was to discriminate. If you were a so-called WASP, you simply couldn’t do anything right, and you couldn’t speak of your own heritage at all.

One of these days I think we will come to terms with all of this, and then I hope it will be much more as it is on Star Trek—that is, it’s fine to recognize who you are and who everyone else is without trying to pretend that you haven’t noticed their spots or stripes or proboscis or elephant ears. It just doesn’t matter: you don’t judge people for those traits, you simply recognize and move on to what’s important. We still have a long way to go.

everephebe's avatar

White people do have culture, according to some guy named Dave. (Links contain expletives.)

YARNLADY's avatar

It doesn’t. Cultural activities include various period reenactments, visiting museums of all sorts, and celebrating holidays from all over the world, such as St Patrick’s Day, and Italian Culture Day. You are wearing racist colored glasses if you don’t find any “white” ethnic days.

Nullo's avatar

Well, the “ethnic” part (at least in the U.S.) doubtless stems from the fact that Americans don’t typically recognize “American” as an ethnicity, instead referring to their whatever their own heritage happens to be.

cbloom8's avatar

Not always – even in America we refer to the different cultures in Europe – British culture, German culture, French culture, etc. It’s just that there is an ‘average white American’ identity that is prevalent in this country.

Jeruba's avatar

And “American” isn’t, in fact, an ethnicity.

_zen_'s avatar

Ethnic is an English word. When used in a sentence in English, it is referring to anyone else. Just as the Chinese word for ethnic might imply a white, English speaking person.

Jeruba's avatar

I see your point, @zen, but don’t agree. That would certainly be said of “foreign”—that “foreign” (in any language) essentially means “not us”—but not all English speakers are ethnocentric cretins. Some do have a notion that anyone who identifies with a group through common origins, language, customs, and traditions shares that group’s ethnicity. That ethnicity may be considered “mainstream” or “majority” in one society and a minority in another—as I would be, for instance, if I lived in Japan—but the ethnicity itself is independent of proportion in the population.


Because these two terms, like the term “minority group”, are used primarily in a mostly white North America, to define those who are “non-white”. The majority white segment needed terms to define those who were different from them racially, so it came up with and use terms like “minorities” and “ethnic” to describe non-white groups or culture.

mattbrowne's avatar

It doesn’t. At least in Europe. Plenty of “white” cultural diversity.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

My logical take on that (since I can’t ask every Caucasian what they think) is most of the written history originated in Europe, at least the history used here in the US. As @trickface the history and people outside the Euro roots needed to be quantified like having Coke but if it has no natural sugar you have to say it is Diet Coke to let the potential possessor know it is not the real or original Coke. I guess white people did not see themselves as ethnic unless it is “those people” like Gypsies or others people though white didn’t fit the usual mode.

sugabelly's avatar

It doesn’t. Only white people refer to non-white things as ethnic/cultural. Everybody else uses the terms normally (i.e. it applies to EVERYBODY).

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