Identity issues

entral to the concept of ethnicity is the idea that belonging to one group or another somehow informs the way others perceive us, but perhaps even more importantly, how we see ourselves. The right to self-determination of identity has become a political adage in modern America. Consequently, minority ethnic groups have long been in a position to dictate to other Americans how they wish to be referred to as a group.

However, controversy remains, because group identity is never clear-cut. For example, Native Americans do not necessarily think of themselves as belonging to the same group, for tribal cultures had developed along separate lines for thousands of years before Columbus first set his foot on the American continent. The various tribes often had as little in common as citizens of nations on opposite sides of a continent. Likewise, people classified as "hispanics" come from a variety of separate cultures. It is not immediately clear what "hispanics" have in common other than often distant ties to one or more Spanish-speaking North American culture.

So who gets to name these groups? Should they even be referred to by the same name? And what happens when members of the majority group, people who have usually been thought of only as "white" Americans, start questioning the assumption that all whites can be subsumed under one label? What if we enter other dividers such as the concept of class into the equation?

These are questions that frequently are debated on H-Net networks. Below we have collected a few of the most interesting threads from H-Ethnic, H-South, H-LatAm, and H-West. Note that original queries often are posted to more than one list, and sometimes are repeated almost verbatim by someone else unaware of the first discussion some time later. These threads therefore might begin in the same or similar way, but develop differently.


Class and ethnicity

1) Even if white ethnics were largely working-class in the 1970s, can the ethnic revival in the late sixties and the seventies be accurately described as having been a working-class movement? Are the images of white ethnic, working-class Americans constructed by contemporary writers borne out by the statistical evidence?

2) Is the movement properly understood as having been a politically conservative one?

H-Ethnic members comment and suggest some readings.

European Americans

Should Americans of European origin be called European Americans?

The 1993 H-Ethnic debate.

The 1995 H-Ethnic debate.

Germanic Americans

Is there a distinctive "Germanic American" ethnic group, and if so, should this group have its own rubric on the 2000 census?

A statement from the Co-Moderator of the Conference of Americans of Germanic Heritage, plus some responses from H-Ethnic.


Can anyone give some suggestions and input on the use of "Indian" (versus "indigenous," "native," etc.) in scholarly writing?

H-Ethnic replies.
H-LatAm replies.
H-West replies.


Can anyone suggest sources for the study of "passing" among American ethnic groups that is not limited to the "passing" of African Americans for "white," or women passing for men, etc.?

The H-Ethnic response.


Can someone become Southern, or can you only be born that way?

H-South replies.

Can a Southerner be a Yankee?

H-South responds again.

White Africans

Are white Africans naturalized to the United States African Americans?

The H-Ethnic response.