When ethnic equals “non-white,” we are at the mercy of “non-ethnic” Whiteness

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

I. Lurking Invisibly

In apartheid South Africa, the system of racial segregation relied on two primary categories: white and non-white.  In the US today, the adjective ethnic as commonly applied also means non-white.
     For instance: a colleague who moved from cosmopolitan New York to a more homogeneous Middle America complains that there are no ethnic restaurants in his town.  When I ask what he means by that, he says there are no Indian or Thai or Japanese restaurants.  “But there are some restaurants, right?” I ask.
“Yeah but I really miss Ethiopian food.  The restaurants here only serve hamburgers and American food.”
“And what’s the ethnicity of hamburgers and ‘American’ food?  Is it non-ethnic?  Isn’t white/European an ethnicity too?”
You see this - or more to the point, don’t see this -  erasure of whiteness as ethnicity everywhere.  For example, there are a plethora of summer classes on offer entitled “Ethnic New York” and “Ethnic Los Angeles,” often taught in Ethnic Studies departments, but if you flip through their syllabi these classes emphasise the non-white areas of the city like Chinatown, Little Tokyo and Harlem.  What about Bel Air, the Upper East Side, Malibu and Wall Street?  What do we miss by not marking these white neighbourhoods as ethnic?  

This question might be reformulated: who gains from (not) being identified as ethnic?


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Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is an author, academic

and aerobics instructor.

Homo sum: humani nil
a me alienum puto