American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 151-153
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What do we make of the astounding recent changes in attitudes towards ethnicity? Why did our immigrant grandparents seek to hide [End Page 151] their pasts by buying "American," while we accentuate-and sometimes invent-differences by buying "ethnic"? What do we make of unabashedly multicultural products such as Campbell Hispanic-style Fiesta soup, or, even more hybridized, Manischewitz's Passover Gold Quick & Easy Pizza Mix? And what's with all these folk festivals, ethnic weddings, and World Music recordings? Clearly, Americans are engaged in a massive roots revival that also means big profits. Focusing mainly on the last twenty years, Shopping for Identity is an invaluable guide to the commodification of hyphenation.
Arguing that modern identities are constructed through ever-malleable consumption, rather than through place-based production, Marilyn Halter skillfully locates this dynamic within the hegemonic dynamics of consumer capitalism. In particular, she argues that commercialized multiculturalism serves the needs of businesses which profit more from line extension and market segmentation, than from Fordist simplification and standardization. Two types of consumers are especially attractive targets: recent immigrants who, like most newcomers before them, seek out ethnic products-especially foods-to ease the transition to new communities and roles; and more affluent, native-born neo-ethnics who want a vague sense of tradition without sacrificing modern conveniences and options. "If modernization is seen as an enormous movement from destiny to choice" (p. 194), ethnic "niche marketing" clearly offers identity- shoppers a "diverse and varied array of choices" (p. 15). At the same time, Halter's lively, well- detailed discussion of these choices also suggests that diversity is not always easily distinguished from incoherence, for shoppers are notoriously "flexible" in trying on the identities offered in the post-modern marketplace.
Halter surveys these late twentieth-century trends in several chapters. In "From Community to Commodity: The Color of Money," she contrasts the earlier version of ethnic niche marketing, which attempted to sell Americanized products to recent arrivals, with the post- 1960 emphasis on differences. "The New Ethnic Marketing Experts" highlights firms specializing in explaining new immigrants to mass marketers. Such enterprises offer useful cross-cultural education for global conglomerates while also validating the claims and importance of newcomers. Focusing on the more well-established neo-ethnics, "The Romance of Ethnicity" argues that ethnic festivals and tours offer a highly portable "ethnic lite" experience for affluent consumers who want the nostalgia without the full-time commitment of traditional, community-based ethnicity. Also, given the fact that many people are involved in mixed marriages, such "portable ethnicity," dedicated to the ritualistic, leisure-time consumption of quasi-authentic products (especially food and [End Page 152] music) may be more manageable than attempting to construct an identity based on more demanding religious or geographical loyalties. "Ethnic By Design: Marketing to a 'New America', 'New America'," explores the complexities and contradictions of selling a taste of the old without sacrificing the benefits of the new. Thus "recombinant" foods like "nouvelle kosher" frozen ravioli and kosher-for-Passover taco shells fulfill orthodox dietary laws while also offering microwaveable convenience and quasi-cosmopolitan taste. Similarly, "neo-Klezmer" is a highly amalgamated World Music style that blends Ashkenazi forms with more youthful rock and funk. Underlying such trends is, again, a strong consumer desire for "cultural expression that is convenient, portable, intermittent, and symbolic" (p. 137)-- in short, a still-evolving, postmodern collage. Focusing on marketing to Latinos, American Jews, and Irish-Americans in "A Rainbow Coalition of Consumers," Halter illustrates the paradoxical way that commercialism both enhances and commodifies ethnic identities. And finally, in "Recipes for Multiethnicity: The Mestizo Makeover," Halter examines yet another ironic turn in commercialized multiculturalism-a recent spate of ads and products featuring interracial and ethnically "hybridized" couples and children. "Blended ethnicity" clearly reveals an unprecedented tolerance for intermarriage, and its "crossover" potential also represents a salesman's globalizing dreams.
Stressing paradoxes and ironies, Halter carefully hedges...