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91 Chapter Five Who Am I? The Construction of Ethnic Identity I became a United States citizen four years ago because of my long love affair with New York. . . . I am a Bangladeshi woman and my last name is Rahman, a Muslim name. . . . Before last week, I had thought of myself as a lawyer, a feminist, a wife, a sister, a friend, a woman on the street. Now I begin to see myself as a brown woman who bears a vague resemblance to the images of terrorists we see on television. . . . As I become identified as someone outside the New York community, I feel myself losing the power to define myself. —Anika Rahman (2001) I was born in Senegal when it was part of France. I speak French, my wife is French and I was educated in France. [But] the French don’t think I’m French. —Semou Diouf (quoted in Smith 2005) THE TRAGEDY OF the World Trade Center destruction that prompted Anika Rahman to feel that she had lost the power to define herself is certainly a more dramatic confrontation with one’s identity than many immigrants experience. Semou Diouf’s similar doubts arose from a less tragic but no less political episode, a period when young French residents of African and Arab descent set fire to cars and buildings in the immigrant suburbs of Paris and other major cities throughout France. The statements of both Rahman and Diouf might be considered unique in their explicit linkage to national events in the United States and France, respectively. Yet both stories also contain many elements that are common to the experiences of all immigrants: deciding how to conceptualize ethnic and national identity, 92 To Be an Immigrant weighing possible combinations between the identity of origin and a newly claimed identity in the country to which they have moved; merging that newly formulated sense of identity with other important aspects of self; and doing all of this within a social context in which beliefs about immigrants and about one’s ethnic and national group are held and conveyed. Further, Anika Rahman’s story, set in the historical moment of New York City in September 2001, also exemplifies the dynamics of social identification , the sense of identity as a process that can continually be renegotiated rather than a category acquired early and maintained unchanged. Far from being simple concepts, ethnic and national identity are rich in meaning, multidimensional and needing careful examination of the constituent parts in order to fully understand what they imply. Once the concept is taken apart, the whole can be seen more clearly, and some examples will be used to illustrate this reassembly. Adding additional complexity to the analysis, we need to address questions of multiplicity and intersectionality : how do identities combine in the lived experience of those who hold them? These issues, which focus on the structure and meaning of ethnic identity, are the topic of this chapter. ETHNIC IDENTITY: WHAT AND WHY? The concept of ethnic identity has a long history in social science discourse and its status has been widely debated. At times it is considered a dominant reality of American life, essential in characterizing a nation that has its roots in immigration. At other times, ethnic identity is viewed as a thing of the past, what Portes and Rumbaut, reflecting on Gans (1979), describe as the belief that ethnic identity became “an optional leisure-time form of symbolic ethnicity” (2001, 149). In the contemporary world, however, immigration trends in the United States and elsewhere have given ethnic identity a high profile, replacing notions of the “twilight of ethnicity” (Alba 1985) with ethnic identity politics. Defining Our Terms Some definitions are in order before proceeding. In particular, I would like to consider the concepts of ethnic identity, national identity, and social or collective identity, each of which is relevant to the analysis to follow. That of ethnic identity has its roots in sociology, most often attributed to the work of Max Weber (1921). In Weber’s definition, ethnic groups are based on a belief in common descent, based on either physical characteristics or shared customs. Later definitions, as Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartmann (1998) discuss, often shifted the temporal basis from past to present, emphasizing the languages, religion, and behaviors that groups share in their current experience. Yet with increasing work on the importance of collective memories, it seems reasonable to bring back...


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