Ethnic/racial Identity: Fuzzy Categories and Shifting Positions (Kay Deaux)


1. Demographic changes and increasing diversity in the United States bring about changes in how people define themselves and how they categorize others. I describe three issues that are relevant to the labeling and self-definition of ethnic groups in U.S. society: (1) the creation and definition of identity categories, (2) the subjectivity of self-definition, and (3) the flexibility of identity expression. In each case, substantial research from social psychology and related disciplines supports a socially constructed definition and use of ethnic categories, wherein identities are subject to the influence of local and national norms and are amenable to change across situations and over time.

2. Keywords: categorization; ethnic identity; identity expression; multiple identities; social construction


3. The history of the U.S. census provides a fascinating look at how changing demographics, understandings, and priorities have defined and redefined the adopted principles of categorization over time. From an early quantification rule used in the first 1790 census, that is, that BLACKs would be counted as three-fifths of a white, to later revisions that were concocted to deal with an increasing number of immigrants from Asia and later from Latin America, the census has represented the current thinking of those responsible for counting the citizenry.. . . From 1850 to 1920, for example, mulatto was an official census category, reflecting both the increased recognition of interracial unions (many the repercussion of the SLAVERY SYSTEM) and an unsupported belief that those of mixed race were inferior to pure cases of either race, and thus needed to be separately identified. Steady increases in immigration from Latin America in the latter part of the twentieth century spurred a move to distinguish immigrants and their DESCENDANTs from established whites of European heritage; hence the term non-Hispanic white emerged to characterize the “true whites” from a sometimes browner version.

4. However, the match of category to person is not always a good fit. The person answering “Black, AFRICAN American, or Negro” on the census form, for example, might be an immigrant from Haiti, Jamaica, or Senegal, or could be a native-born BLACK with generations of U.S.-born ancestors. . .

5. . . .Research findings indicate that people in the United States rely on categories of BLACK versus white and are less prone to use a multiracial category even when the available physical evidence supports the use of that combination. . .

6. social psychological research has shown generational differences, for example, in the performance of West Indian immigrants on academic tasks, in Latinos' beliefs in meritocracy, and in patterns of self-esteem in both BLACK and Latino immigrant groups.

7. The immigrant from Jamaica, for example, may shift from an identification with specific country/ethnic origin to a more general West Indian or BLACK label when presented with or assumed to be part of a larger generic group (Waters 1999). . . Similarly, Dominican immigrants may use the readily available panethnic category of Hispanic as a way of placing themselves in a category distinct from BLACK and white.