Sunday, August 5, 2012

Just Can't Say the Word

Like most teachers, at this time of year I'm watching the calendar with growing trepidation.  Soon and very soon it will be time to head back to school.  So, as I usually do in the beginning of August, I'm preparing my courses for the start of fall classes, and for the last several days I've been deeply immersed in the newest edition of my educational technology textbook. The authors (all five are white and four of the five are male) include a section on the importance of knowing who your students are in terms of gender, SES, culture and "ethnicity."  They define ethnicity as "the way individuals identify themselves with the nation from which they or their ancestors came" (72).* So far, so good,  Then they go on to list the following as "ethnic" groups that exist in the U.S.: "African American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, and various immigrant groups, including Italian, Polish, Israeli, Indian, and many others."

Huh? Do you notice something missing here?  What about the category of race? It's gone from the list, and in its place is a conflation of race and ethnicity.  So both Asian American and Indian are listed as ethnicities, even though Indians are from South Asia.  Hispanic is listed as an ethnicity, even though the term "Hispanic" means Spanish-speaking, and comprises people from many different nations (i.e., different ethnicities). And is African American a race, or an ethnicity, or both? And if you're white but no longer identify with a past European ethnicity, well, sorry, you didn't make the list at all.

What's going on here?  By ignoring the category of race, are these authors saying that it does not exist? Or are they somehow afraid to use the word?

This is not the first time I've witnessed this kind of confusion and avoidance by whites.  I've heard the term "ethnicity" used when the speaker meant "race" lots of times (just as I've witnessed whites of varying ages afraid to use the word "black," thinking that it's a racial slur).  For some reason the word ethnicity has a softer connotation for some.  Do these folks subliminally think that pointing out race in any way makes one racist? Do they think that the only way to ensure racial equity, or to avoid being called "the R word" is to be colorblind?

Granted, the authors are not race scholars, but they are scholars and their text will be used in many teacher prep courses. By failing to see race as a category different from ethnicity they reinforce to their readers that it's not okay to notice race.  If we can't notice race, we can't notice racism, especially on the structural or institutional levels.  If we can't notice racism, we can't do anything about it.

*Newby, T.J., Stepich, D.A., Lehman, J.D., & Russell, J.D. (2011).  Educational
              technology  for teaching and learning (4th ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ:


  1. "They define ethnicity as "the way individuals identify themselves with the nation from which they or their ancestors came" (72).*"

    It sounds like subjectivity has won the day. Whatever you feel about yourself, that is what you are!

  2. @Jim, well yeah, that is the generally accepted definition of ethnicity--it's the culture you identify with, and ethnicity can be chosen or rejected. Race can't be, which is why everyone has both a race and an ethnicity. I am half black, but I am not African American, because I wasn't raised in an African American family and that culture isn't one I identify with or am a part of.

    @Marianne, I just discovered your blog and love it! Thanks for doing what you do.