Race and ethnicity are social constructs, just like all other cultural touchstones. More to the point, racial attitudes are constructed by ideology just as clearly as are economic theories, political leanings, and morality. Like every other social construct, ethnicity is designed for a utilitarian effect in the arena of generating inclusionary or exclusionary boundaries. The very idea that human beings can be compartmentalized based on nothing more substantial than the pigmentation of their skin is, of course, ludicrous to anyone remotely intelligent. Of course, ethnicity goes well beyond racial attitudes-for that matter it goes beyond race itself-but it is true that it is an evolving concept.
Ideology constructs every aspect of life so as to naturalize and normalize it. When it’s boiled down to its essential elements, all ethnicity really is identification of an individual as a respresentative of a collective concept. Consider Julia Alvarez’s essay, “A White Woman of Color.” She begins the essay by delineating how even within an ethnically defined group such as Dominicans there still remains heirarchies of positioning. Interestingly, however, those levels-the hierarchy of beauty-are based not upon the racial differences inherent in her own ethnicity, but upon an alien racial construct that strives to achieve a perfection as specified by Anglo-Nordic ideals. How bizarre is it that the ideal of beauty in a Dominican family-within the Dominican Republic-is that which comes closest to resembling the least likely minority? An analogous situation would be if an obese woman were voted The Sexiest Woman Alive by People Magazine. There is certainly nothing to prevent an obese woman from being sexy, of course, but the prevailing ideology today consistently puts forth the message that thin is the ideal. Everywhere around us we see representations of thin as beautiful; of obese as undesirable. No doubt at the time that Alvarez was growing up in the Dominican Republic, there wasn’t exactly a substantial percentage of the population that could have been described as “white white” or whose hair was “towheaded blonde.” Why then was this the ideal?
That ethnicity undergoes evolution and occasionally de-evolution is certain. For most of American history Native Americans were looked upon as savages, barely human. Ideology dictated that they be treated in history books, and later the media, in accordance with this view. The west needed to be won, needed to be opened up to European pioneers and there were only two obstacles to this happening: nature and Indians. Nature could be overcome, but Indians had to be overtaken. The systematic genocide helped lessen the burden. But then something odd occurred. Collective guilt led to this previously demonized ethnic group becoming something not only no longer savage, but eventually elevated to something a little bit more than human. They became the “noble” savage. Over the course of a few decades movies with western themes no longer presented Native Americans as the bad guys; they became the good guys, culminating in the multiple-Oscar winning movie Dances with Wolves in which a white man turns his back on American society to live with them.
Education, too, plays a significant role in the identification of an ethnic culture. The typical first or second generation Asian-American speaks with as much of an accent and imperfect English and the typical first or second generation Hispanic immigrant, but over the past two decades the image of the Asian immigrant has successfully been transformed. Today, most media representations of Asian-Americans are far more positive than they were forty years ago. Asian-Americans are normally portrayed as intelligent, educated and physically appealing. That portrayal is, in part, a reflection of the reality that Asian kids tend to score higher on standardized tests. So, despite not speaking the language significantly better or clearer than other immigrant groups, the attitude toward Asian-Americans tends slightly toward the more positive. It would be interesting to see what the reaction toward African-Americans or Latin-Americans might be if-simply as an experiment-academic test scores were manipulated. If the image of other immigrant groups-for example Mexican-Americans-could be manipulated via media representations, would there be such an outcry for immigration reform? It is a fascinating hypothesis to consider. Just how much influence upon racial attitudes does media image have? Conversely, if it was falsely reported that Asian-Americans had not, in fact, been scoring well on standardized tests, would movies and TV shows go back to portraying them in a more negative light?
One area that deserves mention is how ethnicity is affected by celebrity status. This is especially important in America and other celebrity-oriented countries. After all, the image of beauty of the African-American women in the US has traditionally been judged against the standard of women like Lena Horne, Jayne Kennedy and Halle Berry, none of whom could ever successfully defend themselves in a court of law against charges of not being racially mixed. Their light skin serves to both allow them to represent the African-American race while at the same time distancing them from it. This is not to deny that they are attractive, nor is it to deny that darker-skinned women haven’t successfully achieved the role of sex symbol, but those who have managed to cross into mainstream acceptance in America have been, almost without exception, light-skinned. And since it is the celebrity that serves to define the ideal of beauty in contemporary American society, the question that must be asked is what effect this has on young, dark-skinned girls. If a talented young female singer or actress sees only women substantially lighter-skinned than herself at the top of the heap, what is the psychological effect? How many dark-skinned girls over the past century have given up their dreams because society effectively told them not to bother? Ethnicity is not based on biology alone. Color does not define ethnicity, nor does heritage. In the Americas, especially, a substantial portion of the population contains strains of many ethnicities within their blood. But no matter how that blood may be spilled, one cannot detect ethnicity based on it merely by looking at it. It is ideology at work when one looks at three people whose blood has been spilled as a result of a stabbing, an ulcer or a bombing and makes a judgment on their ethnicity. Racial attitudes are not something that comes naturally; it is learned behavior and there is absolutely nothing instinctual about them.