The idea of ethnicity differs from culture to culture, and so the idea of ethnic diversity is very different depending on who you ask. A brief perusal of the CIA World Factbook gives a picture of the diverse ways people understand diversity. For example, according to official estimates the United States is 80% white, 13% black, 4% Asian and 3% other. China, on the other hand, considers itself to be 92% Han, 1% Zuang and 7% other. Nigeria is 29% Hausa/Fulani, 21% Yoruba, 18% Igbo, and 20% other.
Sometimes an ethnic group can be called a tribe; others are described in terms of race or nationality. In the United States, immigrants used to be categorized by which European country they were from, or whether they were from northern Europe or southern Europe. Now, we prefer to categorize people based on their skin color or their language. Biologists and historians agree that the concept of ethnicity is primarily cultural, and that the differences between us have far more to do with our minds than our bodies.
Ethnicity is a common source of conflict in the world, as people throughout history have often preferred to trust those who look like them over those who look different. When different groups are able to live together peacefully, it’s common for them to gradually mingle over time and intermarry, leading to a change in ethnic identities. Every country in the world has a different history of ethnic conflict and intermingling. For example, the countries of western Europe differentiate between Roman, Celtic, Germanic and Scandinavian groups in their history, each coming to the region as migrants or invaders at different times. Now, however, all those people groups have been amalgamated into English, French, Dutch and so forth, and perhaps they now distinguish between the “native” population and more recent immigrants.
Some people see ethnic diversity as a bad thing, as they fear to see their culture changed beyond recognition. Others fear the conflict that may occur when groups with different values and traditions are forced to work together. However, many people welcome diversity and prefer it to cultural homogeneity, eager to learn more about new groups of people.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Where are you from? How would you describe your own ethnic identity? Do you find that racial terminology feels most appropriate, or do you prefer terms of nationality, culture, tribe, religion or language?
How do you feel about diversity? Can you think of any groups that you might find it difficult to live with?
What is your experience with diversity? Have you observed ethnic conflict first hand? What did it look like?
Diversity (whether ethnic or otherwise) can be a source of conflict in a rapidly-changing society, if people feel their own culture is in danger. However, cultures must inevitably change, and it is more important to love your neighbors, whoever they may be, than to love your culture at your neighbor’s expense.