ADS & ODS 1989

The Downside of Ethnic Pride (Feb 1989)

The Downside of Ethnic Pride

by Clement Bautista

It has become an unquestioned tenet that developing pride in one's ethnicity is the first step towards gaining social equality. As an Operation Manong worker, I have been active in the promotion of ethnic pride as a mean of building self-respect and personal confidence to face a world that tends to show preferential or discriminatory treatment toward particular ethnic groups. Yet I have always been disturbed by individuals and groups who consider developing ethnic pride to be so central and noble that doing so becomes an end in itself.

Ethnic pride consists of a cultivated awareness and appreciation of one's ethnic heritage. A person shapes an image of oneself through the symbols of a particular cultural tradition. On one level of awareness, one simply describes the symbols, as in a textbook. On another level, one actually lives, breathes, and eats the symbols but is rarely conscious of them. On the highest level of awareness, one does both -- completely absorbed in the power of the symbols, one is still capable of reflecting upon them from a disinterested position.

A person who is able to reflect upon his/her own ethnicity should not only consider what ethnicity is, but also its significant. Both facets point to issues that go beyond individual or in-group self-esteem. In fact, they reintroduce the elements that are the very cause for the original desire to seek pride in one's ethnicity -- namely, the society in which we live.

Of course, society has a tight control over what we can actually consider legitimate ethnic pride. One problem with many "discoveries" of ethnicity is that they are less a discovery than a clothing of familiar elements in old clothes. The most obvious example of this is any rediscovery of some old, long-lost tradition that we appropriate according to twentieth-century sensibilities and values, often turning it into a commercial entity. Here we plainly recognize the ability of society to make sense of something entirely foreign to it.

An example of this is the rediscovery of ancient hula. Is its traditional significance actually conveyed to us in the posters, the television shows, or even in the formal competitions we so often view these days? Or, has our twentieth-century sensibilities and priorities clothed an ethnic artifact with a neo-traditional and commercial significance? Does the newly found form and function of "ancient hula" have more to say about our contemporary living and concerns than those of the ancients?

Any rediscovery of our own ethnicity (e.g., in "finding our roots") should be scrutinized not only for its "degree of authenticity" but also for its stature and function in existing society. Suppose, for example, I recently discovered I was of X ethnicity and it was high time all of us X's should be proud of it. We form a coalition and decide to undertake a campaign to promote an awareness of our unique X customs, behavior and foods.

Suppose, however, people already have many jokes about us, about the way we speak, the things we do, the things we eat, etc. (In fact, some people actually make a good living at poking fun of people like us X's). Suppose, also, most of us X's happen to be working at menial jobs, living in crowded housing areas, and happen to have green hair.

In this case, does society's increased awareness of our X cultural idiosyncrasies compel it to think the better of us? Or, does society's preconceptions, regardless of what we say or do, inevitably pigeon-hole us into a hierarchical scheme of social values. In effect, do we simply provide more bullets for others to shoot us down?

By promoting our ethnicity, we celebrate one of the meaningful differences, or divisions, which make up our society. As long as these types of differences continue to be important for some purpose, any focus on our unique identity serves to reinforce, rather than diminish, these differences.

Knowing this, one route we can take is to put aside our ethnicity as a criterion for identity and take up, well, something else. The problem now is, what can we use to base our identify on? Virtually any criterion we use for identity assumes a differences within society. In a society without differences, identity does not exist -- identity relies on difference. The real problem is not whether we should or should not promote ethnicity, but rather, once we have obtained pride in our ethnicity, how do we utilize it?

Just as any medical treatment presupposes a disease, developing ethnic pride presupposes feelings of ethnic inferiority, and just as in modern medicine, where a treatment treats a disease's symptoms and not its causes, developing ethnic pride address feelings of helplessness, alienation and anxiety about the future, but not their possible origins. In its most shallow and often most zealous form, developing ethnic pride is a bandaid, a bandaid that merely covers and shields one injury from further injury. Once we feel more secure with our own and identity, we must actively address the causes rather than the symptoms of our injuries.

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