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How Does the Freedom to Choose Ancestries in One’s Identity Differ for Whites and People of Color

Introduction

Although people cannot choose their ancestors, ethnicity as a social concept is believed to be optional. According to Waters (1996), belonging to a particular ethnos is a choice “based on a belief in a common ancestry” (p. 1).

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The majority of White Americans have forebears of different European origins, allowing them to associate with their ethnicity voluntarily. However, this is not the case with racial minorities as they are deprived of the opportunity to choose their ethnic identity. The lack of this freedom, especially when compared to the white majority of the country, puts Blacks in an unprivileged position, because they treat their identity as involuntary. The inability to choose one’s symbolic identity willingly results in adverse social outcomes for racial minority groups caused by strong opposition to white culture.

Symbolic Identity and Freedom of Choice

The ethnicities of many white Americans have changed across generations through changing allegiances and intermarriage, but the transformations also happen within the lifetime of an individual. Many people of European ancestry have the option to choose from different ethnicities and assume symbolic identities. The main feature of this identity is that it does not determine people’s lifestyle, social status, and economic opportunities unless they want it to have an impact. Such an identity is generally manifested through certain enjoyable aspects of ethnic behavior such as engaging in traditional holiday celebrations or preferring a particular national cuisine.

People who consider themselves as Dutch or Irish, for example, can manifest their ethnicity through entertainment, interests in specific cultures, and other activities that do not require any social costs. However, the crucial benefit that the white majority has is the freedom to assume no ethnic identity and regard themselves as ‘white’ or American.

The freedom to identify themselves with different ethnicities varies for the whites and racial minorities. As race is manifested through physical features, people of African-American, Native American, Hispanic, or Asian origin cannot choose their ethnicity voluntarily. The problem with this is that not all identities are treated equally, and the long history of discrimination and oppression made different ethnicities seem more or less desirable. Thus, often the whites assume that all identities are equal and do not understand why racial minorities do not feel proud of the association with their race.

Imposed racial identity, unlike symbolic, significantly influences the way people live, who they marry, and with whom they communicate. The representatives of the minorities are not free to choose a symbolic ethnicity, so they consider their racial identity as socially enforced. The fact that the whites answer the question about their ethnicity with pride, while people of non-white origin view it as rude and offensive, proves that their ethnicities have different connotations. The process of identity development is more complicated for people of color, as they have less freedom and need to comply with enforced ethnicities.

Thus, the main outcome of inequality in the freedom to choose symbolic ethnicity is the development of so-called oppositional identities, which are defensive strategies of racial minorities against oppression.

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Oppositional Identities

The inability to choose symbolic ethnicity and years of discrimination for enforced identity has developed the relationships of mistrust that ethnic minorities often feel towards the whites. People of color tend to respond to such treatment by developing a stronger affiliation with their ethnicity and rejecting the oppressor’s culture or so-called ‘white ways.’ That is why black people at the Universities or schools often form groups and describe those who do not join them as “devaluing and denying their very core identity” (Waters, 1996, p. 4). Such defensive actions lead to the growth of the gap between the cultures and enhance mistrust.

The reasons behind the oppositional identity can be explained through the analysis of the voluntariness of choice. As Ogbu and Simons (1998) claim, people generally assume the status of a minority “based on power relations between groups” (p. 162). Thus, by having an imposed identity, people unwillingly put themselves in the subordinate power position. That is why the social status of involuntary minorities (enslaved, colonized, or conquered) differs from that of immigrants who voluntarily decided to become Americans. The latter tend to be more optimistic towards the white culture and assimilate more eagerly, while the former regard acculturation as a threat to their identity.

Such behavior has severe consequences for minorities as it increases the gap between ethnicities and poses a significant threat to achieving educational and economic goals. The problems in development occur due to the mistrust that people of color put in schools and universities, believing them to be ‘white’ institutions. They often think they need to reject their identity to conform to the schools’ requirements, so they resist the whole education process. Adopting white ways means for them is a threat to their minority identity, so they prefer to oppose assimilation and follow the group’s dominant patterns.

Conclusion

The ability to assume symbolic ethnicities that do not entail any social cost is a privilege of white Americans of European origin. However, this freedom is inaccessible to racial minorities as their ethnicities are imposed on them. Moreover, these identities are not symbolic as they determine the social status of people. As people of color cannot choose to disregard their race, they assume opposing identities. Such a strategy implies the rejection of assimilation and causes mistrust of ‘white’ institutions. Thus, people of color reject development opportunities offered by schools and opportunities, considering them as those that threaten their identity.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, August 5). How Does the Freedom to Choose Ancestries in One’s Identity Differ for Whites and People of Color. https://studycorgi.com/how-does-the-freedom-to-choose-ancestries-in-ones-identity-differ-for-whites-and-people-of-color/

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StudyCorgi. "How Does the Freedom to Choose Ancestries in One’s Identity Differ for Whites and People of Color." August 5, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/how-does-the-freedom-to-choose-ancestries-in-ones-identity-differ-for-whites-and-people-of-color/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "How Does the Freedom to Choose Ancestries in One’s Identity Differ for Whites and People of Color." August 5, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/how-does-the-freedom-to-choose-ancestries-in-ones-identity-differ-for-whites-and-people-of-color/.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'How Does the Freedom to Choose Ancestries in One’s Identity Differ for Whites and People of Color'. 5 August.

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