Here are the Google-Image search results for the word ethnic.
It’s probably not too surprising: lots of ethnic designs of the style you’d expect. But my question is: what exactly is an ethnic design?
The word ethnic means related to a specific population subgroup with a common cultural tradition. Referring to something as ethnic in and of itself is therefore effectively meaningless. Everybody and everything is basically ethnic, as we can all be identified as belonging to some particular ethnic group. When we talk about ethnic design, the same principle should therefore apply: any design is by definition ethnic. Of course it can be more specific than that. You could argue that ethnic design could refer to a design that is unique to a specific culture, and considered traditional within that culture.
But that’s not how we really use the term, is it? If you look at how ethnic tends to be used, it usually refers to any style that’s different from that of the speaker. And specifically, that speaker is from a white, English-speaking background. Lumping the work of so many different cultures together under one adjective is reminiscent of how terms like oriental or exotic were used to refer to any cultures marked as foreign, as different from the dominant culture of the person using the words.
Not that I want to criticise anyone specifically for using ethnic as a generalisation for any culture outside of what they see as the norm. The way we use language is institutionalised, determined by consensus and ingrained in our minds, so we use words automatically. Using ethnic as a generalised term doesn’t therefore make an individual prejudiced. Rather it’s a sign that we still live in a world where we make generalisations against those we consider as different from us. It’s not a conscious choice, it’s just a manifestation of the prejudices which still exist in the world. Even if levels of official discrimination have decreased around the world (though not everywhere), much of the way we use language hasn’t changed from the past, and helps to allow discrimination and prejudice to linger in the world. Despite our best intentions, we often still see the world in terms of us and them, and language reflects that.
Which is why so many of the words we’ve used to refer to different cultures have changed so much. It can be surprising to read an old book or watch an old film and see what’s now a racial slur being used in a casual manner. But as we become more conscious of the negative connotations of words, we tend to leave them behind, so maybe in a few years we won’t see any more references to ethnic designs in catalogues.