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.

15 thoughts on “Ethnic

  1. Personally, I’d hate to see all trace of ethnic diversity wiped out. Not to uphold bigotry, but simply because I like diversity. I think people should be proud of their unique roots and how their own culture has made them who they are. Just don’t expect everyone else is going to pat you on the back for it.

    IMO, even if everyone in the world were of the same ethnic origin, language and skin-tone, you’d find the same type of bigotry abounding. There’s just something in human nature that wants to look down on — or make fun of — somebody. (Just like chickens.) I had a friend who was a redhead — and she heard about it. I’ve a niece with a name her peers made fun of. And you’ll never wipe out differences in thinking. Etc.

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    • Agreed on both points! I too like ethnic diversity and hope it stays 🙂 And I too have seen numerous examples of ethnic groups making fun of one another within those groups — for freckles, red hair, pale skin, dark skin you name it. We should celebrate, not criticize, differences in ethnicity.

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      • I often think of Bob Dylan’s song years ago, about how they stone you when you’re doing this, they stone you when you’re doing that… “So I would not feel so all alone. Everybody must get stoned.”
        In his own crude way he stated an essential truth. Own little mountains of jealousy, insecurity, fear, and plain old ego, give us lots of rocks to throw — and we all do at one time or another. The paradox in our society is that people are being taught they should never get hit by stones — if they do they should demand their rights, cry for justice — yet we’re all so inclined to throw them.
        So we have the other paradox: while we teach today’s kids that it’s wrong to throw rocks and we should sympathize with the wounded, we also have to say, “This is Life. Everybody gets stoned. Just quit wailing, get back on your feet and move on.”
        (Please pardon me, Niall for leaving such long-winded comments on your blog. 🙂 )

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        • Interesting point and very true! That is why Dylan won the Nobel Prize 🙂 I guess the key is to have a good sense of self, and then the insults will hopefully not hurt as badly. The saddest thing is that we call it ‘human nature’. How ‘human’ or humanitarian is it…

          (I apologize too, Niall, for leaving long comments! )

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        • Our instincts and our advice can be so paradoxical sometimes. It’s hard to advise children to try to create a world where no-one throws rocks, and still prepare to deal with the thrown rocks. It’s like to you have to let go of the instinct to protect yourself from attack, to create a world where no-one attacks.

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          • We could get there. I have thought about this for a long time. I come to the conclusion it is possible to get there. Little children are very pure. They do not usually come up with ideas about attacking each other (nor racism, nor ethnic cleansing) unless some adult puts the idea in their head.

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          • You’re right: we do have to let go of that instinct. Jesus said it as “The Golden Rule”:
            “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
            Not “As you have been done unto,” nor “As you expect others are going to do unto you if you let them.”

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    • I agree, I think evolution has etched an inherent desire to find difference in others into us, probably to make our bonds with those in our group stronger, but it leads to prejudice. But I’d hate to think of a monocultural world, and am sad sometimes to see globalisation take us in that direction.

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      • I wouldn’t call this evolution. If I understand it rightly, evolution is an upward-moving thing, always toward improvement. Maybe we should call it devolution? 😉
        I fear a mono-cultural world would tend to make us intolerant of even very minor quirks. Seems the more diversity we can tolerate the kinder, better people we’ll be.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I suppose for me evolution can be upward, but also downward or sideways sometimes! I think our ancestors developed an instinct long ago to be wary of outsiders or anything strange, which protected them from potential harm. The downside of that is that it lingers in our mind in a tendency to see people different from us as “others.” And even though most of us can recognise this instinct and override it, some people go along with it, and use it as the basis for discrimination.


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