Gwen McKinney, president of Washington, DC-based McKinney & Associates.
Primetime entertainment is all the buzz as the fall lineup goes into full-throttle.
What does Anthony Anderson’s Black-ish and Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat have in common with Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away with Murder?
And what makes those new shows different from Homeland, Black List or the Good Wife?
If your answer is ABC Network—you scored an E.
If you responded ethnic entertainment—continue the quiz and earn extra credit by the end of this missive.
Ethnic programming? Ethnic markets? Ethnic media?
What is this E word anyway?
And who does it identify?
As one who makes my living engaging audiences around racial justice issues, I have a bone to pick with the contemporary usage of this six-letter word and its presumption of homogeneity among all people of color. Consider it a brand incursion on diversity.
Intended to draw unity among the multi-hues of our diverse nation, the “ethnic” label, at best, grates against all sensibilities of self-definition; at worst, etches shorthand code for the browning of America. Perversely, the label attempts to bring cohesion to populations from the “Global South”—immigrants and native-born alike—who inhabit the U.S.
What does this band of ethnics share in common? None are of European extraction. All happen to be non-white.
Merriam-Webster affirms ethnicity is universal: “of or relating to races or large groups of people who have the same customs, religion, origin, etc.; associated with or belonging to a particular race or group of people who have a culture that is different from the main culture of a country.”
The main culture of America? Is there such a thing anymore?
Why is an immigrant of the Dominican Republic or the Philippines “ethnic” while a German or Serbian is not? What makes the Dominican or Filipino more similar than the German or Serbian is different?
Do Greek and Italian ethnics in America have their respective communities of interest? And if so, why then wouldn’t we refer to Greek or Italian foods as “ethnic cuisine”?
And what about American Indian country? Are those people “ethnic” too? As most Native Americans will proclaim, their people are aligned by nations—not races or ethnicities.
So often people utter “ethnic” but rarely hear the injustice of the word. The label is as pejorative as it is imprecise. Like the “melting pot” concept, the “ethnic” modifier boils down real multiculturalism to a nondescript stew that denies the unique and special quality of each ingredient.
In our rapidly transforming nation, race and ethnicity have been reinvented through the prism of digital communications and multimedia. Despite the best efforts of market forces, the new “majority minority” nation cannot be defined by convenient batching and combining. Despite what the brand gurus attempt to dictate, the hues and contours of 21st century multiculturalism are shaped by a complex panoply of idioms, experiences and interests. Each should be seen and heard as they exist.
So if we abandon ethnic catchall descriptors, what terminology replaces it?
A simple solution: call them what they are. If a journal serves the Puerto Rican community, it’s a Puerto Rican newspaper—not ethnic media. If it’s a Korean American bistro, call it a Korean American eatery. And if a program casts a majority of African American actors, let’s dismiss the notion that the show is targeting some amorphous “ethnic” audience. Plain and simple, it’s a show that appeals to African American viewers.
As the dominant culture is pared down to a dwindling minority, there’s little room for easy labels that lump groups of different people and cultures into a single box. Let’s unbatch the “ethnic” banner. In an era of quick soundbites and tweets, this will challenge us to use more words.
In return, those words impart greater accuracy and respect for the separate and far-flung people they depict.
Gwen McKinney is president of Washington, DC-based McKinney & Associates, known for delivering public relations with a conscience—but not as an “ethnic” firm.