Review of Philip Q. Yang’s “Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches”

In Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches, Philip Q. Yang provides an excellent introduction to the ethnic studies as an academic discipline. Yang’s writing style is clear, accessible, and to-the-point, while the organization of the book overall is logical, flowing smoothly from one subject to the next.

The book begins with an overview of the evolution of ethnic studies – one that grew out of student protests in the 1960s – and then guides the reader through a number of topics relevant to the study of ethnicity and race in the United States. Sensibly, Yang limits his examples and conclusions to the United States; his intention is to provide students with a basis for understanding and engaging with issues of ethnicity and race in their current environment. (It is unclear, however, if the field of “ethnic studies” has taken hold as an academic discipline outside of the United States. The implication seems to be that at the time of writing it had not.)

In each chapter, Yang gives an overview of the topic, such as ‘theories of ethnicity’ or ‘ethnic segregation,’ and then proceeds to examine the theory, methodology, or issue from a variety of perspectives. I particularly appreciated Yang’s approach to explaining theories: he begins by defining an issue and its key terms, briefly stating the name of the theory, and a one- or two-sentence summary of the theory, then goes through each theory in more depth, before offering a brief critique or opposing viewpoint. This balanced approach to theoretical discussion is very useful, especially for students who may not have been exposed to evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of a theoretical argument.

The one potential weakness in this book is the distinction Yang attempts to make between the concepts of ethnic/ethnicity and race. While I recognize that both constructs can be difficult to define, I had hoped to come out of reading the book with a clear understanding of both concepts. In the Introduction, Yang offers the following:

Scholars have not yet reached an agreement on how to define [ethnic group]…in terms of the narrow definition, an ethnic group is a group socially distinguished, by others or by itself, on the basis of its unique culture or national origin…

According to this definition, ethnic group is defined by cultural characteristics (e.g., language, religion, customs) or by national origin…This determination can be made by others or by the group itself. (9)

While broad (although Yang sees it as a narrow definition), it at least gives the reader a way to identify what characteristics or criteria go into forming an ethnic group. Compare to how racial group is described:

However, according to this definition, whites are not an ethnic group, because they lack a distinctive national origin and do not have a uniform culture. Whites consist of many nationality and cultural groups…whites are a racial group. A racial group is a group socially distinguished, by others or by itself, on the basis of its unique physical characteristics such as skin color, eye color, hair color, facial structure, etc. Based on this definition, racial groups are defined physically and socially. Physical characteristics are the basis, but social determination is also important.

It should be emphasized that racial group categorization is mainly determined by the larger society and by the group itself rather than determined by purely biological factors. (9-10)

As a basic distinction, these definitions make some amount of sense. Ethnicity is comprised of multiple factors such as national origin, language, and other ‘cultural’ items; a racial group is not tied to one nationality or location but is related to physical characteristics such as skin color. Both can be assigned by larger society and/or chosen by the group. However, that raises a question for me – based on Yang’s descriptions is “African American” an ethnic group or racial group? Yang writes that according to the U.S. government, “black” or “African American” is a racial group, as are “Asian Americans,” “Native Americans,” and “white Americans” (10). I find this interesting because the second half of each of those groupings is “American,” which signifies a particular location and culture.

Yang’s comparison and explanation was mostly satisfactory until he offers the “broad” definition of an ethnic group as

“a group socially distinguished, by others or by itself, on the basis of its unique culture, national origin, or racial characteristics. The only difference between the broad definition and the narrow definition lies in that the broad definition includes racial or physical characteristics as a determining factor. In light of the broad definition, ethnic groups include racial groups” (11).

This indicates that there are scholars who see race or racial grouping as a subset of ethnic identity – which would seem to require another definition of race/racial group. Perhaps anticipating such a critique, Yang writes,

To distinguish between the two categories of ethnic groups, one may consider white Americans, black Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans as broad ethnic groups, while Irish Americans, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, and so forth may be labeled specific ethnic groups…Both racially defined ethnic groups and culturally defined ethnic groups are within the domain of ethnic studies. (11)

Yang also remarks that using the broad definition of ethnic group can “help us understand the process of ethnic formation and thus avoid unnecessary altercation over the complex and sometimes overlapping boundaries between a culturally defined ethnic group and a racial group” (11). While that may be true – I don’t have enough background on the issue – it seems to invite conflation of “ethnic” and “racial,” which troubles me.

Later chapters in Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches are devoted to exploring ethnic prejudice, ethnic segregation, ethnic discrimination, and racism. While the chapter on racism (Chapter 9) is clear on what behaviors and attitudes may be designated as racist, and the shifting meaning of the term racism in the United States, the underlying concept of race is not adequately explained in comparison to ethnicity.

Yang intends this book to fill a gap in the literature; as he explains in the Preface, he felt his introductory courses lacked a concise text that would introduce students to the field of ethnic studies. I came to this book out of a desire to better understand the nuances of studying ethnicity and race. My previous readings about issues of ethnicity and race have been scattered among readings on feminist theory, feminist methodology, and to a lesser extent, the study of Buddhism in the United States. As an introductory-level book, I found Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches quite helpful in clarifying my thoughts on ethnicity, race, and the study of Buddhism, and a useful departure point for more nuanced studies of race, racism, and ethnicity.

 

References:

Yang, Philip Q. Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

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