Sunday, January 07, 2007

Ethnicity, citizenship, and culture

This is not so much in connection with the previous conversation about ethnicity as in connection with the various discussions about whether or not an immigrant can become a Finn. Most people seem to discuss the concpet Finn (a Finnish citizen) vs. Finn (person of Finnish ethnicity/culture). I think they are confusing the issue, because there are clearly three different concepts here: citizenship, ethnicity and culture.

1. Citizenship is a legal concept, and normally a binary one. Either you are a citizen, or you are not. (There are exceptions to this binariness, such as people who are nationals but not citizens of the USA, or the fact that some nations ban naturalized citizens from some high political offices, but for the most part citizenship is binary.) One person can have one citizenship, or several, or none at all. A person is usually either born with a citizenship/citizenships or acquires it through living in the country legally for a certain amount of years without causing trouble and then applying for it.

2. Ethnicity is a genetic or mythologically-genetic concept, in which Finns, for example, are descendants of of ancient Finnish tribes. (In practice, or course, the descendants of immigrants "blend" into Finnish ethnicity after suffuciently many generations.) Unlike citizenships, which are added to each other (a person with a French and a Finnish citizenship is not half a French citizen and half a Finnish citizen, but a full citizen of each), ethnicity is a single pie that can be divided in parts. A person whose one parent is ethnically French and one is ethnically Finnish is ethnically half-French and half-Finnish (they can, of course, choose to identify themselves with just one of these cultures, or both, or neither). Immigrants obviously do not become ethnically Finnish unless they were born so. Their descendants tend to become purely ethnically Finnish by the time the foreign ancestry is forgotten.

Unlike the existence of ethnic groups as such, individual ethnicity has a rather strong objective component to it, but in reality it's often best to take people's word for it, because guessing it is a rather uncertain business. People generally guess others' ethnicity by looks and name, with the result that a person one of whose grandparents is Bengali is identified as not-quite-Finnish easier than a person one of whose grandparents is Norwegian, and a person whose paternal grandfather is Spanish is idenitied as part-Spanish with more likelihood than a person whose maternal grandmother is Spanish.

Ethnicity often does have real genetic ramifications that have to be taken into account. If two Ashkenazi Jews are planning to have a baby, you do test them for Tay-Sachs disease, or at least you should, and if you are bringing a cake to a party full of ethnic Finns you do use low-lactose milk products in it, because you know that some of them will be lactose-intolerant.

3. Culture, or belonging to a particular culture, is a very complicated concept, and not a very clear one, but it is the most important one when speaking about whether of not immigrants will be able to assimilate and whether or not they will cause trouble. A foreigner can become culturally Finnish quickly, slowly or not at all, and it depends very much on the person him/herself. Culture is neither a binary concept, nor a one 100% pie to be divided between different cultures: a person can be born into one culture, or several, acquiring a new culture is a process that happens bit by bit, losing an old one is a much slower process that also happens bit by bit.

Concepts like "Finnish culture" are also somewhat difficult to define, because they mean different things to different Finns, and one has to think about how mainstream or non-mainstream a thing should be to be included. Is, for example, the culture of Finnish Roma a subset of Finnish culture, or should it be defined as its own thing.

I use "a person's culture" here to describe a skill: a knowledge and understanding of a particular culture, and ability and willingness to function according to its rules. Self-identification is a different issue: one can be perfectly capable of functioning and willing to function as a Finn, a German and a Brit but choose to identify with only one of the above. Sometimes people also choose to identify with a particular culture without actually having the requisite skill.

Sometimes cultures are badly incompatible, in the sense that things that are mandatory or highly desirable in one culture are unacceptable in the other. I think that most cultures disapprove to some degrees of their members acquiring other cultures, but some do so more than others and some less.

I think that when talking about the assimilation of immigrants the important questions are 1) whether they are open to the acquisition of a new culture at all, 2) whether their old culture has many things that are totally incompatible with the new culture, and 3) whether they will be willing to solve these conflicts in favor of the new culture. Ethnicity and even identity issues are a lot less relevant.

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