This week I read Harris and Findlay’s 2014 article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution: “Is Ethnicity Identifiable? Lessons from an Experiment in South Africa.” They ran an experiment among Xhosas in the Eastern Cape, having them guess the ethnicity of actors in a series of photos and videos in different experimental conditions. They found that respondents performed abysmally in correctly identifying ethnicity (see Table 1 from p.15 of their work, reproduced below), but also that those who identified more strongly with their ethnic group performed slightly (although not much) better.

Their results are further evidence that ethnicity is not always something that can be easily identified visually. The best results obtained in their experiment were Xhosas identifying Xhosas, but even then, they were right less than half the time. My guess is that replaying this experiment in ten or even five years will result in even poorer guesses from respondents. Consider the logic: ethnicity is usually considered to be a human social construct based on characteristics of descent that include such things as skin tone, hair type, facial features, language, birthplace, and surname.1 In the past (and today of course), people relied on variation in these characteristics to differentiate, and indeed discriminate, against individuals who visually represented “the other group(s).” In many parts of the world, the United States being one, relying on these characteristics of descent is becoming increasingly unfeasible. If subjects in Harris and Findlay’s experiment performed so poorly in judging between groups of pretty diverging histories and languages, one can imagine that Americans might do even worse. The superficial cues that may have appeared so relevant before such as skin tone are becoming more ambiguous after years of intermarriage, immigration, and assimilation among differing ethnic groups. Indeed, who gets to be called Black or White is increasingly debated. Even in my non-political science NBA fandom, I see examples of this all the time. For example, Shaquille O’Neil once referred to himself as “the Black Steph Curry.” When his cohost, Kenny Smith, told him that Curry was Black, O’Neil laughingly disagreed saying “I’m Black! Steph is light-skinned.” Although perhaps in jest, O’Neil here is relying on a descent-based cue. Or take sport’s reporter Chris Broussard’s multiple attempts to explain to his audience that he is not White, as people often mistake him for. Both examples speak to the fact that skin tone and colour can vary considerably even within an ethnic group, and thus often cease to be useful differentiating descent-based characteristics.

Controversially, this ambiguity in membership rules has opened the door for individuals who would usually be considered White to claim to be African American. Think of Jessica Krug, the George Washington professor who confessed to “posing as a Black women for her entire career” or Rachel Dolezal, the president of her local branch in the NAACP in Spokane. These are two individuals who identify or have identified as African American despite not having any ancestry from Africa. In the Guardian article I’ve linked to, Dolezal gives us a clue into how race and ethnicity works for her:

“For me, how I feel is more powerful than how I was born…This is not something that I cash in, cash out, change up, do at a convenience level…if somebody asked me how I identify, I identify as black. Nothing about whiteness describes who I am.”

This is ethnicity based on personal choice and psychological feeling rather than of possessing characteristics of descent. Although, interestingly enough, Dolezal did make an effort to alter her appearance to fit in with her assumed ethnic identity. This included tanning her skin darker and wearing her hair in braids.

If such examples become more common, it will obviously make descent-based cues less meaningful in terms of race and ethnicity. It will be even harder to visually assess ethnicity since ethnicity will be more akin to a choice for some individuals. The difficulties in ascertaining ethnic identity superficially mean that perpetrators of ethnic-based discrimination will have to seek less obvious cues–perhaps dress, accent, and even music choice? Harris and Findley touch on this peripherally on p.7 when they say “potential perpetrators of violence are especially likely to attempt to distinguish among groups if the costs of making a mistake are very high.” Returning to the South African context in which their work is placed, their article reminded me of the South African author Herman Charles Bosman’s story (Marico Scandal, 1947). It tells of an Afrikaner community who exile one of their members (Gawie Erasmus) because they suspect he is not fully White. Consider this scene from the book where Koos Deventer is discussing Erasmus’ ambiguous ethnicity to the narrator:2

“The trouble with Gawie Erasmus” said Koos Deventer, “is that he is not really a white man. It doesn’t show in his hair or his fingernails, of course. He is not as coloured as all that. But you can tell it easily in other ways…he even sleeps with a blanket over his head.”

To which the narrator says in an aside:

“It struck me that Koos Deventer’s statements were rather peculiar. For, according to Koos, you couldn’t tell that Gawie Erasmus was coloured just by looking at his hair and fingernails. You had to wait until Gawie lay underneath a blanket, so that you saw nothing of him at all.”

In the case of Gawie Erasmus, the costs associated with correctly ascertaining his ethnicity were enormous–whether he would be allowed to live as a member of the community. And so, the community members go to ridiculous lengths since visual, descent-based cues were uninformative; to the point where they are investigating his sleeping habits to determine ethnicity.

It strikes me that this short story illustrates well the other implication from Harris and Findlay’s work. That is, that those who are stronger ethnic identifiers are also more likely to correctly identify other ethnic group members, even if it involves such unconventional methods as Bosman’s Marico farmers practiced. Their ethnic identity as White Afrikaners was profoundly important to them, and they went to incredible lengths to prevent any “defiling” of that identity by members of other ethnicities trying to enter their group.

In any case, our current era certainly is a fascinating one for scholars interested in studying race or ethnicity as a social identity. Given that identities of all types are more fluid than they have ever been (think gender identities for example), it will be interesting to see how this new fluidity affects racial and ethnic identities, which were previously regarded as quite rigid ascriptive identities.

  1. Chandra, K. (2006). What is Ethnic Identity and does it matter? Annual Review of Political Science, 9(1), 397–424.↩︎

  2. For readers unfamiliar with South African racial demographics, “coloured” was a colloquial label given to persons of mixed-race heritage during the colonial era, which subsequently became institutionalized by the Apartheid’s government’s 1950 Population Registration Act. The label has persisted even after the fall of Apartheid, including in self-identification, although there is increasing contestation about its appropriateness and use (see this BBC feature for example) ↩︎