Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Ethnicity vs. Nationality or Not All Africans Are Black

One of the themes in Mississippi Massala is that the ties of ethnicity trump the ties of nationality. Within the first five minutes, we find out that “Africa is for Africans- black Africans,” which means that Africa is not for those who have African nationality, but only for those who are ethnically African. This statement illustrates the complex distinction between ethnicity and nationality as a well as a simple truth- not all Africans are black, and not all blacks are African (this statement works with any combination of ethnicity and nationality).
My ethnicity is the very generic “white” or Caucasian (although for the sake of this class I think I will take to referring to myself as caucASIAN-American, you know, just to belong). I do not identify (nor am I identified by others) as being of Northwestern European descent (although the blond hair and blue eyes give away the Scandinavian part of my ancestry); I’m just white. And I was born and currently reside in America, which makes my ethnic and national identification pretty straight ahead – I am a white American. Which really is one adjective too many. I could just as easily say that I am American, and since it lacks a hyphen, it is assumed that I am white. But that is a whole other topic, so let me move on and say that to be American as a nationality is fairly easy to understand: someone either born in America or that has lived there long enough to identify it as home. But only Native Americans can claim to be ethnically American, and that is not the same thing as what people mean when they say that someone is American. Thus, the term “American” is understood to singularly refer to nationality.
But a place like India has a far more complicated relationship between ethnicity and nationality. The term “Indian” has more definitions than the term “American” does. When Mina (who, by the way, is so good-looking that she looks “like side of ‘Lord have mercy’ wrapped up in some ‘Help me Jesus’”) says she’s Indian, she could be speaking about her ethnicity, her nationality, or both. It is quite obvious that she is ethnically Indian (except to Tyrone, who initially thinks she is Mexican), but by nationality she can only claim Uganda (her place of birth) or American (her current place of residence); she has never been to India. So when Mina tells Demetrius’ grandfather that she is Indian, she is referring to ethnicity and not nationality, something that cannot be done with “American.”
“Africa is for Africans- black Africans.” Despite being born in Uganda, Mina cannot claim to be wholly Ugandan because she is of a different ethnicity; she is not a black African. Part of her identity may be Ugandan, but another part is Indian, and someone could argue, if they were so inclined, that the film is about trying to reconcile those two different parts and finding a way for them to co-exist while making room for yet another part of Mina’s identity, as an American, and that part is gaining on the others quickly. She is “d. all of the above.”
There is a wholeness of belonging that having a complicated identity prevents that is behind the racial hierarchy in Mississippi that Deborah explained in her blog, as well as the ethnic nationalism of Idi Amin. In Mississippi, the whites belong most wholly, with the blacks and the Indians (“If you’re not white, you’re colored”) brawling it out for second place, while in Amin’s Uganda, blacks belong most fully, and everyone else just has to get out. In both places that Mina has lived, she has not fully belonged due to her differing ethnicity and nationality.
It is important to understand that these terms like “Indian,” “African,” and “American” are not nice and tidy; they are messy. If we do not accept how complicated and resistant to clearly-defined labels identity is, then we accept and reinforce stereotyping that paints people with only the broadest possible strokes. And if you are content to do that, then what are you doing reading a blog from a class about Asian-American literature anyway?


SamFelsing1 said...

I think you’re very much on to something when you say that the film is about trying to make all the pieces of identity fit together. I agree that Mina is trying to fit the extra piece of American in her. I would however argue that this struggle to accept one’s identity doesn’t rest solely with Mina. I think everyone in that film was trying to accept the different pieces of their identity. Julius’s family called themselves African, but they admitted to never going there. They constantly have to struggle with the fact that they are Black people in a white man’s world. Mina’s father is obsessed with Uganda, though he doesn’t accept that the fact that he isn’t apart of Uganda until the end of the film. He realizes that his home is “where ever the heart is.” Thus, many around her have to accept something about their identity and background.

lauren_oliver said...

For people of color living in the United States it can never be as simple as being American. The term American has historically and continually referred to “White”. In the 19th and 20th Centuries in order to gain citizenship into this country one had to prove that they were White.
For people of color you are never just an American, you are a hyphen American. The preservation of culture is they only way that you can truly stay connected to who you are. In Meena’s case she her ethnicity is Ugandan and she grew up speaking Swahili, but she is an Indian Girl. We are never told of Meena’s Indian Heritage.
Is she Punjab, Hindi or Bengali? We are never told, but she is still Indian no matter where she grew up or where she lives, just as you are White in America, South Africa, or Japan. For Meena as well as Demetrius how they view themselves is how they fell about themselves, because there is no escaping their color, so why hide from it?

Max said...

Lucas, "American" is a lot broader than the United States; it encompasses everything from Northernmost Canada down to Chile (Southern America). Saying that "American" only means "from the United States" negates half a continent. The term "American" refers to people from both North and South America, and although people tend to use it to describe a white citizen of the good ol' US of A, it has much broader implications, both nationally and racially, than are pointed out here.

Lucas said...

I am totally on board with you from an academic stance.

However, when "E.T." plays in a movie theatre abroad, it is called an "American" movie. When "Y Tu Mama Tambien" plays worldwide, it is a "Mexican" film, not an "North American" film. When Ichiro Suzuki came from Japan to play "American" baseball, he did not go to the Mexican leagues.

So yes, North and South America are continents that include many countries, all of which can claim to be "American." But I see no examples of the term "American" being understood to mean anything other than "From the U.S." in society as a whole, both domestically and internationally.

I'm not trying to say what "American" is, only what it is understood as in every situation I have ever personally come across, and certainly how the characters in "Mississippi Masala" understand it. There may be sources that use the term "American" just as you expressed it, but since I have not come across them, I can't really speak about them.