How do we show belonging? Ethnicity & Race.

Ethnicity & Race

Ethnicity & race – These topics are broad and complex, that’s for sure.  Ethnicity and race is about the experience of belonging to a social group with a shared biological, national or cultural tradition. Sounds simple but it is such a driver in our day-today worlds. The concept is fluid and can be broadly or narrowly defined. For example, Hyun-Ae has Korean heritage; she was born in Germany and is living in Zimbabwe. So many interesting currents in her identity formation. Sometimes there are smaller groups within larger ones, such as a Cherokee Native American whose heritage is significantly different from other North American tribes.

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Exploring these communities brings us into the beauty and complexity of history, mythology and artistic expression. Here is where cultural richness abounds. Group traditions are seen as vital to not only maintaining that element of identity but also to ensuring that generations to come understand and feel it in their bones as well. “Don’t betray your roots. Remember where you came from.” “Stick together.” “It will soon be up to you to carry the connections forward.”

Of course it isn’t always a pretty picture. Centuries of dominance, ethnic and racial wars and marginalization fill our history books and continue to thrive today. Stereotyping takes a toll on everyone involved. There have been many studies demonstrating the depth and impact of  these wounds. Change needs to happen. Battle plans for another site or another day.

"It took many years of vomiting up all of the filth that I had been taught about myself and halfway believed before I could walk around this earth like I had the right to be here."

James Baldwin

I believe that, no matter what, we all need to see and relish those aspects of our identity that make us different. We all need to belong and be special. Being with people who are like us - racially, gender, age, class, faith …. , gives us opportunities for deep dives into meanings, histories, strengths and challenges. Those shared songs or icons can take on more significance. We all hunger to meld into a bigger whole. 

Let’s fill our lives with appreciation of all of the cultures in full bloom - beginning with ourselves. Biases be damned, we’re off to the party.

{Ethnicity & Race} in Appearance & Fashion

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Welcome to the vast and wonderful world of ethnic and racial fashion. The most amazing array of variations await us at every turn. How much history goes into the kimono? Or the thobes or keffiyev of Saudi Arabia. Or the bright red shuka of the Massai … or the cowboy hat. One of the most powerful ways we have to express our belonging is through what we wear. Each culture has its own designs, shapes, colors that range from full traditional clothing to contemporary styles with hints and references that proudly keep these in our consciousness. We are proud.

Grooming & Hair

Each race or ethnic group develops approaches to daily grooming, finding ways that accent and leverage their unique skin tone, hair texture and other features – their own special kind of beauty. These aren’t seen as rules as much as sources of wisdom and pride.

Every ethnicity fosters profiles of extraordinary beauty and dignity. Masculinity and femininity are communicated by hairstyles and facial grooming. Men’s ethnic fashion might, for a while, support a certain beard shape. Women’s trends might favor specific hairstyles or colors. Even eyebrow control follows trends.

Often, people from other ethnic groups envy what they see – and do their best to re-create it. Way back in the 1960’s, Dave Clark’s American Bandstand featured African-American performers and Philadelphia teenagers dancing. This defined cool for a new generation and launched a trend. Kids in the white community got Afros – with mixed results – to try to replicate the look. And, today, one only needs to look at the sales numbers for hair straightening or curling products to appreciate how much effort (and money) we put into trying to make our hair do something against its nature. The cultural image we present matters to us – a lot.

We do this because we want to belong AND be special. Whether we like it or not, any grooming choice says something about who we are.

Tattoos, Scarification, Piercing

It is important to people in most cultures to provide some visible identifier – an indication of membership for all to see. The permanence of tattoos, piercings and scarifications make even bolder statements. Humans are endlessly capable of developing patterns and symbols to expand and reinforce a culture’s identity. It is incredible that – with just a few markings – we can tell if a tattoo hails from New Zealand or Africa or the Hawaiian Islands. And, even if one of those cultures is not in our personal heritage, many of us proudly wear them as a statement about our own values.

{Ethnicity & Race} in Music & Movement

We are musical creatures. It is like a rising tide inside us, making everything inside more fluid and connected.

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Songs and Singing

Cultures develop uniquely identifiable musical repertoires. Early works often carried the group’s history and values – stories in easy-to-remember forms, highlighting what is important and why. These are very ‘sing-able’ – and often leverage their unique instrumentation. Again, we can quickly identify the country or region after a few notes. These aren’t stereotypes as much as shorthand – a landing place from which to proceed.

Exposure to these cultural differences can build understanding. When Paul Simon introduced Americans to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, people revelled in this new musical paradigm. They got a taste of a different culture – just through the music.

Some of the quintessential American musical genres came from racial or geographic subgroups. Jazz, hip-hop and spirituals are but a few contributions and innovations the African-American community gave to the world. Many early Broadway musicals were written by members of the Jewish community who had a unique appreciation for the safety and opportunity America offered – the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Irving Berlin to name a few. God Bless America was so popular it almost replaced our national anthem.

Whenever a race or ethnicity celebrates ANYTHING, music carries much of the load. Old songs that bring the next generation into the fold. Songs to be sung together and music that gets people moving – TOGETHER. Music binds us; we see one another singing the same words we are singing – and we become one for those few minutes. We breathe together. We feel that same feeling – together.

Dance History and Traditions

Each ethnic group develops unique forms of dance and movement. It’s interesting to consider how geographically separated groups devised specialized moves and gestures. And over time these humble beginnings led to increasing levels of complexity and impact.

The circle. Perhaps it was a procession around a fire where it all began. But there is something about moving together in an endless loop that strengthens a community. People operate as one, maintaining contact with one another. These aren’t performances to watch – they are participative rituals.

Weddings and festivals often keep these traditions alive.

Individual forms of dance also vary greatly across races and ethnicities. Just like some birds perform elaborate and bizarre dances to attract a mate, people also have that mating work to do. It seems that each new generation, the group for whom finding a partner is paramount, develops new ways to demonstrate their fitness, readiness and appeal – to music.

Dance as a fine art. Each culture invests in choreographers and dancers who take their communities dance language to new heights – refined, stylized treatments performed by masters and enjoyed by audiences. Geisha from Japan, Cossack from Russia, Flamenco from Spain and Irish Step Dancing are just a few examples. All these performers provide a sense of pride in a person’s heritage.

When we culture hop and visit other communities, participating in these celebrations can bring hard reminders that what looks easy – is not. It might be tempting to think we are simply built differently – that’s why we can’t do it. But, instead, it is eons of lovingly and proudly handing down the traditions, family by family.

Unique Instrumentation

Here is where the differences across races and cultures explode with energy and mastery and passion. And where history jumps directly into people’s lives today. Often initially rooted in geography – making creative uses of local materials to build rhythms and whistles – these musical disciplines grew in complexity and influence over time. Group events were orchestrated and punctuated with percussion and melodies that brought people together spiritually and emotionally.

Russian balalaikas, Spanish castanets, German horns, African and Native American drums, Japanese koto or Cajun fiddle are just a few examples. Most of us can identify a culture after hearing just a few notes. We instantly picture the attire, vocal accompaniment, dance and movement. We are also likely to remember the details of where we were when we were first introduced to something so different from what we had known before.

For those who are native to this music, this is the sound of home. Just hearing the music can fire, not just the memories, but the emotions and feelings of connection again. Hearing the sounds of our childhood is a chance to revisit our earlier selves. It’s all still there, in our brains, when we want to visit.

Anthems & Nationalistic Songs

Nothing stirs patriotic feelings like national anthems and all the ceremonies associated with them. No matter where a person is in the world, when the music from their home country comes on, they feel a connection.

{Ethnicity & Race} in Storytelling & Language

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At the heart of every culture you will find stories about your group. The challenges it has faced – and survived. The gifts it brings to the world. Stories about heroes who model core group values. These tales are told from one generation to another, in books and in movies. Characters from these stories are often referenced and discussed to find relevance today.

Minority groups have a bigger hill to climb, since bookshelves and airwaves tend to carry stories the majority wants to hear. As a country, if a core value of the U.S. is its diversity and opportunity, it could flood the market with heroes and stories that honor those values. Representation that reflects all groups in heroic roles serves everyone well. But, even in a diverse world, children benefit from an abundance of stories (and images) in their homes about their group – on their bookshelves, coffee tables and watch lists. This supports a proud sense of belonging that can help them as they enter the wider wilder world.


Too often we dismiss the role that gossip plays in maintaining a culture. But gossip is actually like cultural law enforcement – in people’s homes – in storytelling form. It is important to all groups to define what behavior is expected from its members if they are to benefit from the safety and support of the group. Who gets talked about – and for what reason – provides guideposts about what is acceptable and what puts members at risk. Group shaming, some degree of whispers, shunning or marginalization are risks people face when they stray too far – when they threaten the group with their actions.  Each generation has to deal with concerned elders – seniors who worry that something vital is being lost. How many teens face furious or disappointed grandparents as they find their own way? Assimilation can be seen as a great risk – or a great advance. The stories in your group often try to steer people to maintain traditions.

Cultural Heroes

Heroes get talked about – a lot. Groups are quick to rally ’round sports stars or performers who are showing the world their competence and mastery. The Olympics provide all nations with a chance to compete – and win – on behalf of their country. And the musical world cherishes the surprising newcomer – the latest star.

Media in each country is covered in images and stories about their gallant athletes, bold new leaders and innovative musicians – citizens who reflect the strength and talent of their group. Stereotype enforcers – or busters. People who look like me starring on the world stage.

Heroes aren’t just characters with super-powers. Heroes can simply be the people who get a lot of attention. Who gets talked about? Often? Who keeps showing up on the front page – or the news? We can hyper-focus on heroes’ lives – what they wear, or drive, or say. Many musical or sports stars wouldn’t be identified as heroes – but if we focus on them, our children get the message that there is something essential or important about them. They rightfully assume there is something to aspire to.

We serve the next generation well if we find ways to populate our panoply of our cultural heroes with equal amounts of unique or special characters with characters who celebrate togetherness and belonging.


Obviously, language is a core differentiator – and the core binder. Instantly one can tell if someone belongs to the group.

There are always rich differences, not just in the vocabulary, but in the way life is viewed and interpreted. Adages, metaphors and humor all reflect the culture as well, informed by distinctly different points of view.

Even within a language it is not one-size-fits-all. Regional differences make it possible to identify which part of the country someone is from. These differences can be the subject of teasing. As a ‘Mainah’ myself, I do pahk my cah.

Cultures abutting one another in a region or even a neighborhood, often build language bridges. Conversations can be peppered with newly developed common words.

How we speak tells our story. 

Ethnic Pride Storytelling

Every ethnic group is proud of its heritage and uniqueness. As children grow up, it is understandable that parents focus on how special their group is. “Because we are ____, here’s how we do things.”

Encouraging kids to explore how other groups do things gives us opportunities to explain the WHY behind each tradition.

Gestures & Animation

Partner the spoken word with gestures and you have a fuller experience of the culture. Words said quietly from a distance might be a cultural cue. Highly animated and in the listener’s face? A different culture.

{Ethnicity & Race} in Theater & Rituals

Acting is not pretending. We act our age. We act like a manager – or a waiter – or a diva. We actively choose how we behave in our lives.

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Traditions in any culture provide a rules starter kit. No one needs to start from scratch. 

As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything… how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl… This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition… Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Written by Jerry Bock.

Each race, ethnicity and nationality has been fed and formed by traditions. These are like a playbook – a script – guiding how we act with one another.

Rituals & Ceremonies

Rituals and ceremonies bring generations together and are seen as vital to living a good, connected community life. These events are the heartbeat of groups – coming together intermittently to celebrate what is important. Time to bring out the African fabrics, or the lederhosen – or …. 

Marriages – Each culture builds layers of symbolism into wedding processes and ceremonies – symbolism that reinforces cultural history and values. Communities gather to celebrate the promise of another generation. Happy couples ensure long-term survival of the culture. Handfasting. Jumping the broom. Breaking of the glass. Just a few of the deeply significant – and ubiquitous – cultural traditions. Details matter to us.

Birthdays are celebrated in groups so the individuals can feel community connection and support. There is nothing quite so special as the warm attention of your group celebrating you on your birthday. These traditions are important to community members too – sharing music and moments make us all happier – and healthier.

Sometimes the rituals associated with ethnicities relate to a country’s geography and physical environment as much as to their culture or language. All traffic stops when the sheep march through the town. Harvests – whether for food or wine – bring neighbors together. These cycles and events put us all into the space and time continuum. We know where we are.

How We Act

When we are in our home culture, we relax with one another and develop shorthand and rhythms. A visitor would be well aware that they are out of their own element. We don’t need to go out of our home country, or even the neighborhood, to experience a different culture.

When we are members of a minority group, we are often on high alert to the broader cultural norms. Of course, we all align much of our daily behavior to fit within the dominant culture. It just makes things easier. We adjust how we act. Sometimes called code-switching, it can provide a level of efficiency and ease. But it can also be exhausting, especially if this is being done out of fear of ridicule or being ostracized.

Those who make these kinds of adjustments in how they act can sometimes face consternation from the elders in their family, fearing they are abandoning their own heritage. “Who do you think you are?” Living in multicultural environments isn’t always easy.

Etiquette & Social Protocol

When someone is in their home culture, they know what to do. There’s no need to wonder. Handshakes and greetings – robust or quiet? Slight bow or head nod? When to hug – or not. When do you hold the door for someone else? How much eye contact?

There are many, sometimes subtle, differences across cultures. When a child grows up somewhat insulated, they can experience alternative approaches as wrong – or rude. But if they are helped to understand the purpose and values behind each gesture, they can more easily explore the messages behind them.


Holidays provide racial and ethnic communities with many opportunities to celebrate specific heroes or values. With weeks of anticipation and preparation, children are bathed in the community’s language, music, dance, colors, history, food and theater. Parades can be such an exciting way to bring communities together to celebrate – while also showing the rest of the world why the group is so special. Chinese New Year. Greek Heritage Day. Mardi Gras.

Display of Emotions

Often ethnicities develop norms related to the expression of emotions. Some cultures are demonstrative and robust in their expressions – others more consistently subdued. These expectations tend to align with gender, as well. When there is a “violation,” the group sometimes steps in to model the more appropriate approach. Someone who appeared to get a chilly (quiet) welcome, may get heartier hugs from others. Or, when there is too much drama in the room, the group may quietly divert attention – the voices extra hushed. Balance is restored. A lesson has been given.

Overall Demeanor

People within each ethnic group often carry themselves in a similar way. The stride, posture, eye contact, smiling impulse and personal space expectations come together, creating a shared climate or mood. Some cultures are more demonstrative; others are more reserved. Some say Americans smile too much – that it feels inauthentic. But, because the United States has more diversity than many other countries, smiling has developed as an impulse to show good intentions. Norms are just how we do things around here.

Cross-Cultural Business Protocol

Although most business practices have become universal, there are still significant differences with each border you cross. Negotiating styles, greetings, giving and receiving business cards and levels of directness all vary. Protocol generally recommends that the visitor operate in accordance with local customs – or at least make a respectful effort to comply. Ignorance of local norms can be experienced as insensitive and rude. Not a good way to begin a relationship.

These norms are often linked directly to gender roles. Women from the western traditions occasionally face experiences in other cultures that feel limiting or even disrespectful. Finding the balance – finding a respectful and accommodating path – can be a challenge. An American woman executive was ‘awarded’ a customized apron at a business event in Japan. What to do? At the end of the day, these bumps simply highlight the importance of cultures. Good intentions come through.

Religious Services

Although most religions are global, there are significant regional or ethnic differences. A Christian service in Denver will differ from a Christian service in Atlanta or Madrid or South Korea. Each region or ethnicity weaves its own traditions, aesthetics and values into the celebrations. Although the service itself remains recognizable, you will definitely know where you are and will feel the culture. Group gatherings bring the differences into high definition.

Gender Roles

Ethnic and racial groups often articulate clear expectations of behavior for men and women. These can include who initiates or leads activities, how to show respect and deference and appropriate greetings.

Sometimes these role differences are profound – such as who bears responsibility for different aspects of life or who can marry whom. Others can be so subtle that outsiders may not even recognize that something has just transpired.

Because we are bathed in these cultural expectations from infancy, they reside deep within us. Moving across the globe doesn’t erase them. We can choose to live by a different code of behavior but we carry the impulses for the rest of our lives, feeling just a little bit guilty with each breach.

Naming Conventions

Often members of a racial or ethnic community choose names for their children that reflect the culture and history. Aponi or Cheyenne. Kofi or Moesha. Alfredo or Bella. This can serve as a proud and early identifier for the rest of the world to see.

{Ethnicity & Race} in Visual Arts

We absorb images as fast as the eye can see, sometimes zipping right past consciousness. Just too much to process too quickly. We may get an impression. A feeling.

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Curating Living Space

We each create our home world – the surroundings in which we relax, connect and rebuild. Often we populate this space with images and mementos that inspire us and remind us about the people who are important to us. Just seeing images in the background of our lives gets into our subconscious. This is especially important for minority races and ethnicities who navigate in the dominant culture all day.

Children need to see evidence that people who look and sound like them are “present.” Who do they see on the walls? Magazine covers? Bookshelves? What music is the soundscape of their early lives? Soon enough they will be in that outside world, but it is great to know that they already have some sense of the fullness of their own heritage.

Symbols & Images

Zuni fetishes are a great example of the power of imagery. Each animal figure brings people into its unique strengths and characteristics. They can be conjured up when the situation demands. The same is true for other items – other favorite things. We get real strength just by seeing and holding reminders of people who lead the way. Or pictures of grandpa. Or that note from a hero.

There is so much history and depth and fun to be had by understanding our heritage. Get it front and center in our lives. Cultural dietary guidelines.


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