The continuing ethnic reformation of America


According to the Random House Dictionary, the word “polyethnic” means “inhabited by or consisting of people of many ethnic backgrounds” (Random House, PAGE). As our world becomes more and more a “global village,” individuals within that global village, or within their country, or within their own local community, can take several approaches to living within a polyethnic society. Some writers will dig down to their own ethnic roots and write from that ethnic experience, but in many case, the integration into the larger society, their isolation from it, or the cultural clashes as the two groups collide will mean that in today’s modern world, few people have their own culture only as an influence on them and their writing. As a result, we will often see the influence of multiple cultures in today’s literature.

Ethnic influences can surface in literature in several ways. One writer might write purely from his or her ethnic background, while another writer might write about the experience of blending into the larger society. Some literature will write about events as two differing cultures collide and what happens to people at those boundaries. The experiences of blending in or colliding with another culture are particularly likely to influence some writers in countries where immigration has been encouraged, so these cultural issues can be a prominent feature of some writing in the United States, a country where people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds live and work together.

A renaissance of the ethnic novel now galvanizes the continuing ethnic reformation of America. Even as America in turn transforms ethnic cultures, the emergence during the past twenty years of a new ethnic novel compels a reconsideration of what it means to be an American. Sam P. Girgus writes of a “renaissance of the ethnic novel,” works that require the reader to consider what it means to be “American.” Books like Beloved, written from the viewpoint of African slaves, and the works of Amy Tan, which tell stories of Chinese-Americans, have transcended cultural boundaries and read by Americans from both the authors’ subcultures and those who belong to the dominant culture in the United States.

Another country profoundly affected by polyethnism is South Africa. Colonized by Great Britain and The Netherlands, the Europeans held all the political and social power and instituted strict policies to try to prevent native and other ethnic cultures from influencing the European culture in any way. When this policy of apartheid crumbled, the interaction of cultures provided rich fodders for writers (Oliphant, PAGE).

In the United States, writers have a rich soup of cultures from which to draw as they work. In many places in the country, the obvious cultural distinctions are White and Black. However, the numbers of cultures represented in the United States in large numbers is staggering: there are the Native Americans, here before any Europeans butt subjugated by them and still struggling to emerge from that subjugation; Jews from all over the world, who within that large group have cultural experiences that unify them all to some degree, and yet also divided into subgroups depending on which larger culture they previously lived in; Chinese who have been here for generations after coming to help build the railroads and Chinese who are recent immigrants and have not yet been strongly affected by the larger American culture; other people from virtually every Asian country, each country with its own rich traditions; Hispanics who represent people from American territories, America’s enemies (ex: Cuba), Hispanics who are political refugees from Central America, Mexicans who came here either for a new life or to work temporarily before returning home, and virtually every other country on the planet.

Dolle (PAGE) emphasizes the influences these cultural histories have on all Americans. He points out that culture is not a static thing but a dynamic entity, constantly changing in response to influences from within and without. While one might think of him or herself as “White,” or Lutheran, or male or female, or “second generation Chinese,” or Bosnian, all of those labels tell only part of the truth of an individual. Is the Lutheran the child of immigrants from Germany? From Scandinavia? Is that person who self-describes as “second generation Chinese” a person looking to adopt the larger American culture, or trying hard to hold on to Chinese heritage? Does that person’s parents want that individual to assimilate or maintain family traditions? If a person self-describes as Bosnian, does this mean Bosnian as a sub-culture of central Europe, or Bosnian only in legal identity on the individual’s passport, technically coming from the country of that name but identifying with, say, Serbian culture?

Ultimately, the answers to these questions can only be personal. If a person could be called “fourth generation Irish,” have all influences from those roots faded? Perhaps the person has adopted a more culturally-blended way of retaining Irish identity, making a point to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and visiting Ireland to see the country of origin. But unless all of that person’s ancestors were also Irish, the person can’t claim to be 100% Irish, and what if some of those ancestors were from Northern Ireland while some were from the Republic of Ireland?

In many countries of the world today, and not just the United States, “polyethnic” means more than living in a culture where many cultures are represented. To some greater or lesser degree, it means that all the individuals in that culture have absorbed some aspect of the other cultures around him or her. In this global village, we are all polyethnic.


Dolle, Raymond F. 1995. “A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America. African-American Review, March 22.

Girgus, Sam B. 1993. “The new ethnic novel and the American idea.” College Literature, October.

Oliphant, Andries Walter. 2004. “Fabrications and the question of a National South African Literature.” Journal of Literary Studies, June.

Random House. Random House Unabridged Dictionary. New York: 1997.

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