Waters, M.C. 1996. “Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only?”

Waters, Mary C. 1996. “Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only?” In Origins and Destinies: Immigration, Race and Ethnicity in America. Ed. S. Padraza and R. Rumbaut. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Press.

The ability to “choose” ethnicity seems to counter the fixity of ethnic identity as familial, ascribed, based in ‘blood’.  Ethnicity as a belief in common ancestry – social rather than biological phenomenon (Alba 1985, 1990 etc). Ethnic variation based on institutional and individual practices- changing political borders, intermarriages, political allegiance (kx ^oppressions and falling out?). Racial “passing” as situational, but ethnic “passing” is not widely studied.

“The two major types of options White Americans can exercise are (1) the option of whether or not to claim any specific ancestry, or just to be ‘White’ or American , [Lieberson (1985) called these people ‘unhyphenated Whites’] and (2) the choice of which of their European ancestries to choose to include in their description of their own identities” (199). Due to social mobility, immigrant assimilation, political/economic power of Whites in US.

Use of symbolic ethnicity (Gans 1979) to “refer to ethnicity that is individualistic in nature and without real social cost for the individual”. Ethnicities as leisure activities – voluntary ethnic aspects (Waters 1990), use of special occasions, media constructions, intermittent social activities or family traditions to “choose” a practice of ethnicity, when situations call for it, where ethnicity does not have to admit or participate in ethnicity unless they choose to – a White phenomenon.  “Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and American Indians do not have the option of symbolic ethnicity at present in the United States” (200).  (kx ^ not sure I agree completely with this). Very big difference between individualistic nature of symbolic identity and socially-enforced racial identity.

“When White Americans equate their own symbolic ethnicities with the socially enforced identities of non-White Americans, they obscure the fact that the experiences of Whites and non-Whites have been qualitatively different in the United States and that the current identities of individuals partly reflect that unequal history” (202).

Pluralistic views often ignore social, political, and economic exclusions and oppressions. “The paradox of symbolic ethnicity is that it depends upon the ultimate goal of a pluralist society, and at the same times makes it more difficult to achieve that ultimate goal” (206).


Alba, Richard D.  1985. Italian Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Alba, Richard D. 1990. Ethnic Identity: The Transformations of White America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gans, Herbert. 1979. “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2(1): 1-20.

Lieberson, Stanley. 1985. Making It Count: The Improvement of Social Research and Theory. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


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