Milton Alan Turner, OFLA Editor of Electronic Media
French and Spanish Teacher, Saint Ignatius High School

Nationality is often used to refer to the place or country where one is born. Citizenship is the political status one acquires within a state by birth or naturalization. Ethnicity refers to the cultural traits shared by a group of people, such as race, ancestry, religion, culture or language.

Nationality can have a chosen component as well as a biological component jus sanguinis or geographical component jus soli.  Most countries allow for naturalized citizenship or the ability to choose to be a citizen regardless of blood or place of birth.  There is even a concept of citizenship known as ius doni or “citizenship by investment,” by which one becomes naturalized by making a substantial economic donation or investment in the host country.

Nationality, like race, religion, and money, is a social construct.  Or in other words, as Max Fisher, Josh Keller, Mae Ryan and Shane O’Neill summarized in their 2018 video for the New York Times, “National Identity Is Made Up.”  Max Fisher calls national identity “the myth that built the modern world.”  Instead of identifying with a smaller group like a family or clan, through nationality, people now identify and feel an affiliation with a much larger group of essentially strangers.  Fisher explains that the idea of nation or country was created in the 19th century by combining “Language + Race + Borders.”  Fisher argues that a new kind of national identity was created in the United States in the 20th century that was based not on a language, race, and borders, not based on jus sanguinis or jus soli, but rather on an idea. But the idea that being American is indeed about race, religion, and language, is indeed based on blood and soil, also runs deep.” This is also compounded by the fact that to reinforce the idea or the myth of national identity, a contrast is often needed. An “other” must be created, identified and often vilified or demonized to complete the myth. This is particularly evident in difficult times. As Fisher notes, “when we feel threatened, it makes us want to humiliate and dominate the outsider.” 

Americans prefer to think that nationality is only tied to an idea, with the Fourteenth Amendment affirming the concept of jus soli, birthright citizenship. Immigrants can also become naturalized citizens regardless of their ancestry or place of birth.  The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor reported in his February 1, 2017 article “How do people define their national identity?” that “it turns out, for example, that most Americans don’t believe that where someone is born really defines whether they can be American or not. In fact, only a handful of the countries Pew surveyed thought this was important. And while America is a country well-known for its talk of values and God, most Americans don’t think that customs and religion are really important to being an American — and neither do most other countries.”

Taylor stated that the survey found that language, rather than birthplace, was the most important aspect of nationality.  Taylor said, “Pew’s study found that in every country its researchers looked at, language was what really bound its national identity. The highest result was found in the Netherlands, where more than 84 percent of the population believes it is vital to speak Dutch if you want to truly be Dutch. But in all countries, a majority said it was ‘very important’ to speak the national language.”

Social constructs can have reality.  Race may be a social construct and may not have a biological basis, but that has not prevented using it to privilege some and discriminate against others.  Money is a social construct, but having it or not having it has direct and tangible effects on our lives. Nationality and religion have no biological bases, but nations have been waging wars over these ideas for millennia.  Abstract ideas can have concrete effects on the world.

A simple trip to a grocery store can show how strong and pervasive the ideas of race and nation are.  Priya Krishna observed recently in August 10, 2021, The New York Times in the article entitled “Why Do American Grocery Stores Still Have an Ethnic Aisle?” that “at many grocery stores, a wholesale elimination of the ethnic aisle may not be easy, or even all that popular… In some ways, the ethnic aisle sums up the predicament of its suppliers, many of whom approach store buyers without the money often needed to get their products on the shelf. Corporations like Pepsi and Nestlé can afford to pay stores handsomely to ensure their products get prime placement on shelves and a presence in promotions. Some companies break out of the ethnic aisle only when larger companies acquire them. Others, like Goya and Maruchan ramen, are broadly recognizable, encouraging placement in both ethnic and other sections.”

Krishna quotes, “Errol Schweizer, who was the vice president of grocery at Whole Foods Market from 2009 to 2016, [who] said the ethnic aisle is part of ‘a legacy of white supremacy and colonialism’ built into the framework of the grocery business — starting with the low wages paid to hourly workers, who are often people of color, and the lack of diversity among store buyers. [Schweizer] said he and other employees frequently talked about eliminating the ethnic aisle at Whole Foods, but they couldn’t persuade the company to make such a major overhaul.”

Prishna added, “This month, the partners started the New American Table, a coalition of investors and entrepreneurs of color that will meet regularly with store buyers and brokers to make a case for a more inclusive grocery business… There are plenty of examples they can point to. In January, Sprouts stores started selling various Mexican cookies from Siete Foods in the cookie aisle. They quickly became the best-selling cookies there, according to a July report from Spins, a data technology company.”

Krishna concludes, “Adnan Durrani, the founder of Saffron Road, said his premade sauces like Thai red curry and tikka masala sell significantly better when incorporated with all the other sauces. It helps, he added that he has Americanized the names of some dishes: Aloo matar became Delhi potatoes. Dal makhani became Bombay lentils. Yet that is precisely why some purveyors want their products to remain in the ethnic aisle: They don’t want to dilute the foods’ identity in the effort to sell to a wide audience.”

The Opening Ceremonies of each Olympic Games begin with a parade of each country’s athletes entering the stadium under their individual flags behind their flag bearers. However, this Opening Ceremony parade is in sharp contrast with the Closing Ceremony, where the athletes “enter en masse and in no particular order.” According to the organizers of the Tokyo Games, “The idea of having all the athletes parade in no order comes from a young Chinese man, John Ian Wing, an apprentice carpenter in Australia for the 1956 Games in Melbourne.” As National Public Radio’s Bill Chappell reported in his August 8, 2021 story “Why The Olympic Athletes Don’t March Behind Their Own Flag At The Closing Ceremony” “with the [1956] Melbourne Games threatened by disarray, John Ian Wing, a 17-year-old Australian of Chinese descent, wrote to organizers with his idea for how to end the Olympics peacefully… The goal for the final parade, Wing said in his letter to Olympics officials, should be for the athletes to walk together — as ‘only one nation.’”

The Closing Ceremony is a wonderful metaphor for what we often wish to attain—a powerful recognition and celebration of our solidarity and commonality, regardless of blood or soil.  But unfortunately, this is still just an aspirational dream.  Most of our lives are still ruled by the principle of jus sanguinis, rule by blood—even our grocery stores. I’m still waiting for the day when adobo, ramen, and tikka masala are all no longer confined to the ethnic food aisle.

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