Ethnic Literature

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The Power in a Name

The term “ethnic” when in conjunction with the word “literature” in the academic discourse community of students, often brings out mixed feelings of excitement and dread. On the one hand, students understand that they will be getting away from the canonical American literature – which can equal boring in their eyes; on the other hand, students interpret the term “ethnic literature” to mean distinctive – which can equal confusing or ambiguous – and perhaps at times not relatable because it is outside their scope of experiences.

Perhaps before jumping into why it matters, the term “ethnic literature” should be defined first and because I am still learning how to interpret this term myself, I searched for a suitable one I could agree with. I found one in an article entitled “Assessing Teachers’ Knowledge of Multi-Ethnic Literature”, and the article actually used another source themselves to come up with a workable, layman’s definition. Ethnic literature as defined by D.E. Norton (as the article’s source) is, “Literature about racial or ethnic minority groups that are culturally and socially different from the white Anglo-Saxon majority in the United States, whose largely middle-class values and customs are most represented in American literature” (qtd. in Hager & Thompson 22). I think this definition works well to define what ethnic literature is on a surface level, but the more I dig in, I feel that this idea goes much deeper.

I asked myself, who can write about ethnic literature? Can anyone just pick up a pen so to speak and tell a story about a young Japanese boy, or a Hispanic family? Can an African-American writer write about Hispanic or Chinese people and claim it is ethnic literature? And the answer to myself is no. Why? Because unless that African-American has been submersed in the Hispanic or Japanese culture from the time of childhood, how are they going to capture the very essence of being, thinking, and living day-to-day...
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