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date: 28 November 2020


The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English
Jenny StringerJenny Stringer, John SutherlandJohn Sutherland

The word ‘ethnic’ has a long history. In the Bible it is used of the ‘Gentiles’, that is, all those who are not Israelites. Later, it is used to define all those nations who are not Christians or Jews, who are therefore categorized as ‘heathens’ or ‘pagans’. In contemporary Western culture, the term is now used to describe a racial and cultural group, especially one that has migrated into a pre- existent other community, where the issue of integration between the two remains problematic. In this respect the old semantic association between ‘ethnic’ and ‘heathen’ or ‘pagan’ remains volatile, particularly where these terms are used as a vocabulary of discrimination from within the dominant community. Conversely, and especially in twentieth-century America, certain forms of ethnic expression celebrate the longevity of cultural roots in religions and myths held to be pre-Christian, as in the case of much contemporary Native American writing. The relationship between the ethnic and the dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestant community in America is further complicated by the fact that the dominant community was itself originally an immigrant community; and the later history of European migration to America, of Dutch and German Protestants, Scottish Nonconformists, Irish and Italian Catholics, and East European Jews has made the ingredients of the dominant American culture of the twentieth century diverse and multi-faceted. None the less, from the perspective of other ethnic groups, the dominant white culture of America is seen as exclusionist, another form of the imposition of power over the ethnic citizenry. However, since the 1970s, there have been strenuous institutional efforts to erase the conflicts of otherness inherent in this situation, to enfold the plethora of ethnic experience within the consciousness of mainstream American cultural life. A good example of this is in the endeavour to place ‘slave narratives’, such as ... ...

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