Commodify Your Descent


Everyone was shocked when the Democrats picked a Jew, and a religious one at that, to run with bland WASP poster boy Gore. The decision felt calculated—too calculated. You could imagine the campaign strategists sitting around brainstorming: “We need to spice it up, add a little diversity, but not too much . . . I know . . . we’ll get a Jew!” And it worked: Time magazine put Gore and Lieberman on their cover with the headline “Chutzpah!” meaning, of course, that Gore was really the one with chutzpah. By picking Lieberman, a symbol of difference, Gore also became “different,” and gutsy for being so. It’s a decision comparable to Dunkin’ Donuts marketing their bagel with schmear to Midwestern farmers or Salem cigarette ads saying “It’s not what you expect,” then confronting you with . . . surprise! . . . an Asian woman! Images of difference are being utilized more than ever to sell things in this country. And it’s this strange realm where ethnicity meets product that Boston University history professor Marilyn Halter brings us into.

In Shopping for Identity, Halter examines the machinery behind the big business of “Ethnic Marketing.” She uses marketing data—charts breaking down what kind of sneaker each ethnic group wears or who uses sugar substitutes, careful studies pokerfacedly stating absurd facts—to show how business has employed tools of sociology to sell product: “Preliminary findings revealed that African Americans have a lower incidence of [razor blade] purchase, a pattern that has been tentatively linked to data showing that this population suffers from the painful condition of razor bumps.” Blacks become non-razor-buying group A; Latinos, tennis-sneaker-wearing group B. From one perspective this attention can be seen as more inclusive—ethnic groups are no longer being neglected by mainstream culture. But it’s also hard to see how determining images of minorities based on their grooming habits can be at all progressive.

Halter sees it both ways: “consumerism simultaneously disrupts and promotes ethnic community.” The example of the Bacardi-sponsored Folk Arts Fair in Puerto Rico illustrates this contradiction. Despite its initial objective to make people associate Bacardi rum with Puerto Rico rather than Cuba, the fair “soon became known as a high-quality event, one that was not tainted by commercialism.” But there was also a flip side: Bacardi convinced the government to agree to a stringent screening process allowing only “authentic artists” to exhibit their works on the fairgrounds. In essence, although the company supported the arts community, it also drew boundaries that hadn’t existed before, defining what was and wasn’t authentic in order to promote its product.

This irony—an advertiser’s idea of ethnic “authenticity” used to sell culture back to the ethnic community itself—is a theme Halter plays over and over. She devotes a good portion of the study to the consumer habits of second-and third-generation Americans—a group whose ancestors were strongly encouraged to assimilate but who are now susceptible to a phenomenon she calls “the romance of ethnicity.” Whether it’s a Lower East Side festival that advertises pickles and kosher ice cream or an album called Gaelic Roots or a guided trip back to the homeland, Halter asserts that much of this rediscovery is found through the purchase of some kind of product.

Of course, serious ethnic organizations succeed outside the marketplace. But for every Yiddish Book Center, there’s going to be a My Yiddisheh Workout tape; for every Irish Cultural Center, an Angela’s Ashes tour of Ireland. The most unusual thing about Halter’s argument is that she doesn’t condescend to the latter examples, the “market” versions of ethnicity, by either laughing them off as harmless and labeling them kitsch, or reviling them for cheapening something authentic.

Halter ultimately thinks that participation in the market can strengthen rather than dilute identity. It definitely takes chutzpah for a social scientist to veer off cultural studies’ beaten path to make this claim. But Halter’s argument becomes reductive when she starts speaking in glowing terms of the market as “the great leveler,” a place where anyone can tap into a different culture as easily as they buy their breakfast cereal. By envisioning ethnicity as a product on the shelf of one big multiculti superstore, Halter starts sounding like what she’s trying to take apart—promotional copy.