Today it is fashionable to contend that ethnic identity is a social construction. That fashion obviously has some genuine basis in reality. Univision host Jorge Ramos, a blue-eyed Mexican American, is considered a “person of color.” If his name was “George Romans” he would be coded as a white American simply on account of his physical appearance. This is due to the social construction of a Hispanic American identity, which has roots in decisions made by the United States government in ethnic classification in the 1960s. But this model of social construction allowing for plasticity is not universal. As outlined in The Cleanest Racist the North Korean national identity is strongly essentialist, to the point where even genetically close populations such as Japanese could never be part of the nation. Similarly, in Japan itself the native-born ethnic Koreans are still viewed as fundamentally guests in the Japanese nation. Both cases illustrate how social construction can impede rather than enable fluidity. Yet social construction as a total explanatory model has limits. Canada has the term “visible minority” to denote those populations which are distinct in origin from Anglophone and Francophone whites by virtue of their appearance. This is in contrast to groups like Ukrainian Canadians, which are minorities due to their chosen cultural distinctiveness.
When it comes to ethnic difference and conflict we can ascribe the divisions to both social and biological distinctions to varying degrees. In the mid-1990s there was a genocide in Rwanda. That genocide had an ethnic dimension, with conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutus being one cause. The Hutu regime which implemented the genocide against the Tutsis co-opted theories of biological difference and foreign origin pioneered by European scholars in the 19th century. Whereas these distinctions once justified Tutsi domination of the Hutu, now they served to mark off the Tutsi as an alien infestation. After the takeover of Rwanda by a Tutsi dominated rebel movement in the wake of the genocide there was an attempt to elide these deadly distinctions. The rationale is clear. Remove the ostensible basis for genocide, and you remove the risk of genocide. The argument that the Tutsi-Hutu distinction is a purely socially constructed European invention has now crept into the mainstream discourse, such as in the film Hotel Rwanda.