by Henry Yu

About Henry Yu

Henry Yu is Associate Professor of History and Principal of St. John’s College at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Thinking Orientals: Race, Migration, and Contact in Modern America.


The term “ethnicity” gained widespread currency in the mid- to late twentieth century, naming a process by which individuals or groups came to be understood, or to understand themselves, as separate or different from others. This meaning of “ethnicity” commonly referred to the consciousness of exclusion or subordination, though it also indexed social practices—language, religion, rituals, and other patterns of behavior—that define the content of a group’s culture. The spread of this theory of ethnic culture created two mutually exclusive, analytically separate categories: “ethnicity,” defined as cultural traits, was utterly divorced from the workings of the physical body, defined as “race.” When anthropologists such as Franz Boas (1940) of Columbia University and sociologists and anthropologists from the University of Chicago began to teach students in the early twentieth century that cultural characteristics were the most interesting social phenomena for study, they spread at the same time the idea that any attention to physical characteristics was intellectually inappropriate. Attacking justifications for racial hierarchy grounded in biology, social scientists used the concept of ethnicity as a weapon against racial thinking.