Demographic Change, White Fear, and Social Construction of Race

Two or three weeks ago, somewhere between Carter Dome and Mount Hight in the White Mountains of New Hampshire my friend posed a thought experiment to me. It’s one that I have heard dozens of times whether at a bar top, a fire pit, or an inflatable tube on the Pemigewasset River. It goes something like this.

Note that this is rather extreme example and may not be comfortable for some readers. But thought experiments are supposed to be uncomfortable.

“Take the country Iceland, it has a small population of about 350,000. Say, 100,000 Chinese immigrants move to the country within the period of a year. Is it still Iceland?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Okay, say this new population brings a massive baby boom. We know the fertility rate in China is much greater than that of Iceland. This new population has parity with the original 350,000 Icelanders. Making 700,000 total. A massive election is held and there is complete overturn of elected officials and each new official is either from the massive Chinese influx or immediate descendants of the Chinese immigrants. This new government enacts laws that greatly resemble China. Is this country no longer Iceland? What about the Icelandic culture? How can it be preserved? Are you okay with the destruction of a culture?”

At this point, for some reason, I’ve always found it tough to provide an argument that can persuade him. Upon reflection, it’s likely because the conversation shifts abruptly from one of pure demographic consideration to one of cultural preservation. The thought experiment feels challenging mainly because the idea of an ethnic and cultural Iceland is portrayed as some static, unshifting, unyielding, monolith. And that is what is at the crux of this.

There is an extant fear of racial elimination as a product of demographic growth. Research shows that when white individuals learn about a projected demographic shift from being a majority to minority of the population they show racial preferences for their identified race (source). This has consequences for political party preference as well. White Americans who express concern become more “conservative”—a term I increasingly struggle to use or condone the use of—political views and lead to a great partisan divide (source). Rather prescient, right?

Iceland, while they do not maintain official statistics on race, we do know that approximately 94% of the population are ethnically Icelandic. If we take the complement as entirely people of color (POC) that makes Iceland at most 6% POC. It is likely much less. But what does it mean to be ethnically Icelandic?

Iceland is a discovered land. At the time of its settlement by Norwegians in the 9th century, the land was uninhabited. Icelandic settlers, confirmed by genomic study, are largely from the Scandinavian countries, Ireland, and Scotland. Thus, in the one thousand and change years since its inception, ethnic Icelanders were derived from a melange of Northern Europeans. It would be unreasonable to think that sex would only occur between people of the same homeland indefinitely—that small genetic pool would lead to things like the Hapsburg Jaw. This is illustrative of two points pertinent to the thought experiment.

  1. Ethnic Icelanders are descendants of other ethnic groups. Or, put another way, ethnicity is a social construction.
  2. The movement of people is a constant in human history.

Say, for the sake of the mental experiment, we give way to the idea that there is an Icelandic culture which can be nailed down and is not in flux. When was it in its purest state? Surely, if we take a snapshot of Icelandic culture of today, it would be unrecognizable to people a century ago, or maybe considerably different than even a few decades ago.

If, however, we define culture as an artifact of the history of Iceland—as we rightly should—where the past is important in informing the present, then we must be willing to concede that was is happening presently will become context for understanding Icelandic culture in the future. And that what will happen is soon to be the present and, following, the past (time is a construct I still don’t fully grasp). This is all to say is that culture is a constantly changing (in a state of flux) and that the concept of indefinite cultural preservation is unattainable—and, I’d argue, undesirable. We must accept that populations grow and change; that movement of peoples is a constant in human history; that culture is not a monolith and is constantly shifting; and that ethnicity and race is are myths.

At the end of the day, his thought experiment isn’t so much a thought experiment but rather an argument against in-migration. People will move across borders—another social construction, but perhaps with more contemporary utility than that of ethnicity—and the directionality is not only in, but it is also out. For every immigration problem there is an emigration problem. Call me a globalist, but I believe international borders should be more open.

There is a scene from Parks and Recreation where Leslie Knope refers to Ann Perkins as racially ambiguous. Today, this might be a problematic statement, but it is a reality of the future.

All of our descendants within a few generation will be ethnically ambiguous and new ethnic and racial identities will emerge. Fearing change solely based on the color of others’ skin and your preconceptions of them is not a good reason for fearing change. In this thought experiment, the concern ought not be about culture and race. But rather the focus of my argument should have been that of infrastructure. How can we ensure that there is enough housing? Nourishment? Education? Opportunity? You know, the things that truly matter to humanity.