Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Identity and Assimilation among Young Ethiopian Immigrants in Metropolitan Washington*

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Identity and Assimilation among Young Ethiopian Immigrants in Metropolitan Washington*

Article excerpt

The issue of assimilation of second-generation, non-White immigrants has received the attention of scholars from diverse fields since the early 1990s (Hall 1990; Gans 1992; Portes and Zhou 1993; M. C. Waters 1996; Rumbaut 1997; Zhou and Bankston 1998). Identity is central to the notions of assimilation and Americanization, and its formation and transformation are integral to the immigrant experience. Race, ethnicity, nativity, class, and gender play critical roles in identity formation, retention, and change in a multicultural society. Sociocultural mores and sanctions, as well as structural realities, also fashion the contours of identity for immigrants. In the United States, in an increasingly pluralistic post-1960s society, the relationships between immigrant and host society and their theorization have metamorphosed in both subtle and obvious ways.

This study explores the concepts of immigrant and identity by examining the creation and reconstitution of racial and ethnic identities of 1.5- and second-generation immigrants of Ethiopian heritage in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Second-generation immigrants are defined here as those who were born in the United States and have at least one parent who relocated to the United States. The 1.5 generation is identified as comprising persons who immigrated with their parents to the United States when they were less than twelve years of age (Rumbaut and Ima 1988).

Ethiopians formed the largest group among African immigrants to the Washington metropolitan area during the 1990s, accounting for nearly 25 percent of this population (Singer and others 2001). The dominance of the Ethiopian community among African-born persons in the region is also supported by the 2000 U.S. census. The Washington Primary Metropolitan Statistical Area, with 15,049 Ethiopians, accounts for approximately 22 percent of all Ethiopians in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau 2002b).

However, little research has been conducted on the processes and practices of assimilation and identity formation of second-generation African immigrants. As recent Black immigrants living in a city that is considered an emerging immigrant gate-way as well as a traditional stronghold of urban Black Americans, Ethiopian immigrants in Washington offer an interesting case for study of the configuration of racial and ethnic identities. By focusing on the multiple and changing dimensions of identity and its situational variations among the children of first-generation Ethiopian immigrants, this article provides insight into the subjective understandings of these various labels in an increasingly diverse city. It examines the discourses and practices of assimilation through the experiences and self-representations of young adults within the context of assigned and adopted identities.


The analysis draws on in-depth interviews conducted in 2002-2003 with ten 1.5-generation and ten second-generation Ethiopians living in Washington, D.C. and its inner suburbs in Virginia and Maryland. I initially identified persons to interview for this study by using referrals from acquaintances in the Ethiopian community in the Washington area. I then used the technique of "snowballing" to contact other respondents. In total, twelve women and eight men were interviewed. The respondents ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-seven years at the time of the interviews. With the exception of one Muslim, all those interviewed reported their religion as Christian, mostly Orthodox. Four of the respondents were high school students, nine were undergraduates at local colleges or universities, and seven had full-time jobs. Most of the students worked part-time while they pursued their studies.

I spoke to my respondents in both face-to-face settings and over the telephone. The interviews took 60-90 minutes to complete. Face-to-face interviews were tape-recorded and later transcribed, whereas responses to phone interviews were recorded in shorthand. …

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