I get this question not infrequently. Typically it’s preceded by someone hearing me speak in Spanish. Occasionally it’s because, due to a lot of different influences over the years, my accent is hard to pinpoint. Most of the time, though, it’s prompted by the person’s perception that, while my Spanish sounds “authentic” enough, I don’t “look like” “someone who speaks Spanish.”
Because we in the U.S. are not particularly adept at talking about heritage, ethnicity, race AND because I understand that the actual question that people are asking is closer to: What is your/your family’s country of origin? I resist the temptation to offer a snarky answer: Human, or to purposely misunderstand their intent and answer: I’m from Chicago. I try to answer the real question they are asking (albeit clunkily) and think of it as an opportunity to open up a dialogue. At least just a little bit. Or a lot, depending on the circumstances.
Sometimes I answer: I’m Irish-Mexican. It’s to the point and quickly explains the pale freckled complexion and Irish surname + speaking Spanish.
Sometimes I answer with slightly more detail: Well, my father’s heritage is Irish-German, and my mother is Mexican—which explains the skin tone + Spanish AND acknowledges a fuller picture of my ethnic European background beyond the surname AND suggests a generational difference between when my mom’s side and my dad’s side of the family each immigrated to the U.S.
Sometimes the asker just says: Oh. And we move on. But sometimes we do open up a dialogue. And sometimes the conversation takes us on a deep exploration of identity…exchanging anecdotes that reveal how we’ve arrived at our current understandings about culture, whittling away at stereotypes, laughing at moments of silly misconceptions, sharing painful memories of ugly encounters, discovering common ground, navigating uncommon ground, confirming suspected synergies, finding a kinship we may not have guessed was there…and we walk away knowing a good bit about each other and perhaps each knowing ourselves more deeply.
But if time or mutual inclinations do not permit a rich moment of human connection, the initial What Are You? can just linger…in the air…in kind of an icky way.
Perhaps worse than the What Are You? question, the asking of which reveals a subscription to certain assumptions, are the instances when it is not asked and then people do incredibly presumptuous things, like: fill in my race and ethnicity for me at the doctor’s office.
[This happened. But in a moment in which I felt a bit self-conscious and the nurse felt fairly embarrassed, I corrected the error. Or so I thought…In the middle of writing this piece, Chicago’s vacillating weather brought me to the doctor with a cough and I discovered that though they updated my ethnicity to the “Hispanic or Latino” option, my race had then been changed to “Unknown.” …Qué. Caray.]
On the other end of the spectrum there are the situations in which people’s presumptuousness about who I am leads them to share overtly bigoted opinions with me, thinking I will agree with them.
These incidents can range from awkward to annoying to infuriating to straight up scary—but I fight the urge to ignore or give in to disgust, rage, or fear. That would just feed the beast. Instead, in those instances, I look for a moment of possible learning. I try to open up a dialogue. At least just a little bit. Or a lot, depending on the circumstances.
So, one big idea I’m building up to here goes beyond the notion that one’s racial/ethnic heritage
and one’s phenotype don’t always go together the way others expect or think they should. The way we look obviously influences our sense of affiliation with particular racial/ethnic communities, the degree to which those communities embrace us, and the way we are perceived by society in general. However, our external appearance is not the only thing that determines how each of us fills out demographic questionnaires. [Insert your choice of the myriad subtopics-we-don’t-have-the-time-to-get-into-right-now, here: e.g. multi- and biracial identities; race is a social construct; Latino vs. Hispanic; generational differences in expressions of ethnic identity, indigenous communities’ preferred self-referents among American Indian; Native American, First Nation, Eskimo, Inuit, and Native Alaskan; the relationship of skin tone with classist social hierarchies; the influence of language on identity; assimilation, cultural code-switching; “selling out;” “passing;” Rachel Dolezal, etc. etc. etc.]. How we each identify racially or ethnically is multilayered, nuanced, and personal—AND situated in a socio-cultural context.
Here are some other big ideas I’m throwing out there for you to chew on:
Our race and ethnicity are not the only factors that determine what—or who—we are culturally.
An individual does not partake in or represent a single culture. Culture is created by community, so an individual experiences, participates in, influences and is shaped by as many cultures as the number of communities to which they pertain.
Ok, these ideas don’t seem particularly controversial. Am I right? But accepting them does require us to shift how we think and speak about culture, and what may start to feel a little radical is that it implies a whole redefinition of how we typically define “multicultural education.”
If we adopt a broader definition of culture and, in addition to those we associate with race/ethnicity, we acknowledge all the cultures with which we engage based on all the groups with which we share affinities—those that we claim and/or that claim us, those to which we feel tightly tethered and those with which we loosely affiliated, those to which we belong because of common interests, roles, experience, circumstances—and acknowledge that every community has a culture, then we each have many cultures. It means recognizing that each of us participates in a multitude of overlapping and interacting cultures. Suddenly, to say “my culture,” as if it is one singular force, makes less sense and it makes more sense instead to recognize how all of these cultural influences come together to inform “my perspective.”
This certainly further complicates the answer to the What Are You? but it recognizes that I am not just the sum of my ethnic parts, or a label defined by my skintone. My identity lives in between and among all the many labels I may carry… Not just Irish-German-Mexican-American but also Midwesterner, Chicagoan, middle school teacher, Special Beat fan, parent, woman, sister, artist, etc. etc. etc.
If we accept this view on culture, multicultural education then becomes defined as teaching and learning that is guided by and rooted in the exploration of multiple perspectives.
Before I go any further I just want to be clear that multicultural education should still be about making more races and ethnicities more visible in our curriculum. The names, faces, voices, and deeds of too many people of color have been too long absent or marginalized in what and how we teach. But the way I see it, taking a “multiple perspectives” approach helps us to do this more deeply. It reminds us that the culture of a group is not monolithic, cannot be represented by a handful of heroes, is not comprised by a simple assemblage of the “Four Fs” (Food, Fashion, Festivals, Folklore) plugged into the curriculum in the appropriate designated month. And don’t get me wrong—I am grateful to our many heroes and love each of those Four Fs—but we can’t stop there in how we represent culture in our schools or we risk stereotyping and indulging in tokenism despite all good intentions.
Every kid should see themselves reflected in the curriculum. Kids who feel recognized, represented, affirmed, included in the curriculum will have more powerful learning experiences.
But just because someone looks like you, doesn’t mean that any/all of their ideas or attitudes are resonant for you. Just because you share some affinities, doesn’t mean you share all affinities. And just because someone doesn’t look like you, doesn’t preclude you from finding connections or valuing differences. So I also want every kid to find portals in the curriculum to “see” people, places, ideas that are new to them.
All of our kids need a curriculum that offers them both mirrors and windows. Embracing a “multiple perspectives” paradigm amplifies opportunities to make sure that happens. It also creates a framework to open up the dialogue about identity. At least just a little bit. But given the circumstances, I hope we can open it up a lot…
Our kids need to be able to communicate across the divides we have created—to know how to listen genuinely to each other, to speak in a way that they can be heard, to be able to empathize with the concerns of others that have led them to a different view point than our own, to be in the habit of considering things from many angles, to navigate in different cultural contexts with ease.
Ten minutes scrolling through your newsfeed will likely illustrate pretty vividly just how much our kids need this.
My newsfeed seems perpetually peppered with proof of it. If these things were ever strong—our skill at authentic debate and healthy discourse, our inclination to talk to people who don’t already agree with us, our ability to step into the shoes of another, our capacity for empathy—they now seem to have atrophied. So yeah, kids need this. We need this.
Make time. Create space. Open up the dialogue. It’s important.
So…I’ve got a list of practices started but I’m hoping this little read got some ideas percolating for you. Share your perspectives about what it can/should/does look/sound/feel like to ground teaching and learning in exploration of multiple perspectives…and I’ll post the collective brainstorm once we co-create it.
Share your ideas with me on Twitter @Paridad_US with this hash tag: #WhatAreYou?
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