Ethnicity and Identity

What a heavy topic! And I dare to tackle it here. At least a part of it.

I finished up the book by anthropologist, Manning Nash, entitled The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World. And I drew so much insight from it on both ethnicity and identity.

First, ethnicity can be difficult to define and how each of us define our own ethnicity makes it more complicated. There’s a lot of emotion attached to it primarily because it represents our family of origin and how we live. It doesn’t get more personal than that.

But anthropologists have found a way to look at ethnicity without attributing definition to it. For starters, Nash views ethnicity from a build block stand point. So, no matter what ethnic group you belong to there will be one of these core three building blocks in it:

1. Bloodline, ancestry

2. Who you eat with (also including who you go to bed with)

3. Your religious beliefs

One of the most striking things for me is that language or nationality are not part of the core. They indeed make up the building blocks of ethnicity but Nash views these as secondary to the core 3.

And well, I agree with him. I’m often asked about my ethnicity from people that I share language and nationality with. All because I look different from. And this, of course, is attributed to my bloodline, my ancestry from South Asia.

Then, what’s ethnicity got to do with identity?

Do the three core building blocks of ethnicity link us to who we are? It’s a tricky question because the number one question we ask people when we first meet someone is where are you from?

Whatever you may think your reason is for asking this question, it’s most definitely linked to finding out more about the person. And then, in some cases, attributing the answer to a sense of who that person is.

The only thing this answer provides, according to Nash, is instant gratification to someone’s identity. We know that a person is more complex than their ancestral line. And it brings up the question, do you have identity when you don’t know your ancestry i.e. persecution, enslavement, adoption, mixed race?

If you link ethnicity, even if you include the other building blocks like language and nationality, do you have a better sense of yourself?

No. And that’s my answer. And Nash even addresses this in his book. He looks at identity like an onion. On the surface you have ethnicity and other outwardly features that distinguish you but there’s more to you than the surface. And like an onion, if you keep peeling back the layers you get deeper into your identity until you reach the middle – where there’s nothing.

And this concept of identity was further reflected in The Life Coach School podcast (I don’t remember the episode number) where the host said Identity is nothing more than the thoughts you think about yourself. Making the onion concept more blunt.

Identity is nothing more than what you think of yourself. If you attach identity to your race or ethnicity to the degree that defines you then that’s how you see yourself and your identity. If you think ethnicity is a smaller component and that the layers of the onion are based on your experiences and influences that aren’t visible, then that’s your identity.

Each of us places a certain amount of weight to the components of our identity. And like an onion and our thoughts about ourself, we have made up identity to be a construct in our head that can never be manifested outside of us.

If you’d like to listen to this topic, then head to podcast episode 9: Ethnicity and Identity.

Questions about your ethnicity

Where were your parents born? or What’s your background? Questions that are referring to ethnicity in subtle ways. Yet, with all these questions, what does ethnicity really mean?

Not being an expert myself, I recently read a book by anthropologist, Manning Nash, called “The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World” and watched the EPIX docuseries entitled “Enslaved” featuring Samuel L. Jackson and came to an unexpected idea about ethnicity, something that surprised me and maybe helps you look at questions (and your answers) about your ethnicity in a new light.

First, it may seem like questions about your ethnicity are more direct than “Where are you really from?”. And well, although it may be closer to the person’s intention of understanding why we don’t look or sound like them, it’s actually a very complicated question.

How would you answer the question: what’s your ethnicity?

By the time you’re an adult you’ve probably answered it by choosing a box on an official, institutional form (Black, Asian, White, etc.). Maybe it’s “Other”, maybe you choose it if you’re mixed race or adopted or don’t know. And today, in some countries (i.e. United Kingdom) you can even write in your own ethnicity.

Which brings me to two ways we can actually view ethnicity:

  1. How institutions/governments or others (friends, co-workers) define your ethnicity.
  2. How you define your ethnicity.

When others (including institutions) define your ethnicity it comes from a reference point (based on historical policy). It’s how they (policymakers) view and group people together to create a narrative that serves multiple purposes.

At a societal level, it allows for resource allocations (time and money) and research inquiries and policy formation (law and order). Often, efficiency and self-interests interfere with societal effectiveness.

At a personal level, our brains want efficiency as well. It organises information about others into common stories or narratives. This allows the brain to do its one job: running efficiently. This helps us survive while riding a bike, thinking and conversing (and today using our hand held devices).

It’s, by far, more efficient for the brain to notice a difference in another and fit it into a predetermined narrative than it is for it to spend time and energy to evaluate all the differences it comes into contact in one day. And then decide if this difference is “safe” for our survival. And to do so for similar “differences” we encounter multiple times would run the brain amuck.

This is what happens in mundane, small talk conversations where questions like “where are you from” or “what’s your ethnicity?” create an efficient (and instant) way of determining who the other person is (erroneously linking ethnicity to our identity) and thereby determining safety. When our responses to these questions match societal standards, our brain also benefits from responding in familiar patterns.

But what is your reference point? That’s maybe the more salient question before deviating from society standards.

No doubt, it’s been influenced by society, culture, history, those official forms I mentioned above, media, and our family and experiences. We learn various reference points all throughout childhood and early adulthood.

Deciding how you reference your own ethnicity is, in essence, your power, your story. Your reference point is for you, not for anyone else. You get to decide knowing you can choose your reference point consciously and that you don’t need to condense it for someone else to hear your story better.

Your reference point might be the test you took to find out your lineage, it may come from the stories of your parents or it may come from your earliest memory of home.

However you choose your reference point, your story can be a part of the “everyday” narrative in society. It may not matter to the person asking the question but your story with all its differences has a place in all parts of society, ultimately to become part of the everyday narrative in society.

When we’re asked the ethnicity question, we can consciously choose to answer how we want. We can, then, change the dynamic of any conversation for ourselves. When we’re enabled to influence organisations in their reference points for the betterment of humanity, we change the world in which we experience.

I discuss the ethnicity question in relation to my personal experience and my learning from the book by Manning Nash as well as the docuseries, Enslaved, in the podcast episode 2: What’s your ethnicity?.

How to answer where are you really from?

Where are you really from? A great question! Don’t think so? Well, I used to feel infuriated by it. Why wasn’t my first answer acceptable?

Today, I love answering this question and it goes to say that often people don’t get a response they expect. So, how can you love this question?

Chances are, by adulthood, you feel irritated with this question and sometimes full blown anger. Hearing the same questions can influence us to have repeated feelings and then they become intensified over time.

And if you’re at that point, know that it’s ok to feel anger over it. All those emotions are ok.

But what’s not ok is when we want to stop feeling like this over a question that happens in everyday conversation and we feel there isn’t something we can do about it.

I didn’t want to feel anger for the simple reason that this question “where are you from?” is one of the most common questions asked when you meet someone new. Anger isn’t a great way to start any conversation.

Here’s what I did (over and over again in conversations) to get to a place of loving this question. This is one way I choose to handle it:

  1. Find an element that you love about your story regarding the place you consider where you’re from. Choose a story that brings up a positive emotion in you. An example could be that your city was home to a famous television series (that’s my answer) or it could be where the Olympics took place and you attended them. It can be anything as long as you genuinely love that part of your story.
  2. Come up with 3 sentences telling that story. You can use this to answer the first question “Where are you from?” like the example in the figure below.
  3. Be prepared for 2 scenarios:
    1. Best case scenario: The conversation might go off on a tangent based on the 3 sentence story you shared with them. They might connect to the story and you start a real dialogue.
    2. Worst case scenario: The person is focused on knowing the reason you don’t look or sound like them and continues down the path of inquiry about your “background”. I’ll discuss this further in an upcoming article.

Now, this isn’t going to change the other person, this won’t stop people from asking “Where are you really from?” but what it will do is change how you feel about the interaction. When we focus on telling our story (no matter how the question is asked) and specifically, a part we love about it, it determines how we feel in the conversation.

Instead of answering from a place of anger, we can come from a place of love for our story. Instead of wishing they’d stop asking this question, we can answer from a place of equal power in the conversation. Instead, we can share our story how we want to because we ultimately own it.

What showing up with love for your story does is it brings your story out in the open. Your story becomes part of the everyday dialogue. It isn’t hiding because someone doesn’t know how to clearly express what they mean (often they don’t know what they really mean).

I guarantee you as you practice this (and it will be difficult in the beginning) you will see that the anger will slowly become less and less and the love for your story will intensify. And from there, you’ll love the opportunity to share it when you’re asked: Where are you really from?

You can hear how I handled the conversation over the years in the podcast episode: Where are you really from?