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.

Types of poor questions

Most of us get asked them and most of us ask them. A lot of poor questions are hand me down scripts from our family, friends and society (media). We learn how to ask questions from speaking age and continue the cycle until we unlearn what we want to unlearn.

Why unlearn them? Well, if we want to have better relationships and communicate confidently we need to start with a way that leads to dialogue. And that is usually with a question.

Here’s a break down of questions I’ve heard in my conversations (and I’ve asked them too). What’s also maybe interesting is that these types of questions are also used in most other languages as I’ve noticed them in conversations not in English.

I define poor questions as questions that don’t influence dialogue in the conversation. Here are four common types of poor questions:

1. Yes/No (or closed) Questions. This is so redundant. We are told to ask open ended questions all the time yet most of don’t take that advice. Closed questions serve a very important purpose when clarity is needed in transactions that involve safety, health, etc. When it comes to our conversations in some of our closest relationship we tend to lean into this familiarity.

In a lot of cases, people tend to answer it as an open question anyway. The subtly here is giving the person space to tell their story in the way they want to without giving it a positive (Yes) or negative (No) slant. It may seem uncomfortable at first but you may get a more interesting story with “How was your holiday?” rather than “Did you enjoy your holiday?”.

2. The question is not aligned with your intention. This usually happens when we are focused on the other person so much that we end up masking our real intention because we think we are protecting the other person. When really we are protecting how someone views us. We ask “are you going to have the last piece of cake?” instead of “can I have the last piece?” because it looks like we’ve taken into account the other person’s wishes. But really that question is about whether or not you can have the last piece of cake without fault.

We also do this with questions we think are sensitive. As a person of colour, I get asked “where are you really from?” instead of “what’s your ethnicity?”. It seems forward and direct to ask it but that’s a lot better than disguising it in a question that isn’t really understandable.

Figuring out your intention and aligning your question with it makes you a more confident communicator and people respond to that differently.

3. Negative control questions. These are the worst because you don’t answer them correctly ever. One type of negative control is when you are telling someone to do something: “why don’t you wash up?”. Asking it this way instead of “could you wash up?” implies that there is resistance to the question already, as if the person doesn’t want to do it.

The other type of negative control is to ask for a reason someone did something that we don’t like. “Why didn’t you bring a jacket?” or “Why didn’t you come (to the party) with Peter?”. It may seem like a normal way to converse but try and reverse the question without using “not” and see what it reveals.

“Why are you dressed this way?” or “Why did you come alone?” Notice how the positive way of asking the question seems more invasive about a person’s decision. And it’s why we don’t ask it in this way. Also, when we ask in the negative way we put people in a defensive position to explain something they supposedly “should have” done (according to the person asking) – again we think they’re resisting us. So, your friend should have brought a jacket as well as come to the party with Peter.

4. Statements as questions. This one is tricky. Yet, I have caught myself doing this and on the receiving end of it. It’s statements like “I thought you were vegetarian.” or “I didn’t know that’s what you’re working on.” There’s nothing wrong with the statements by themselves, it’s how people respond to them. The statement, in example about being vegetarian, is often answered with, a confirmation of being or not vegetarian added with the why. That’s a whole lot of answers for no question.

None of these question are right or wrong in conversations, it’s a matter of leading a conversation into better dialogue so that you can ultimately have better relationships in your life.

In the next article I discuss how to handle these types of poor questions.