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.

Change your script

Can you change your script? Absolutely! Well, we’re often advised to get to know our mind first but really how do we get to know it so we can create change in our lives?

It’s difficult to see how to go about it and then get momentum to keep going at it. When we are inundated with so much during the day, it’s hard to see what’s happening with our mind. The good news is that people’s minds are pretty similar.

And the better news is that I have an actual “how-to” for going about changing your script so you can change a habit in your life. I don’t do vague.

What’s a script? We operate from a script and are usually unaware of it. The script is our belief system in which we go about our daily life. It’s hard to become aware of many of our beliefs and all the “shoulds” we say to ourselves.

You can think of it like a script in a film where the script is the base of the story and the actors often don’t act the script word for word but use it to guide what they need to say or do. Our brains work like that and not knowing the actual script prevents us from clearing it.

If we’re not used to knowing what’s happening in our head then the task to understand it and quiet it or even direct it (to change it) becomes next to impossible. Sometimes, space can be created in some of our mundane, familiar ways of doing things.

Start small. And a place to start is with your everyday conversations with the people in your life. It’s small enough as well as having ample opportunity to create the space. Often, in the small moments of interactions, when we can create space, it can reveal the biggest insight.

Pick a person that slightly irritates you – a co-worker, sibling, etc. Think about the familiarity in your conversations. A co-worker of mine used to ask what I did on the my weekend without fail every Monday morning. I’m not a morning person so this was especially irritating.

Since I could plan on the familiarity of the situation every Monday, I said I was going to pause before I answered her question. Now, it may seem difficult at first because we can be on automatic pilot. If that’s the case, there’s another option.

Use social media posts. It may seem like the last place to create space but social media is not all negative. When a friend posts something you don’t like, read the whole post and don’t react to it. Don’t write a comment, etc. Sit there for one minute and look at the post.

In our everyday, mundane interactions we find ourselves in sort of an automatic, default setting of reaction. And because of it’s familiarity we can plan a bit ahead to see where we can pause.

Pause is what helps to create space in the head. And if you can achieve that pause in something you do habitually, you’ll often gain insight into your script.

Write it down. When you first pause it may seem like nothing comes to your head. It’s in there, you need to keep at it and eventually you’ll hear your mind and what its saying to you.

When you have the moment of pause, see what thought enters your head and then write it down in the same notebook (or notes on your smartphone). Keep tackling the same habitual situation and write every thought you “hear” in your mind in the same notebook.

Find the script. You’ll slowly begin to see what’s in your mind. You’ll see patterns. You’ll see your script. You may be shocked to see that you’re negative about a friend on social media or that you don’t want to reveal that you did nothing during the weekend to your co-worker (that was me!).

We live with scripts like “I shouldn’t reveal that I wasn’t productive over the weekend.” or that “I should always have positive thoughts about my friends.” The truth is whether we know our scripts or not, we’re running with them in our head. So knowing them gives us that control in changing them and eventually our habits.

I discuss this journey in changing your script in podcast episode 8: Before you change your script.

Boundaries for beginners

10 years! That’s how long I have spent reading about boundaries and trying to practice them. And after all that time, I still got it wrong. There’s one crucial piece to understand about boundaries before setting them up in places where none existed.

My big mistake was not understanding this:

People don’t need to respect your boundaries.

We often think that they do. In fact, we’re taught this. People need to show us respect, etc. But this doesn’t always happen and often when we communicate a boundary in a relationship, they don’t respect it. Why is that?

There are 2 big reasons why this may occur. One is people have different personal boundaries (this doesn’t include societal boundaries like physical and sexual assault). We all come with our own script which we go about the world referencing and sometimes forget that others follow a different script.

And the second reason is that we are now depending on another person to keep a boundary in place. And well, that other person is imperfect. They won’t be able to uphold our personal boundaries for us.

Relying on others to respect your boundaries will drive you crazy. Instead:

You need to uphold your personal boundaries.

That means you take action when someone crosses your boundaries. And that action doesn’t involve getting the person to behave in a certain way.

Now, it doesn’t mean that you don’t request behaviour changes from others. For example, if you don’t like being kissed (on the cheek) or hugged when you greet family and friends, you can, of course, ask them to not greet you in this manner.

But the next time your friend leans in for a kiss, you will need to take action. Either you block it or move away. That’s upholding the boundary.

Not upholding it is making the request and then the next time you see them, they lean in for the kiss and you accept it. That communicates that your personal boundary isn’t really a real boundary.

The action you take to uphold your boundaries will communicate it in a clear way – that this behaviour is something you won’t accept.

It’s not easy when the responsibility shifts to us to maintain it. It takes a lot of courage to make a request and then even more so to uphold the boundary. The powerful thing about taking ownership and responsibility of our own boundaries is the freedom.

You are free from relying on family and friends and then having them fail and ultimately suffering from your boundaries not being respected. Freeing yourself from that kind of suffering is worth facing our fear of taking action to uphold it.

Instead, you get to respect yourself and give that respect to yourself whenever you want.

If you’re wondering if you have healthy boundaries, listen to podcast episode 7: Boundaries for beginners where I discuss the signs of healthy boundaries and a personal story of me failing miserably and upholding them.