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.

How to answer poor questions

Questions that seem like conversation but offer no real dialogue are a bummer to any relationship.

Did you go broke shopping at the mall?

Where are you really from?

Didn’t you eat the sushi?

I couldn’t make up these questions even if I wanted to. Now, it’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with them. There isn’t. What I’ve noticed is that the conversation doesn’t really launch into any sort of anything but a back and forth tennis match of poor questions. And it can stop by how you answer them. And the best news, you can create a better conversation from it!

The first part of answering the poor question is to actually hear the poor question and not your interpretation of it or your thoughts about it. This requires a mind shift in how you view the question and you can learn more about that in the previous article.

We tend to answer poor questions like this:

Did you go broke at the mall? Ah, no, I managed to get what I needed.

It’s so subtle but we end up explaining our actions. And the question wasn’t asked: how and how much did you spend at the mall? We often (when not conscious of it) tend to answer from a place of defensiveness (of our actions). Even justifying them sometimes.

Once you understand that it’s the words of the other person that you need to respond to instead of how you interpreted the question, you can now answer it in a way that you want to. And if progressing the conversation to a dialogue is what you want, you can create a space in which to do so.

Here’s one way to do so. It’s called BBR (Bring it Back to a Response). But it originally comes from the work of psycholinguist Suzette Haden Elgin and she called it Baroque Boring Response. I modified it slightly and it’s a fantastic tool whenever you encounter a poor question.

The essence of the tool is to answer the question (even though it may be a Yes/No question) with 2-3 sentences that are related to the topic of the question. Now, in Elgin’s work it works to deflect verbal abusive statements or questions. Here, I use it to create a launching pad from which better conversation can happen.

One of the ways to do this and make it easier is to think of a response that includes talking about something you love or find interesting about the subject of the question. You add interesting, fun information rather than defending yourself and/or actions. Let’s tackle the questions form above!

Where are you (really) from? I was actually born in the hospital which the long running television series is based on. And one of my favourite actors happens to be in it. (Then I name the actor I’m referring to).

Did you go broke at the mall?

I found a lot of great shops that are owned by smaller brands and I hope that it continues that way and that smaller brands have a better chance of competing against the brands on the high street.

Didn’t you have the sushi? They make the best sushi rolls, don’t they? I’d usually order sushi but I heard about their signature dish of noddles with spicy shrimp and I couldn’t resist. I hope they offer a take away menu soon so I can enjoy it at home.

Believer or not, these questions have been asked of me and I’ve answered as above. Notice, I still answer their question (how I want to answer it) and then I add something of my experience that is genuine. None of these answers I had to “make up”.

This is really effective especially if these questions are asked with other people around. What usually happens is that someone else will jump into the conversation because of something I added and then the back and forth useless Closed questions becomes more of a conversation rather than a myriad of defending yourself.

If you’d like to hear more about this technique I discuss my experience with it in the podcast episode 6: How to handle poor questions Part 2.

Handling poor questions

Ever wonder why you’re annoyed by some questions? It could be because of how it’s been asked and then you feel the obligation of answering it because you don’t want to be rude. Or you know that answering it won’t lead to any sort of great conversation. And that’s basically a dead end.

Even when you’re asked a poor question, there are ways to get off that dead end path. Better yet, there’s one way to handle it so that you can change the dynamic of the conversation. And I’ll outline the first part of the strategy here and the second part in the next article.

Now, there are many more poor questions out there, I discuss a few of my favourites in the previous post. However, you can apply the following strategy with any question that you don’t particularly like.

This strategy is modified from the works of psycholinguist Suzette Haden Elgin whom I owe so much to. Her work helped me through conversational dynamics where I thought I was driving myself crazy. And it turns out I could stop doing so and respond to questions another way.

The first thing you need to do is change your mind about the question being asked. This is the hardest thing to do. Because once we’ve decided we don’t like a question or the conversation of a particular person, we see all the signs that point to why we’re right.

In order to help change your mind about the person asking a poor question, you’ll need to use Miller’s Law (based on psychologist George Miller).

Miller’s Law: You assume what the other person is saying is true.

What? You heard correctly. You assume but you don’t have to accept that it’s true. For example, when people ask me “Where are you really from?”. I make an assumption that what they’re asking is “why are you brown?”. But assuming what they’re saying is true means hearing the question without my added thoughts or interpretation of that question.

It doesn’t mean that I accept it’s true that they’re asking out of genuine curiosity about me. It only means that I assume their words are true without focusing on the intent of those words (which by the way is impossible to know because we don’t always know the true intent of our actions).

Instead of focusing on the intent, I only have to focus on their words (what they actually say) to be true.

It then becomes easier to see the words and then respond to those words. Instead of responding to their intention.

But wait? What if that question comes from a place of prejudice? Well, that could be true, couldn’t? Let me ask you this: is it your responsibility to reveal that that question is coming from a place of prejudice?

It isn’t. It’s the other person’s responsibility to communicate their true intention and have their actions match it. It’s not yours to decipher it and help them become a more effective communicator. And what you’ll find is that when you respond from a place of hearing their words instead of their intention, their true intentions will be revealed in the course of your conversation with them. And if it’s from a place of prejudice, you’ll know because of their actions through their words, not your assumption.

So, great? Then, what do you do? Well, then you can answer this question any way you want. It then becomes a question, a question that is inquiring a piece of information about you. That’s it. It’s not about your skin colour or their curiosity or anything else. Because you get to answer it how you want based on hearing the words.

In the next article, I discuss one way to respond to poor questions so you can deliver a message that you want. Check out the article on How to Answer a Poor Question. If you want to hear more about shifting your mindset around Miller’s Law, then check out the podcast episode 5: How to handle poor questions Part One.