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.

What makes you interesting to others

It’s not a question you can ask, can you? It would be weird even if you asked a friend what makes you interesting. Not because you asked but because their definition of what makes you interesting wouldn’t be the same as yours or mine.

So, then why bother discussing this? Well, when you can understand how people define their interestingness of another, you have an opportunity to show them how unique you really are.

And not because you’re trying to change how the other person sees you but because it offers you an amazing opportunity to relate and connect authentically in your relationships.

Let’s back track a bit to meeting new people. When you meet new people you often find yourself in the question and answer type of conversation (small talk), much like an interview a journalist does.

And once someone hears a bit (a tiny bit) of your story, they latch onto a certain element of it that stands our in their mind. For example, as a person of colour with Indian ethnicity, non-South Asians find my ethnicity very interesting. Even when I’ve known them for a while.

I get questions about the meals I cook at home to what kind of traditional dresses do I have and how often do I wear them. What are the holidays I celebrate, etc.? You get the point.

This type of questioning happens when your circumstances are in contrast to the other person or group. They could latch onto to your profession or your family, etc. because it’s natural to pay attention to the differences.

Our brain notices a difference, focuses on it and then needs to somehow understand it enough to have it fit into one of the narratives they already are familiar with. Otherwise, it will cycle around in the brain causing a bit of distress until it gets resolved.

That’s how you can sort of know what makes you interesting to others. The questions they ask to you are sometimes a reflection of what they perceive as interesting about you.

Now, when I get questions about my ethnicity, do I think it contributes to my interestingness? Before, I would’ve said Yes but now I believe it’s not our circumstances (like my ethnicity or job or the city I live in) that make me interesting. Why? Well, there are close to 1,5 billion Indian people in this world. That makes me, well, kind of boring.

So, what do you do, when someone finds an aspect about your life that’s interesting and you don’t?

My race is not the most interesting thing about me; in fact, it’s the least.

For starters, we aren’t going to change how the other person behaves but what we can do is change how we respond to questions. Changing our response changes how we feel in the conversation and even offers a wonderful opportunity to share our most authentic and interesting self.

Let’s take the question: Do you cook curry?

It’s a Yes/No question that we often answer with an explanation of why our answer is Yes or No. For example, “Yes, it’s what I like to cook and know how to cook.”. Yet, again, cooking curry is not exactly interesting. It’s still commonplace.

And what more, is that it isn’t really sharing anything about me to lead to a better dialogue. So, let’s rewind.

Person: Do you cook curry?

Me: I don’t cook curry and I love to cook, I’m a self-taught cook and I’ve been introduced to recipes by Lorraine Pascale and Curtis Stone and love trying new stuff like…

That’s my true story and if I did cook curry I would still share more elements of my journey with cooking. By answering the question this way, I don’t reduce my story to a Yes or No and I let it take space (by adding in a few details in 2 or 3 sentences).

Your story has a right to take space and so does everyone else’s.

I’ve used this technique in answering “common” questions that I get and what happens about 90% of the time is that someone (let’s say you’re in a group) will connect to some part of what I said.

So, in the curry example, someone might also enjoy Lorraine Pascale’s cookbooks or they may like some the dishes I mention, etc. People have an opportunity to relate to me because I’ve given them the opportunity to do so.

I share more about this in podcast episode 3: What makes you interesting to others?

What makes you interesting

Did you catch the trick in the title? I’m not asking: Are you interesting? It implies that you already are interesting. Even if you don’t think so (and I didn’t for a long time), you can learn about your innate ability to be interesting right here!

If you were to list 3 things that make you interesting, you probably would answer that in the same way I would or your neighbour would. The most common pitfall in reflecting on what makes us interesting is that everyone thinks about it in the same way. Which, in fact, nullifies being interesting. And this brings me to my first point:

Circumstances don’t make us interesting.

We tend to think that our circumstances are what contribute to how interesting we are. There are actually 2 types of circumstance that create the interesting trap.

  1. The ones in which we’ve had no choice (gender identity, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, childhood, etc.)
  2. The ones in which we’ve had a choice: the results we’ve achieved in our lives (roles, profession, hobbies, money, friends, etc.).

Linking our circumstances to this definition of interestingness brings about a small problem. In groups, where you share certain circumstances with others, the criteria would slowly dwindle away. For example, a group of Indian women who are in the medical profession, what would then make each group member interesting? Which brings me to my second point:

Our total circumstances may contribute to being interesting but ultimately it would be relative to others.

If you were to add up all the circumstances of each group member, even then, you might see some differentiating factors. But how would each individual stand out on their own or be unique? To answer that, we would need to veer away from circumstances to something else.

Uniqueness cannot be based on any one trait or circumstances simply because it would cease the moment another acquired it. Instead, how we interact with the world or experience it is our uniqueness.

There’s nothing wrong with viewing our circumstances as contributing to who we are, in fact, our circumstances help to bring about connection. When we relate to others because of shared circumstances or experiences, we tap into our ability to connect with others.

Circumstances are how we initially relate to others.

If you’re a woman you can relate to other women, if you’re Indian, you can relate to other Indians.

The conundrum, then, is how we connect with others while seeing our uniqueness.

Our uniqueness is determined by how we experience our world which would inevitably be different for each of us, even with groups that share multiple circumstances. How we interact and show up in this world is innately unique to each of us.

This uniqueness has nothing to do with our personalities (i.e. introvert, extrovert) either. It’s deeper than that. It has to do with how we choose to show up, behave, take action while having those circumstances and personality along for the ride (of life).

Your collective experiences of interacting in the world is entirely unique to you. You own those experiences, those stories. And everyone, including you, has a story that’s unique.

To hear about my story on what makes me interesting, head over to the podcast episode 3: What makes you interesting?