The Chameleon

Yesterday I had a conversation with someone I had never met before while I was in between meetings and presentations. Given that I live in London, and much of its population doesn’t encourage such random conversations on public transport, I was pleasantly taken aback by what we spoke about because it made me think about a lot of things.

One of the topics that we spoke about was the chameleon-like constructs of identity in the Diaspora and within ethnic groups (pretty deep for a random conversation). I often blog about topics such as assimilation, the challenges that ethnic minorities face in the Diaspora and experiences in the West, but it’s a first for me to be writing about this particular issue.

I often discuss my feelings of angst with regards to individuals choosing to bleach their skin, lie about their ethnic origins, lighten their hair, Anglicise their names or undergo procedures in an attempt to acquire approval in a society which rejects those without a Eurocentric-like appearance. The questions surrounding this topic are infinite: Is it because they sub-consciously hate themselves and their heritages? Have they made such decisions because they feel forced to ‘fit in’?

“No group in our population is less responsible for its existence. But every group is responsible for its continuance….” ~ Isabel Wilkerson

 

This post is difficult to write, because there are so many angles that I want to address. It’s a complicated subject that I want to grapple with, feel strongly about and discuss in a nuanced manner, but it feels like I’m trying to collect running water in my hands- an appropriate metaphor considering how subjective and fluid the nature of identity formation is.

I first came across terms such as  Stockholm Syndrome and Uncle Tom Syndrome, while I was studying Black Fiction at university. Initially (I admit that I always feel dumb when I don’t understand what academic terms mean) I didn’t know how these psychological concepts worked or if I had even seen them happen in real life. But the more I observe, read and educate myself about aspects of history, the more I realise that we are surrounded by it.

A recent example has been the media frenzy surrounding two Indian-American politicians, Governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, who hold very esteemed positions but have chosen to distance themselves from their Indian heritage. Firstly, it’s great to see individuals of South Asian descent become so accomplished in their fields, but at what cost does it come at? Both Jindal and Haley send out mixed messages to South Asians born and raised in the West, with regards to how they can smash glass ceilings, achieve success and garner influence. It is brilliantly explained in this open letter to Governor Jindal. Their actions tell South Asians that it is only possible to attain a certain level of success if you discard your ethnicity in the way that they both have. Is this true?

“Have you ever seen a demonstrable example of equality in your entire life?” ~ Boyd Rice

On one hand, I can understand why they have chosen to Anglicise their names and can’t really berate them for that. Jindal and Haley are prime examples of individuals who show how dangerous it is to believe those who say that they are ‘blind to race’ and/or ‘race doesn’t matter’ because it does. It matters to millions of people around the world, because it directly shapes their lives, their self esteem, their experiences and the way that they interact with the world. In addition, Jindal and Haley also embody pockets of a generation who have grown up in a society, with an exceptionally influential voice, that constantly reminded them that being an outsider is borderline unacceptable. Growing up with such a strong voice stating this probably ingrained a complex in them from a young age. Is it better to adopt chameleon-like mannerisms in order to escape the pain and danger of being attacked, discriminated or denied opportunities because of your ethnicity?

“You’re in a horse race but you’re thinking like a sheep. Sheep don’t win horse races.” ~ Jeanette Walls

The phrase: “When did you learn to hate yourself?” is one that springs to mind whenever I come across individuals who feel like this – especially South Asians who try to pass off for another race. From my observations, I have seen the half mad glint of happiness in a South Asian person’s eyes when they are mistaken for being mixed race or of southern European heritage. I don’t see the point in mocking them or slating them, because they are from a heritage which has prized such features given the fact that it was steeped in colonialism for centuries. They are living proof of people who are unable to face the pain which has been inflicted upon their community – in the past and present. They genuinely believe that if you change your name, alter your physical appearance or lie about your roots, that the possibility of escaping racism and discrimination becomes a reality and opens doors. But how long will that last?

Yet on the other hand, these individuals will never get to experience how liberating, soothing and powerful it is when a person claims their identity. The most powerful thing about claiming one’s identity is that it even has the possibility to significantly reduce power/control from a dominant group. It can transform them; it can heal, create unity, and motor them into empowerment – why would you want to take that away from dis-empowered groups who are in dire need of it today?

 

Being Bilingual

Image sourced from https://www.manchester.ac.uk

❝The limits of my language are the limits of my world❞ ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein.

This week’s post is a continuation of a topic I discussed a few weeks ago [click here to read] and has been on my mind for a good few years. I have long been fascinated by languages – so much so that I dedicated a large portion of my final year of university studying the importance of languages to ethnic minorities. I find it incredible that we have such an abundance of language across the world and that language has a way of unlocking a part of one’s culture.

According to the British Council, it is estimated that more than half of the world is bilingual and it is well documented that being bilingual is now more of an advantage than it was 10 years ago. What captivates me about languages – whether they are European or non-European – is the way that they either deeply root us to a particular culture or give us a better understanding of that culture.

A few months ago, I was at a family gathering where everyone was speaking and telling jokes in Hindi and Panjabi. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a few of my younger cousins looked visibly uncomfortable and were sitting awkwardly; it was almost as though they felt like they didn’t fit in. I felt a pang of guilt and remember feeling a bit sad that they weren’t being included. For some reason, this incident has stayed in the back of my mind and got me thinking about the number of children who are of ethnic descent but do not know their community language. If having the ability to speak and understand your mother tongue is said to root you directly in your culture, where do they fit in?

“Annoyance has made me bilingual.” ~ Gayle Forman

I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where my father and grandmother spoke my mother tongue to me as well as English. In the beginning, it was very confusing and I remember entering a long period of silence when I was at primary school because I kept mixing up both languages. Throughout my childhood, and as a young adult, I recognise the importance of speaking my mother tongue and how it connects me to my heritage. For example, many people of ethnic descent, believe that language is a crucial component of how they regard themselves. Many also believe that it reinforces a sense of pride in their roots, re-affirms a sense of belonging and creates a unique bond between them and others who also speak that language.

Language, as a concept, is what connects humans because it is the very essence of what communication is. The ability to ‘fit in’ and be part of a particular group is heavily based on the way that we communicate (whether that is orally or physically) with others. This is also a fundamental part of what it means to be a human being; we are social creatures and thrive when we are in the presence of those whom we can relate to. The phrase: “birds of a feather stick together” isn’t there because it makes you sound philosophical and unintentionally rhymes – it carries a lot of truth.

“Understanding must move with the flow of the process.” ~ Frank Herbert

Over the years, I’ve heard a number of snide, back-handed comments that are made about South Asian children who grow up with little to no knowledge of their indigenous languages. They range from acid tongued comments berating their parents’ lifestyle and blaming them for the decline of a particular language to claims that British Asians are not proud of their ethnic heritages. On one hand they are labelled by other members of their ethnic group as ‘the family who don’t care about their roots’ or became ‘too Westernised’ and on the other hand, they eventually completely disengage from their ethnic group because they feel humiliated and like they do not belong.

It is all too easy to play the blame game and point fingers, but, it is not their fault that they grew up not learning their indigenous language or being proficient in it. We should not be pushing them away and/or berating them because of circumstances that they probably couldn’t control. Yes, I fully understand the argument for preserving languages (it is deeply important) but it should not come at the expense of isolating others and pushing them away from a heritage that is rightfully theirs. We should be taking a good long look at different ways that we decide what/how an individual chooses to identify/connect with their ethnic heritage and be pushing that forward instead of mocking those who did not grow up with the privilege of learning their mother tongue.

Skin

Image from Duncan Philpott

This week’s post is one which has somehow managed to begrudgingly sustain my attention yet annoy me at the same time. Granted, this doesn’t happen very often, but when it does happen I really do feel it. One on hand, I really didn’t want to write about this because I feel that it has received enough media attention, trivialised serious issues that ethnic communities around the world continue to face and has shifted our focus from more pressing matters. But on the other hand, this case is thought provoking and opens up an avenue of discussion about personal identity which is very rarely discussed.

As many of you know, the former leader of the Spokane, Washington Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Rachel Dolezal has resigned. Her resignation came following Dolezal’s parents ‘outing’ her as a Caucasian woman and that she had been pretending to be an African-American woman for nine years.  Newspapers and online publications, as well as social media, has been saturated with stories as the world struggles to understand why a Caucasian woman would choose to identify herself as an African-American woman in this day and age. In fact, it’s almost impossible to not go online without being submerged in a sea of stories about her.

It wasn’t long before people began comparing Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner (which is a completely different thing), stating that it was acceptable for her to have lied because she had done a good job and that Dolezal probably suffered from a mental illness. The latter has not been confirmed or disproved, but it was disheartening to read and hear such things, because it mocked the nature of mental illness. These comments were often backed up with people stating that Dolezal was trans-racial to remarks about ‘Michael Jackson wanted to be white’ and sweeping generalisations that most people of ethnic origin want to look Caucasian.

“Race is a social construct; those condemning Dolezal are merely poking holes.”

Initially, I’d never heard of the word ‘trans-racial’ or even knew that such a concept existed, but once I read this insightful article from Media Diversified it began to make sense.

These comments hurt and shocked me at first; it is not wholly true that all people of ethnic origin want to look more Eurocentric. More and more people of colour are unlearning generations of destructive behaviour and are embracing the way that they look. However, when a universal standard of beauty has sought to demonise and ostracise those who do not look European for generations, it come as no surprise that some feel compelled to alter their looks in order to fit in and/or live with an inferiority complex. The end result? These individuals face condemnation from their own ethnic communities and are subject to ridicule from mainstream society. As a result of this, many grow up simply hating themselves, their cultures and denying/fabricating their ethnic heritage. In addition, they very rarely get an opportunity to openly express the relationship that they have with their identity, in the way that Rachel Dolezal currently has.

I am generally a ‘live-and-let-live’ person; if a particular lifestyle makes an individual happy I generally support it (as long as it does not cause harm, impede other people’s lives or breaks the law) because in our modern world to experience happiness is quite rare. However, even after watching Dolezal’s interview with the Today Show, I still feel deeply uncomfortable about her actions. It’s all very well and good to state on national television: ‘I identify as a black woman’ without experiencing the way that our world perceives and treats African-Americans. Even though I am not of African-Caribbean descent, I would be furious if someone pretended to be a South Asian woman, lied about their background to become a self-styled voice for South Asians.

The final point which I want to take to task is one which has been echoed both online and offline – sadly by some people that I know. “Race is a social construct; those condemning Dolezal are merely poking holes.” This has particularly gotten under my skin; yes race is a human and social construct, but race and ethnicity ultimately form an intrinsic part of a person’s identity. For some people, including myself, their ethnic heritage is borderline sacred which is why such cases feel so raw and cause so much pain. It is a very deep part of an individual’s culture, a community’s culture, their experiences and – most importantly – it is how the world perceives them which in turn has a huge influence on the way that we view ourselves, our cultures and the world that we live in.