I have come to the conclusion that society is a labyrinth of conglomerates, a collage of overlapping niches, offering fluidity in associations across some social classifications, yet scorning the commingling of others. Despite our continuing emphasis on individuality, the search for distinction amidst a sea of hoi polloi, the need to conform to an archetype precedes our desire for originality.
Indeed, a woman can simultaneously subsume the identities of daughter, Democrat, teacher, and taxpayer, and readily does so in pursuit of social identity. These objective taxonomies are seldom contested because they are impersonal and obvious labels created by civilization. In other words, these groups classify people based on surface level identities, as easily as a grocer sorts apples from oranges. For example, the lines differentiating professions are generally well defined; that is, a doctor saves lives, a teacher educates minds, and a politician sells lies.
However, in a world of expanding cosmopolitanism, society has been confronted with an unprecedented identity crisis: that which deals with personal and existential belonging. Specifically, I reference the challenge of categorizing ethnicity and culture. For me, as a trilingual, dual-citizen, Latina, Asian, and American woman, the reconciliation of my mosaic of ethnicities has been a convoluted and socially refuted journey. In a world compartmentalized by identification, imagine being that one individual, treading the borders of many cultures but embraced by none… It is a daunting reality. It is my reality. But it needn’t be.
The sooner we welcome cultural fluidity, the sooner we can burst our stagnant bubbles of conformity and prevent not only future stereotyping, but also disassemble existing ethnic misperceptions.
It is not the fault of those who have been raised against a relatively homogeneous cultural backdrop to perceive ethnicity as merely another set of rules for distinction. To these individuals, culture is explicit and computable, with “mutually exclusive categories” setting norms for behavior and value criteria in an ethnic community. For instance, several of my peers have been reared by immigrant parents from India, whose ancestors have lived in the conservative nation and have followed the typical path of arranged marriage and technical science education for decades. To these students, there is little uncertainty in the beliefs they adhere to, the food they eat, and the social etiquette they are expected to follow. They readily assimilate into local Indian camarillas that further denominate along regional and dialectic lines… Their paths have been laid by tradition and cultural consistency. And while this ethnic preservation undoubtedly enriches our spectrum of ethnologies, it can often leave those so bound by custom ignorant of other backgrounds, especially those that may traverse their own.
Brazil and India are perhaps two of the most diametric countries with regard to value codes. Sure, both populations are drowned in poverty and are striving for global economic footholds, but beyond this developing classification, their similarities end. Should I be Catholic or Hindu? Do I believe in resurrection or reincarnation? Shall I flaunt my body or conceal it? Am I expected to speak Portuguese or Hindi? Am I expected to wed out of choice or predetermination? Am I expected to accept one culture over the other…? Unlike my peers, I have no precedent to follow. Like me, multiethnic individuals are breaking cultural standards, but in doing so are left utterly conflicted, and social ostracization only amplifies our distress.
The time I adorned an Indian sari for a local Hindu celebration, I was scorned for “cultural appropriation.” I was told that my masquerade was not appreciated and that I had no place among the crowd since I was Catholic. “Half isn’t enough,” I was castigated time and again. After joining the Parkland STEP team, primarily composed of Latina and Hispanic members, I was force fed infantile translations of their Spanish conversations, despite being fluent in the language. I was asked whether I wanted to join in the team prayer circle prior to our competition because it was assumed I was not Christian. When I spoke Portuguese, I was told I didn’t look Brazilian. When I wore the more liberal styles of dress, I called “bold” for revealing my legs so brazenly.
Now, to avoid sounding obtuse, I have considered and understand these critics’ position. They fear the erosion of tradition and do not want to lose distinction amidst increasing cultural interactions. But how can one, amidst this constant barrage of disapproval and assumption, possibly encounter an ethnic balance that best defines them? It is impossible. Ethnicity, a tool that has the power to unite and provide comfort, has instead become an exclusive set of proclivities for multiethnic populations.
The persistent hostility between communities of uniform versus blended ethnicities arises out of the discrepancy between how they define ethnicity. As I have detailed above, individuals from homogeneous backgrounds prefer the logical categorization of culture. Groupings are impersonal and use “a consistent basis for subdividing categories.” In doing so however, they entirely overlook the existential implications of ethnicity, which is precisely what mixed communities value. To us, the meaning of ethnicity transcends a dictionary definition to answer the question of “what does it mean to be X?” instead of simply “how can X be grouped?” To us, ethnicity is intended to evoke solace, peace of mind, and clarity in discovering oneself. It is not meant to be a border of cultural rigidity. And it took me traveling to California in attendance of a multiracial women’s STEM conference to appreciate that I was not alone in the challenge of making the existential comfort of culture a reality.
Mexican Arabs, Colombian Egyptians, Hispanic Asians, after begin rejected by entrenched communities, we formed our own. The band of “mixed misfits” was what we called ourselves. While it was a comfort to discover young women facing the same plight, we were all too impressionable and wary of backlash to act against social prejudices. Then one fortuitous night, we attended a talk by a Jewish African American computer science professor. As she described the expectations she faced to “act black” but simultaneously eat matzo during Passover, my heart beat in empathetic rhythms. Yet, I was taken aback as she uttered the words, “to hell with it.” Her story transitioned from one of downtrodden confusion to one of optimism and nonchalance.
“Here I was, with so much culture to pick and choose from, that that’s exactly what I did. If I wanted dreadlocks, I would have them. If I wanted to celebrate Christmas like my Kenyan relatives, I would celebrate and that didn’t mean I couldn’t still be Jewish. This is how I define ethnicity and no one can tell me or you, that this blending of cultures is wrong.”
Stunned, I looked at this beaming woman who was so at peace with what we she was, because she chose what to be. She was not resentful but honored for the spectrum of ideas she was exposed to. In choosing what elements from her ethnicity she wished to follow, she had never exchanged one for the other or cared that at times, her cultural practices clashed. What was perhaps even more refreshing was the fact that of course, her ethnic blending stirred the waters among her synagogue and African relatives, but soon they too embraced her self-construct.
Through my experiences I have come to understand that culture and ethnicity exist to provide belonging. They have emerged from civil differentiation over time as a way to connect those who have similar pallets of experience. But over time, society has overlooked the ultimate goal of these identifications. We have become more concerned with maintaining tradition, and are forgetting that happiness ought to be the purpose of creating these communities in the first place. What will an Indian temple whose members do not know the first thing about the Bible or samba ever accomplish beyond its walls? How will the Brazilian girl ever know the beauty of Holi and Puja if she never ventures beyond the confines of her church?
Every one of those “mixed misfits” I had the honor of meeting had one major distinction from anyone I had ever met, that had nothing to do with the color of their skin or the patchwork of languages they spoke… They had compassion and wisdom that transcended what most adults can ever achieve in a lifetime.
Why? Because they had a plethora of worldly experience that made them cognizant of cultural obstacles, ideologies, and practices that often remain ignorant of one another. My Mexican Arab peer knew what it felt like to be told to “go back to your country, wetback, you’re stealing our jobs,” but she also knew what it felt to be called “a Muslim terrorist.” It is time we as a society realize that multiethnic populations are not mistakes, but blessings that have the power to unite distant ethnicities and foster empathy.
We can help to tear down stereotypes and open the borders of culture, but we must be let to discover ourselves first.
- Prathysha Kothare, Allentown Pennsylvania