We Contain Multitudes.

Somewhere after the initial pleasantries and standard surface questions there is “the story”.

“The story” is always trouble.

It begins with what should be an innocuous question: “Where are you from?”

I start debating with myself. Do I really want to explain myself again? I was a senior in college when I first heard the term “Third Culture Kid”. I was taking a course on moral development and social context and was writing my major research paper for the seminar. I hoped to draw from my own experience as a “Nowhereian”. I was born an immigrant. Moves during my childhood and adolescence paired with the complexities of multi-ethnicity left me with a feeling of “otherness” before I could give it a name. Where am I from? Who am I? That’s a long story.

Wikipedia defines Third Culture Kids or TCK’s as “someone who [as a child] has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture”. Of course this assumes you have some sort of consistent “base culture” and that the “cultural integration” is smooth and uniform. What really happened was that with every move things became more complicated. The choices offered by my environment were often binary and I tended not to fit either option. I longed for a useful shorthand for explaining who I was to people, or even to myself. At various times depending on my motivations and circumstances I aligned my identity according to one or another aspect of my upbringing. I would fiercely espouse certain ideals and try to be “genuine” but there was always a strain – a feeling of performance. It was only after I learned to embrace the instability of my identity that I was able to self-monitor less and feel more comfortable with the many facets of me.

From the beginning President Elect Obama has inspired debate over matters of race and identity (of varying levels of depth I might add). Over at TNC’s blog these issues are being examined again. Most of the discourse mirrors the stuff I was talking about here about freedom of personal identification, but it also touches on something I’ve felt for a while – Obama is the ultimate Third Culture Kid. Obama’s global appeal isn’t so much about race but about culture. Along with the difficulties of growing up between cultures there is a host of benefits which he appears to have reaped. Tolerance. Empathy. Cognitive flexibility. Code switching. Adaptability. The issue of Obama’s race is an important thing but it isn’t the only thing.

Cory Booker rejects the concept of a “post-racial” America, but his notion of diversity still involves celebrating the diversity that exists between groups. What about the diversity within groups and more importantly, within individuals? People like me, Obama and others like us are what the 21st Century is going to be about. Technological advances and travel are making the world smaller by the minute. Even for those who have no lived in more than one culture, the world will be coming to you in the form of immigrants, in-laws, teachers and colleagues. This new landscape favours the culturally agile; people who can draw deeply from a well of varied experiences to aid in their attempts to find common ground with others.

I found some of the comments over at TNC’s exhausting because to me, it’s not about thinking that being mixed is “better” or not wanting Obama to be “reduced” to being “just black”. He chooses to call himself African American and claims a black identity, but I don’t think his choice is any more valid than Tiger Woods’ wish to be seen as “Cablinasian” (well aside from the fact that the word sounds a bit silly, but I get where he’s coming from). What I find more interesting than the labels these people and other’s like them choose to give themselves is the varied heritages that impact upon how they interact with others. Claiming “blackness” does not erase Obama’s white mother, or his Indonesian sister. They are a part of him. They are part of why it’s so easy for us to see ourselves in him.

My experience has been that the more heterogeneous a group of people are the more comfortable I feel. I can delight in our differences and similarities knowing there are no rules for who I am “allowed” to be. I know Obama’s presidency will not instantly transform our understanding of culture and identity, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Tagged: , ,

32 thoughts on “We Contain Multitudes.

  1. Big Word December 1, 2008 at 6:26 pm Reply

    I’m probably making an incorrect assumption here; but are you saying you wish people didn’t see (in the literal and figurative sense) the fact that you are a “TCK”? If so, why?

    If you’re not saying that but simply alluding to a few generalities in a rather broad and complex subject, please forgive me.

    “Where are you from?: is one of my favorite questions to ask people.

  2. universeexpanding December 1, 2008 at 7:18 pm Reply

    I have no problem with people seeing it – I just wish it wasn’t so hard to explain and validate things at times. I have lived in the Caribbean (St. Vincent) but if you are not from the Caribbean and I don’t meet you in a related context then I won’t *sound* like it. So when I tell people where I’m from it turns into a conversation about where I was born (Bermuda) and then further explaining that I am not Bermudian in the passport sense of the word, that my parents are Vincentian. If we decide to go further we have to discuss the race stuff which is an issue in itself, the effect of being an “immigrant” in my “home country” once we repatriated to St. Vincent, the schisms caused by living in Toronto….
    In order to be true to all the parts of myself it can get messy. People want something convenient and I can’t usually supply it. What I wish is that people would give me the choice to claim what I’d like to claim and allow me to be multi-faceted and fluid.

  3. ladyfresshh December 2, 2008 at 2:04 pm Reply

    People want something convenient

    exactly

    What I wish is that people would give me the choice to claim what I’d like to claim and allow me to be multi-faceted and fluid.

    This won’t happen you have to do it for yourself.

  4. universeexpanding December 2, 2008 at 3:05 pm Reply

    LF: I have taken this upon myself a number of times but you can’t *force* someone to see what you’re saying as valid. People frequently refuse. I speak, but I can’t make them listen or change their minds.

    In any event, this post wasn’t supposed to be about me per se.

  5. Grump December 2, 2008 at 3:28 pm Reply

    Those who recognize these things also know not to use labels as limitations. I know the African-American exeperience is not monolithic. However for those who do not know enough about it or have a smaller scope of sight/thought, the idea of diversity within a group is not something they are able to grasp. I empathize that its can be a drag to have to keep explaining yourself, but, if it helps for people to broaden their understanding, then that is something I can live with. its better than the alternative, where we have folks in large numbers thinking in stereotypical broad strokes.

  6. shani-o December 2, 2008 at 4:16 pm Reply

    My flaw is claiming anyone who has blackness in them as black. I don’t do that to deny their other heritages, I do it because I see so much variety within the group. I see black people as a truly heterogeneous group (rivaled only by Hispanics — and we overlap quite a bit).

    As for the “rules” about who we are allowed to be… I dunno, that just seems like allowing others to do the defining (and this goes for me choosing blackness for Wentworth Miller and Rashida Jones, lol). If they don’t get it, or won’t accept it, who cares? I know it’s not quite the same, but growing up as an alternative-music-loving, white-and-asian-friends-having black kid in California means you’re breaking blackness rules right and left, and you either have to submit to what the group says or you decide that it’s time to expand the definition. Chances are, there are others within the group who feel the same way*.

    Maybe if more people choose a fluid identity, there would be less hangups about race, sexual orientation, etc? But it has to be chosen, since it won’t be given.

    *And that’s what PostBourgie is all about.

  7. ladyfresshh December 2, 2008 at 4:36 pm Reply

    universeexpanding – I know i said ‘yourself’ but I did mean generally as I was speaking for myself as well.

    Many times I do not bother explaining my background as thoroughly as people would like me to, but many times people really do not want to know all of it, they just want the part that is comfortable for them. They do not realiz ‘i’m’ not here to make ‘you’ comfortable but this is also not something I feel the need to stress all the time as well. I’m here to be me, so for me and my sanity, i don’t ask others permission to define myself.

    It was a lesson I learned early with those darn check a box for race/ethnicity forms you have to fill out all your life they’ve added boxes and now allow multiple checks but a bit too late for my middle schooled mind and a hard confrontation with a narrow minded nun. It was the classic pick one or the other not both quandry I refused and left it up to her to decide and explain to my mother. heh lesson hard fought and learned let them sort it out, I know what I am.

  8. Grump December 2, 2008 at 4:44 pm Reply

    “you either have to submit to what the group says or you decide that it’s time to expand the definition. Chances are, there are others within the group who feel the same way”

    And that is why I keep reading this site….I have never seen it as expansion ever, but I always knew of the complexities of African-Americans growing up. Not to split hairs, but I think “Black” has started to decline and become narrow lately. Like its losing its luster with people because folks have started becoming stringent of what “Black” entails. The questioning of what “Black” is has led to folks find something else as a definition for outside of “Black”. Either that, or cats don’t want to have the negative connations associated with “black” to limit their mobility. Their fluidity in society.

    Sorry, I’m rambling again…..

  9. universeexpanding December 3, 2008 at 10:12 am Reply

    Shani: About “letting other people define you”. In mixed groups in Toronto and London it was easy enough to find like minded folks and buck the trend. However when groups were more homogenous (or thought they were) it was harder. For example I loved being a part of the Black Students’ Association but I got into a number of heated arguments about how I choose to identify myself. I made a comment once that the important signifier of my identity shifts depending on situation. Sometimes it’s more important to be Black, sometimes multiracial, sometimes female, sometimes Caribbean, sometimes Bermudian, sometimes TCK sometimes an educator….sometimes combinations of those things. A Jamaican girl accused me of having a “diluted consciousness” and “limited knowledge of the struggle” whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. Here in St. Vincent now it’s still hard for me to find where I fit culturally. I’m almost constantly at loggerheads with someone. While I try to stay true to all the things I believe in it can just be enervating to constantly argue with folks, you know? The pressure starts to get to you.

    I really didn’t want this post to be about race though, but culture and the kind of cultural appreciation we need to focus on. I live among a bunch of people who look like me who don’t feel the same way I feel about a bunch of issues, and it’s partially because of my experiences living in other places. So at that point, it’s not race talking, it’s culture.

  10. universeexpanding December 3, 2008 at 10:16 am Reply

    Hey Shani, one more thing: What do you think is a more powerful common factor? Shared race or shared culture?

  11. glory December 3, 2008 at 11:09 am Reply

    universeexpanding: that question you just asked Shani-o has had me going for a while. Great question! I’m eager to see what others think, as the best thing I can come up with depends on situations…

  12. Grump December 3, 2008 at 12:01 pm Reply

    U-E
    Common said it best:
    “Some let the block/block their mind/If they could see what I see/Get out of the city for a sec/be at the places I be”

  13. G.D. December 3, 2008 at 12:09 pm Reply

    shani: “I see black people as a truly heterogeneous group (rivaled only by Hispanics — and we overlap quite a bit).”

    How (or why) would you assign ‘black people’ more heterogeneity than South Asians? Or ‘white’ folks?

  14. shani-o December 3, 2008 at 12:49 pm Reply

    UE- Hmm. I don’t think I would say one is more powerful than the other. As you say, it depends on the situation. Sometimes it’s more important to be black. Sometimes it’s more important to be a Californian. Sometimes it’s more important to be a woman. I feel a strong pull to other people of African descent throughout the Diaspora, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have love for white or Asian or Latino people with whom I share a culture. I know others see it differently.

    G.D. I did say it was a flaw. But I will say that the width and breadth of the African Diaspora is so large that I think it simply encompasses more people. I’d posit that there are more ethnicities/cultures in Africa alone than there are in Europe or Asia (including South Asia). But I’m very open to being proven wrong.

  15. G.D. December 3, 2008 at 1:51 pm Reply

    shani: what rubric are you using in making this assertion? the number of languages? the sheer number of people?

    It seems like a pretty baseless argument.

  16. shani-o December 3, 2008 at 2:49 pm Reply

    I’m speculating based on the high number of countries, tribes, languages, and religions throughout the continent, plus the influences on South American and Caribbean cultures. What are your thoughts?

  17. G.D. December 3, 2008 at 3:00 pm Reply

    Even using that logic, it doesn’t follow that there’s more plurality in cultures/languages among ‘black’ people than among cultures that originated on, say, the Indian subcontinent.

  18. shani-o December 3, 2008 at 3:21 pm Reply

    I don’t have numbers either way. Like I said, it’s speculation, and I’m happy to be proven wrong. But your “it doesn’t follow” isn’t any more definitive than my guesses. And for the record: I’m not *arguing* anything, “baseless” or otherwise.

    If you have actual numbers, than use them. But don’t jump on me just because you don’t like the suggestion I’m making.

  19. shani-o December 3, 2008 at 3:22 pm Reply

    (Sorry for the threadjack, UE!)

  20. G.D. December 3, 2008 at 3:30 pm Reply

    Chill with the defensiveness. I’m not ‘jumping on you’ about anything. I’m only asking that you back up the pretty bold statement that you made with, well, anything.

    I was curious as to how you arrived at this stance — which seems pretty questionable on its face. Even if you’re just guessing, something’s informing that, right?

    Nevermind. Sheesh.

  21. shani-o December 3, 2008 at 4:15 pm Reply

    You’ve taken an off-hand comment too seriously. I didn’t make a definitive statement. I surely said “I think” in my initial comment (which I don’t think was a “bold statement”). And anyway, I *immediately* followed that with the fact that I could easily be wrong.

    Now, if you want to know what makes me see things through that lens — I grew up in a very Afrocentric household, and have been taught about the prevalence of African-influenced culture outside of the Continent. So that informs my suggestion. If it’s questionable, so be it. But I’d prefer a refutation to being that told what I think is baseless.

  22. G.D. December 3, 2008 at 5:32 pm Reply

    C’mon, sis. You can’t just hide behind “I think” like it tempers or qualifies everything that follows.

    And I think saying there’s more pluralism in the African Diaspora than among other groups is a pretty bold statement — besides being impossible to prove, it pretty clearly asserts that there is something superlative about ‘black cultures’ (whatever those are).

    But maybe since you grew up in a ‘pretty Afrocentric household’, I could infer that your statement is entirely rooted in the way you were indoctrinated growing up?

  23. shani-o December 3, 2008 at 5:43 pm Reply

    I guess you win, then?

  24. rakia December 3, 2008 at 5:44 pm Reply

    Woooow. I am so happy not to be part of this thread right now.

  25. G.D. December 3, 2008 at 5:48 pm Reply

    jesus. you’re juking and dancing like Barry Sanders in this jawn.

  26. shani-o December 3, 2008 at 5:49 pm Reply

    I see you softened your original response. Whatever.

    We disagree.

    *shrug*

    What else is new?

    Rakia: I feel you. In the words of Sarah Palin, I think I should recuse myself.

  27. G.D. December 3, 2008 at 5:54 pm Reply

    Did I?

    and no. you’re just making a shitty argument. “Black people are more diverse than any other group because…that’s the way I feel.”

    Ugh.

    let’s stop.

  28. universeexpanding December 3, 2008 at 6:07 pm Reply

    Shani:
    Well If we want to go just by langages here are the numbers for Indiahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Indian_languages_by_total_speakers

    There are 29 official languages recognized by the government and many many dialects and mother tongues. Some say as many as over 1000 languages are spoken on the subcontinent.

    Here is similar data for Europe
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_languages
    Way too many for me to sit and count

    And as for Asia as a whole I won’t even bother to do that…I think you see where I am going with this. I agree with Gene – you can’t argue that Africa is more diverse ethnically or culturally. I just thought I would give some numbers so you could see that.

    No problem with your upbringing – it’s admirable to have a consciousness of how widespread the African diaspora is and to appreciate how it has fed into other cultures, but other places have just a strong a claim to their diversity. What would you say about the Indian diaspora in the UK or the Caribbean? Or Chinese in the Caribbean?

  29. shani-o December 3, 2008 at 6:18 pm Reply

    UE, thanks. I appreciate that.

    And you’re right about the spread of Asian and Indian influence in the Caribbean, I think I brought that up earlier. Or maybe I meant to. Anyway, it’s not that Gene is wrong, or that I was really “arguing” one way or the other. I was just going off of what made sense to me.

    I think what I was getting at was that the spread of African influence is pretty wide — simply because of the size of the Diaspora. My comment about more diversity within Africa was a poor illustration of that.

    But since we were talking sheer numbers, I bow to the WikiGods.

  30. shani-o December 3, 2008 at 6:25 pm Reply

    At any rate, I don’t know how I got railroaded into this “discussion.”

    I really wanted to say that my problem is that I lump people into blackness because of my knowledge of the Diaspora, when really, that’s no more helpful than any other label, except for me. And that the fluidity of identity has to be an individual choice, because ppl like me pick for others all the time.

    Btw: what’s your take on Race vs. Culture?

  31. universeexpanding December 3, 2008 at 6:50 pm Reply

    Up to a year ago I think I would have ridden hard for “race”. Like you I just had a “feeling”. But when I stood back to examine it, that’s really all it is…a feeling. I *want* being black to be “special” and something that links us together just like I *want* being female to be “special”. But where is that desire coming from? And does it really make sense? If you really want racial equality or any type of equality you have to stop thinking of any particular feature as an extraordinary marker. Our desire to be exceptional is at odds with our desire for out common humanity to be recognized.

    I went to the UK for school and found that black british culture didn’t resonate with me much. We were all black and overwhelmingly had Caribbean heritage but it was different…very different. The same thing has happened to me here in SVG. I probably have more in common with an Italian man living in Toronto who has had similar experiences as me than I do with any one person in SVG…and this includes my family members. If I had to choose between dating someone based on race or based on culture/values/politics for example, I’d go with the latter. I don’t think race is a sufficient counterbalance to differences in culture.

  32. Zesi December 8, 2008 at 11:06 pm Reply

    Like you I just had a “feeling”. But when I stood back to examine it, that’s really all it is…a feeling. I *want* being black to be “special” and something that links us together just like I *want* being female to be “special”. But where is that desire coming from? And does it really make sense?

    Being human doesn’t make sense. We are exceptional. Common humanity is, sadly, boring. I think the “we are one” ideal is a pipe dream; we’re not, movements continually fall apart because once one goal is reached, we return to our plurality.

    It is our differences, like tectonic plates moving slowly and sometimes quickly, that to me, make us great. My racial, cultural, geographical, gender, and class identities, in many ways, make me who I am. Maybe I’m strange, but I don’t mind. Then again, I am pretty obviously black, so I don’t have people regularly asking me about my racial identity. That would be more than annoying. Being black does, however, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, informing what I do. Being a woman does. Being Southern does. And I’m totally okay with that. Having a specific identity, to me, does not stop us from loving folks who aren’t like us. I’m rambling. Perhaps this makes sense, perhaps not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: