ID & me: ethnicity, religion, and more

An ongoing conversation among many in my network circles self-identify. It’s interesting how often we in the States talk about diversity – what does that even mean in our lexicon?

In so many conversations, “diversity” is often assumed to be ethnic alone – roughly put, your skin pigment and facial structure. And very often, the diversity discussion tends to rest in the perceived dichotomy of white and non-white, assuming an exclusivity in diversity issues, rather than recognizing that there are stereotypes, prejudice and obstacles between many ethnicities. Simply put, we all have issues.

My deeper argument is that this diversity argument rests too much on ethnicity. There is a duality of diversity: how we identify ourselves, as well as how others identify us. The key is identification. Do I see myself primarily in ethnic terms, or gender, or age, or religion, or economic, or class, or sexual orientation, or some other identifier? And how do you primarily identify me? This is the key discussion.

Some examples:

* Check all that apply: It’s only recently that equal opportunity surveys allow us to check more than one box. That is, someone of mixed / blended ethnicity need not choose one over the other. In literature – our stories that reflect our societal feelings and musings – I’m delighted to see more blended heroes and heroines. See Justina Chen Headley’s Nothing But the Truth and a Few White Lies, with her “hapa” heroine. In fact, Justina is great for identifier themes: her North of Beautiful follows a teen of Asian origin with a cleft lip adopted by a Caucasian American, as well as a teen heroine traditionally beautiful by Caucasian American standards with a substantial port wine stain on her face.

* Second generation: In a society built by immigrants, a never-ending cycle revolves around identification among second-generation young people. How many first-generation immigrants wanted to retain much of their home culture, only to discover their children identifying themselves as “American?”

If I may relate a similar example in novelist Monica Ali (Brick Lane, and her upcoming In the Kitchen). I’m a fan of Monica’s work and was both disappointed and delighted to read the following descriptions:

* Disappointed: Wikipedia refers to Monica as “a British writer of Bangladeshi origin.” Her father is Bangladeshi and her mother British. Is Wikipedia referring to Monica’s birth in Bangladesh, or her blended heritage? And if her blended heritage, then why did they choose one to the exclusion of the both?
* Delighted: Monica was named by Granta and Time magazines as one of the Best of Young British Novelists and “One of the three English writers who are the voice of a generation.” Delighted because these accolades identify her as British, rather than something “other” like Bangladeshi-British.

* It’s all about the Benjamins: Oddly, it’s rare in American society that we discuss economic identifiers of any depth – I wonder whether it’s something in our value system that we refuse to talk about money. The times that we do broach the subject of economic differences, we so often rush to the easy comfort of ethnic discussions instead.

* Clash of identity: We should not assume that all value diversity as part of an ideal society. We must accept that there are many who, as part of their religious, ethnic or class identity, hold strict distinctions regarding acceptable diversity. I see a difficult road ahead as the push for diversity continues, particularly with the convergence of those who identify primarily in religious terms and those who identify primarily through sexual orientation.

So, we must move beyond these discussions based purely on ethnicity, for there are whole worlds inside each of us. What is most important is how we self-identify, and of course the reality of prejudicial obstacles require us to consider how others primarily identify us as well. We must reach deeper.


  1. Very interesting indeed. When I was on the Diversity Task force for a large retailer, I found I began to really focus on other forms of diversity - in particular: age and physical differences. These can be oft overlooked areas when diversity programs focus too intently on ethnic origin.

    I heard a wonderful piece last year on NPR about second-generation Asian Americans - I'll try to find it and send it to you.

  2. Excellent work, Erin. Thanks very much for sharing.

    (And looking forward to your NPR link.)


Post a Comment

Popular Posts