Some of the liveliest discussions I had in my classes were on the topic of ethnic flexibility. I usually broach the topic by asking, “Who among you find yourself switching your ethnic identification depending on where you are and who you are talking to?” Many hands shoot up, but many remain timidly down. Most of the students who don’t raise their hand are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as ethnically distinct. Perhaps their family histories in the US go back hundreds of years. Others, whose great-great and great-grandparents immigrated to the US from Europe at the turn of the 20th Century, have never quite thought of themselves as anything other than white and American, and hence as “having no ethnicity”. But the possibility of developing a fluid ethnic identity is an attractive one, particularly because of the opportunities for diverse human connection that it seems to afford. One student who didn’t see herself as having multiple ethnic identifications once asked, “I would love to be able to do that. How does someone become more ethnically flexible?”
Quite often I am asked to explain my ethnicity and appearance to others. Colombian, Egyptian, Pakistani, Venezuelan, Brazilian, Moroccan; I have been different things to different people. Undoubtedly, this quality, to be for others what they want to see in me, has helped me in my research. My ethnicity is not easily identifiable by my appearance alone. When I speak English my Spanish accent is barely detectable and when I speak Spanish my Puerto Rican accent is lost in the phonological mix that it has become, with the adoption of non-Puerto Rican elements of stress and intonation. Only the keenest ears can hear me transform /r/ into /l/ or delete intervocalic and syllable final /s/ as is characteristic of the Puerto Rican dialect. I have acquired aspects of my speech, my style, my behavior, and even my perceptions from my many encounters, purposely sought or otherwise, with diversity. Indeed, this seems to be key to developing a flexible ethnic identity: the more culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse our interactions and relationships the more likely we will develop fluid ethnic identities.
So, in returning to that initial question, “How does someone become more ethnically flexible?”, one might first start by developing ethnically diverse social relationships. Indeed, by broadening our contacts to include people of multiple national, linguistic, ethno-racial, and regional backgrounds we may gain access to the cultural knowledge needed to view the world through others’ eyes, and the linguistic codes that establish life lines to diverse perspectives. Ethnic flexibility is not about identity confusion or socially pragmatic manipulation. Rather it speaks to our capacity for inclusiveness, empathetic social interaction, and for developing fluid and inventive ethnic selves.
I’ll be writing more about the importance of ethnic and culturally diverse social relationships in future posts….