Identity: Nationality, Race, and Language

Self identity is a complex concept that is difficult to summarize in simple generalities. This reality is especially true when we start thinking about how we self identify, and which communities we believe we belong to. We draw many of our values and traditions from our peers and the communities that we are born into and/or chose to join. Some of these communities are chosen for us. For example, one cannot choose our biological parents, or what country we are born and raised in, and yet these circumstances play a vital role in an individual’s formation. Other communities we are born into, but can change, such as religion, socio-economic class, nationality, and to a certain extent race/ethnicity. Each person is a layered combination of these different communities, and depending on specific circumstances, which of these characteristics we highlight can change dramatically.

For example, I was born in Colombia, but was raised mostly in the US. Although, I grew up in a multicultural and multilingual household with direct familial ties to both countries. Since I can remember, Spanish and English have played a role in my life, but in very partitioned ways. English has for most of my life been  my primary language. I used it both in private and in public, whereas Spanish was at least until my early 20s a private language, which I would use only with family and for my own personal pleasure (reading literature, watching movies, maintaining cultural ties). While I have always identified myself as bilingual, with few exceptions the people I speak English with do not overlap with those I speak Spanish with, even when they too are bilingual, which means my bilingual relationships are fairly limited. This feeling of being a bridge between different communities is undoubtedly a common thing and I’m sure that just about everyone can think examples of where they are the only bridge between 2 different sets of friends/acquaintances. But I find it interesting in the moment, how very different parts of who we are can come out in interactions with different communities.

So what got me thinking about this? A couple of blog posts that I’ve read this past week. The first is a short, but interesting blog post by David McKenzie looking at some of the issues in international politics with dual citizenship (Dual Citizenship and Development). The second is an blog post on the Economist looking at the role of language in immigrant groups (Economist: Immigration and Language).

McKenzie’s piece I think speaks directly to some of my musings about issues of identity. It is easy to feel at home within different identities, and while we share loyalties with different communities this really isn’t a zero-sum game, and nationality is one of many communities within which we can belong.

The post on the Economist I thought was interesting, in that it tries to shine some light on some common misconceptions with respect to language and immigration. I think it is fascinating how generation after generation seem to react to new immigrant groups in almost the same xenophobic way. Afraid that this new incursion will somehow upset an idyllic past that didn’t used to include whatever new group is entering the picture. Of course what is amusing is that each generation glosses over the fact that the current idyllic past was once one considered an unacceptable future by many who did not want to allow the previous wave of immigrants in. Currently, there are many who fear the new Latin invasion and what it would do to the US. There is fear that the US identity will be changed. And there is truth to this fear. The US identity will undoubtedly change, but this change is inevitable. Cultures are fluid and constantly changing as new problems and ideas arise, societies adapt and evolve. I don’t believe there is much concern for the U.S. becoming a permanently bilingual country, as I expect that over a couple generations Latin immigrants like immigrant groups before them will try to maintain cultural ties to their past, but will adopt English for most of their needs. While I don’t think that the US is in any risk of becoming a dual language nation, I do wonder if that is such a great thing. Wouldn’t it be a competitive advantage for the country as a whole to be multilingual. In a world that is becoming more connected, I would think that speaking multiple languages would something to strive for and not reject out of hand.

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