Dedicated to my cousin Sara for tirelessly contesting my identities (in some great ways) and supplying me with many terrible pictures of myself.
Over the years my answers to the question “What’s your ethnicity?” have varied a lot. To give you a sense of the full range, I went from “My mom is Chinese and my dad is normal” to “My mom is Chinese and my dad is white” to “My mom is from Taiwan. My dad is from Pennsylvania.” My answer still varies these days. I used to think that all this variation in the way I explain my identity was a result of identity confusion on my part. But I’ve come around to the idea that it is actually a pretty normal and widespread phenomenon to have different ways of making your identity depending on who you’re talking with, how you think they will understand the terms you are using and what you want to emphasize about yourself.
A lot of anthropologists and some sociolinguistics have started saying that identity isn’t a thing that you just have. Instead an identity is something that you actually create, for yourself or for someone else – and one of the ways you create those identities is through language, by the terms you use. Take for example “My mom is from Taiwan. vs. My mom is Chinese.” In choosing one over the other I am making a statement that Taiwan is distinct enough from China to merit a separate designation and I am also claiming that I am the kind of person to whom this distinction between Taiwan and China is important. But this claim on my part is only meaningful because there is a history of contesting whether or not these are two separate entities or whether one subsumes the other.
But really, there are no “neutral” or “matter of fact” terms to identify people. There are just more or less contested terms. This is what we are missing in conversations about “political correctness”. I came across an email this week detailing Internal Guidelines for Policy writing in a U.S. based non-profit. The line that stood out to me was found under the guidelines for using Hispanic vs. Latino/a.
“Respect personal preferences whenever possible. For example, Justice Sotamayor uses ‘Latina’ to describe herself, and we should respect that”.
It’s presented in the way politically correct language is usually presented. You should use this word because people want you to, or because other people use it. Without any explanation of why it really matters.
Here’s why it really matters. If the terms that we use for ourselves create identities for us, then the terms that we use for other people create identities for them. If we are creating identities for people that are in opposition to the identities they are creating for themselves we are engaging them in a battle for their identity. It isn’t always wrong to challenge someone on their identity – but you should know what you’re getting yourself into and evaluate whether or not you are the right person to do the challenging (who the right person is - that's another issue that is really contested).
One last note. The meanings of these identity terms are not unchanging. Words get their meanings from their histories, so as history shifts the connotations these words have also shifts. According to this article by Pew Research Center (and this post by NPR’s Code Switch blog), the difference between “Latin@” and “Hispanic” may be less salient now than it was previously. On the other hand, the recent tensions between Taiwan and China over a Trade Pact agreement (see here for details) is likely to make Taiwanese identity and the term "Taiwanese" more contested and more salient to those on both sides of the issue.
I’m curious about you guys. What are the words you use to describe yourself? Are there some terms that you care more about and others that you are more ambivalent about? Who would you allow/not allow to challenge you on the terms you use to describe yourself?