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The Sticky Problems of Ethnic Identity in California 21 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity, Teaching.
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NOTE: This is one of those moments when I’m definitely weilding my “hammer”; but I want it clear that I’m thinking out loud. I know that this can be highly charged and controversial; I’m hoping to invite thoughtful and detailed consideration and dialgue about this issue. As an educator, it is of vital importance to me. Edited for clarity, March 1, 2008.

As a university teacher, I often find students resisting me not at an intellectual level, but at the level of identity. Can I, a gay white male, possibly be an effective mentor or teacher to a Mexican American? An African American? An immigrant from India? A straight man? A Christian? A Republican? Are our identities so incommensurate as to dehumanize us beyond mutual understanding, compassion, trust, sharing, and simple interaction?

Sociologically, I have been trying to understand the racial and ethnic dynamics of identity in California since i moved here, mainly because my own values on the topic are from a typical multicultural perspective: celebrate and respect differences. But I’m also of the first Sesame Street generation, so my mulitculturalism is more liberal than radical, and I find myself saddened that what I experience in here in California isn’t the integrated world I was promised by Bob and Susan when I was a child. Now, everyone’s hybrid/creole/mestizo/mixed, but pretending they’re not, and drawing what feel like ever-tightening boundaries around their various communities, reifying differences (in some cases inventing them) for the sake of difference itself.

I have questioned the practice of multiculturalism on this blog in the past, if not its values; and continue to struggle with the lived effects of multiculturalism as it is practiced here in day-to-day life, and that I see in California’s political, social, and educational life. I wonder if there isn’t a need to revisit the ideas of having a shared identity in addition to all these others, in order for a democratic state to function well and for real communities (with caring, sharing, trust, and participation) to form. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, let me start with the huge caveat that I’m saying all of this already assuming for a knowledge of the past, the racism and forced assimilation policies of the U.S. government and the travesties of the dominant culture; meaning to say that I’m not naive. I also understand social privilege and white privilege and how it might be informing my position here.

As a sociologist, I can step back and see California’s ethnic identity intensification relatively dispassionately as a confluence of a) a massive proportion of the population of CA is immigrant; b) immigrants already feel beseiged in their receiving countries; and c) American culture’s reification of cultural differences and fetishization of identity. These three factors have produced since the late 1960s–in addition to the old-style “white flight” (not to mention middle-class of color flight) we’re all used to–an intensification of self-ghettoization of immigrant communities, where living in ethnic enclaves has become the desired norm. Californians, when polled, often prefer it (I’m trying to hunt down the cite for this; it’s been a couple years since I read it); Californians of all colors [seem to] prefer living in segregated (college educated, middle class respondants of all races/ethnicities are the exception). Nearly 1/2 of all immigrants to the U.S. live in California, that is, nearly 1/2 of all people born outside of the U.S. who now live in the U.S. live in CA. [This number was from before 2005, the first year that the majority of Mexican immigrants went to destinations outside of California; I don’t know what the current proportion of total immigrants to the U.S. living in CA is now.]

Immigrants in the past also lived in enclaves, but they were smaller, not constantly fed by new arrivals (in increasing numbers) and they pushed their children to succede in American culture. Most of the civil rights battles of Latinos and Chinese Americans, for example, here in CA before 1970, were about having equal access to the institutions, fair and equal treatment under the law, and about becoming Californian. Now the cultural emphasis is really different: Parents want their children to stay in the enclaves and ‘be’ something else. The civil rights battles seem to have shifted to the right to stay separate, culturally and socially (e.g., the current battles in San Jose over what to name the new “Vietnamese” district). On one hand, I think democratically that the right to free association gives people the right to form enclaves if they want; I’m not convinced, however, that it’s the best decision to make; and I’m pretty sure at this point that it serves to reproduce racist discourses by reifying the racist identifications with cultural identities and communal associations, rather than undercutting and eliminating racism, which in my opinion should be our goal.

This gets even more complicated when you look empirically at how the children of immigrants live. In the past, COIs were “bicultural” and could move easily in “American” contexts. The key here is that all indicators are that this trend continues, even in the larger, more permanent enclaves of today. In other words, COIs still integrate into larger American culture. The one differences researchers are noting is that it may take a bit longer and that COIs retain much more of their parents’ native culture, not because of their parents, but because the enclaves are constantly being fed new immigrants with whom they interact. So I see a contradiction in our insistence on cultural difference and identification with those differences, and the empirical realities that the COIs and 3rd gen are relatively completely integrated into American society. What do we get from the values having shifted to emphasizing the identity difference rather than social justice; or to say it a different way, what are the consequences of this shift, where the right to identify as different seems to have supplanted all other older arguments for real social justice in the law, education, housing, etc.

As an illustration: I have many COI students who grew up in an enclave of (pick an) immigrant community, but who listen to the same music as most American kids, speak English with that irritating California terminal upspeak, are mostly secular, follow American sports, watch American Idol, etc.; but when asked if they are American, they wrinkle their noses and say no. They are filipino/mexicano/vietnamese/chinese/etc. So empirically, they are living lives similar to most Americans of their age, but they refuse the identity.

As a teacher, I often see this manifested in a really destructive way among some of my Latino students, for example, who in the privacy of my office have confided that they are going it alone, because their friends and sometimes even their families think that going to college is “acting white” and that they are betraying their heritage by getting an education.

As an educator, these are symptoms of a problem that is troubling to me. If we are at all concerned about the COIs being able to succeed in American society at school and in the workplace and becoming fully participating members of the American democratic sphere, then it seems we need to revisit how we are doing “identity”. Perhaps the model we adopted from the early 1970s, which has gone uninterrogated for the past 35 years, is no longer adequate or working.** I’m not suggesting anything particularly radical here, just that in addition to our identifications with ethnicities, religions and cultures of our immigrant ancestors, we should also be thinking about what we have in common. The fetishization of difference to the exclusion of what we share has made it increasingly difficult for a more desirable kind of multiculturalism to develop.

Because of our (bad) history of ethnic inequality here in California, we are very touchy about “assimilation” and the dynamics of assimilation, so no one wants to talk about how this might be handicapping the children of immigrants. In a freaky (ironic?) sort of way, we have ended up back in segregation land, but through different social dynamics from the segregation of the past. [And this leaves aside the whole issue of social cohesion so necessary in a democracy (see Robert Putnam’s research from last year on how diversity increases social distrust, depresses social/communal participation, and reduces democratic dialogue).] And so how do we re-theorize this new kind of segregation, where racism is still a factor, but a much more complex and multi-directional racism (i.e., not a simply white v. black racism of 50 years ago); and how do we think about where we want to go from here? Is separatism really the only answer, the only way for people of color and COIs to find meaningful identities in America? Is America really that far beyond redemption? Is the Sesame Street (and for that matter, Barak Obama) version of mutliculturalism really just a lie?

**In a larger sense, and too big for this discussion here, I often find that our theories of race and gender are still based on assumptions that worked well in the 1950s and 60s when they were formulated, but don’t match the world we live in now. I think it’s time for a rethinking of our theories of social inequality and stratification writ large.



1. hm-uk - 22 February 2008

You wrote:

“Californians of all colors [seem to] prefer living in segregated (college educated, middle class respondants of all races/ethnicities are the exception).”

I think class identification is the key, here. Class values seem to transcend ethnic segregation, don’t you think? We only have to assimilate into our respective classes by participating in the activities common to those classes and the assimilation into ‘white’ society becomes unnecessary. For instance, gallery visits are ‘very’ middle class. All you have to do is voluntarily step through the door and the assumption is made by white people inside that you are ‘safe’, no matter what your ethnic origins. The activity within the gallery demands that you value a particular mindset…That’s just my opinion, however. This is a very interesting topic to me.

2. Todd - 22 February 2008

Yeah, I think class identification is key. The problem (or messiness) is that when you ask middle class people of all colors if they want to live in integrated neighborhoods, they say yes; but they don’t actually live in integrated neighborhoods. Here in the Bay Area where I live, you can find some more or less integrated neighborhoods in San Francisco itself, because of the nature and size of the city, but even here, neighborhoods are dominated by a particular ethnicity. Any white person moving in is seen as “Gentrification” (regardless of the class of the white person). The same has been true in Oakland, where actual integration is experienced as gentrification. I heard an African American professor giving a talk a few months ago about the creation of Asian enclaves in Santa Clara county, and his explanation was “white flight.” The problem with his analysis is that it leaves out the other side of the coin: Asians are choosing to form enclaves specifically to create culturally homogenous living zones.

The imbrication of class and race/ethnicity in these cases is complex and not immediately apparent, to be sure. But again, the old mode of thinking that it’s all due to Racism (usually code for “white racists”) doesn’t seem to map onto the reality anymore.

3. hm-uk - 23 February 2008

Of course it is quite complex and I’m sure my reductionist statement that it’s a class issue doesn’t even begin to alight onto the surface.
I am guilty of wanting to live in a gay ghetto – I feel safer surrounded by my own (whatever class they tend to be) than the same socio-economic class of straight singles or couples. However, when visiting a museum I’d much rather be surrounded by middle-class patrons from any walk of life.
BTW, I note that when I wrote “the assumption is made by white people INSIDE that you are ’safe’, no matter what your ethnic origins,” and I cannot seem to completely get away from using privileged language when making an ‘off the cuff’ statement. I think I need to go and read some more on this. I’ve really only read bell hooks and John Ogbu, and only then it was a required reading.
Situation in a class gives you the options of your class. Situation in your ethnicity gives you…protection and community, perhaps?

4. Todd - 23 February 2008

Absolutely! This is yet another layer in the problem/discussion. I too prefer living in a gay ghetto, and I bemoan the slow but steady dissolution of gay neighborhoods around the country. I think that having physical spaces where social interaction can occur is the only way for minority groups to ensure their ability to define themselves, rather than be defined by the majority culture.

This is why I’m of two minds and conflicted on this issue. I completely understand, at a visceral level, why ethnic groups might want to live together and create communities together.

So perhaps my concern is less about geographical segregation (as long as its freely chosen and not enforced by the state), than it is about the *kind* of ethnic identities that we have chosen to adopt in the U.S. since the 1970s, ethnic identities that are themselves separatist, with tight scripts and boundary monitoring both from within and to keep “bad” people out.

Is there a way to form ethnic identities in America that do not preclude us from forming a shared “American” identity (however minimal and fractured and fraught that may be), so that we can meet in the public sphere (e.g., a university classroom) and identify with each other across those boundaries? You see, this is where my childhood Sesame Street (and adulthood Barak Obama) multiculturalism kicks in: I want all of my students to identify with Frederick Douglas, not just my black students; I want all my students to understand and identify with the people in the bracero program, not just my Latino students; I want all my students to identify with the people who scratched Cantonese poetry onto the walls of Angel Island Detention Center, not just my Asian students; and I want all my students to read Ann Bradstreet’s poetry about losing her grandchildren to disease and identify with her. I want all my students to engage with Jefferson and Emerson and W.E.B. Du Bois.

As long as we think that we can only identify with people of the same skin tone and ancestry as our own, we will continue to create a fragmented, racist, and I fear necessarily unequal society.

5. hm-uk - 23 February 2008

I had a huge comment ready to go and realized that it sounded rather separatist, which I don’t think I am…

I reread your last sentence of your latest comment and thought that there is nothing to refute that – it’s a sound goal to work toward.

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