Imposed Versus Actual Identity

Can you name the three goals of Dual Language Education? You are right if you said that they are:

  1. High Academic Achievement
  2. Bilingualism and Biliteracy
  3. Sociocultural Competence

Sociocultural competence is generally the least considered of the three goals. Not easily measured through standardized testing, districts often focus more on the first two pillars of Dual Language Education. Furthermore, historically, many Dual Language programs have considered a Cinco de Mayo fiesta (Spanish-English), a Spring Festival celebration (Mandarin-English), or another cursory look at a holiday celebrated by some heritage speakers of the partner language, to be sufficient for covering the third goal. However, we cannot attain sociocultural competence by only examining one aspect of a singular culture. In fact, The Guiding Principles of Dual Language Education (Howard et. al, 2013) recommends a focus on “identity development, cross-cultural competence, and multicultural appreciation – for all students” (3). Let’s take a deeper look at identity development as it relates to sociocultural competence in education.

Identity development requires students to examine their own identities and to learn to value who they are. Every student is a member of multiple identity groups. These identity groups include, but are not limited to, race, gender, nationality, heritage language, religion, and culture. By carefully examining the intersection of these identities, students can come to understand and value themselves for who they are, and then begin to understand others who belong to different combinations of identities. This understanding, especially in the context of historical racism, is the first step towards decolonization.  

In our previous article about Transcultural Acculturation, we talked about several activities to help students explore their identities. However, for any of these or other identity affirming activities to work, we must be careful not to impose identity.  

Imposed identity is identity which other people place upon an individual. Imposed identity happens often in life, and in our schools. An example of imposed identity is when a teacher tells a child, or worse, insists that a child accepts that they are Chinese or Venezuelan because of their heritage. Often, teachers do this because they assume that they are helping students accept who they are. However, a student born in this country, or born elsewhere but who is growing up in the United States, has the right to consider themselves American even if their families recently immigrated. Furthermore, a student may choose to recognize multiple nationalities, or they may elect to identify solely with their heritage. Therefore, any demands we as educators place upon students in reference to their identity is contrary to our mission of identity development, since this is a very personal journey for each individual, especially for Third Culture Kids.

Overt statements demanding particular identities are not the only form of imposed identity.  Often, the imposition of identity is a type of more subtle microaggression, often known in the field as the “alien in one’s own land” phenomenon. For instance, when discussing one of the aforementioned cultural celebrations in class, a Dual Language Education teacher may ask a student, “How does Mexico celebrate Día de los Muertos?” While this question may seem innocent enough, a student may not be a celebrant of that particular tradition in their household and therefore, not know any more than what can be found in a book (if that). Similarly, complimenting a student on how well they speak English is also a way of other-izing a student (unless you know a student is an Emergent Bilingual and working on their English). The student might have grown up speaking English or have reached proficiency many years prior. In both of these cases, the educator is not considering that the student’s experiences might not match up with the educator’s pre-conceived notion of which experiences make up that particular student’s identity. Cases of imposed identity like this can harm a student’s journey of self-understanding by making them feel self-conscious or diminishing their sense of belonging and acceptance. 

It can be challenging to be aware of how we can inadvertently impose identities, especially considering that there have been past practices of imposing identity even in our global history. Taxonomist Linnaeus (1735) created the since then debunked racial categories (and the pseudo-scientific associated hierarchy) that still influence our culture today, thus creating one of the first large scale examples of imposed identity in modern history. For example, he labeled all individuals who descended from Africa as “Homo sapiens afer,” although groups within Africa did not generally consider themselves to be one ethnicity. Similarly, he created racial groups for all those descending from the Americas, all those descending from Asia, and all those descending from Europe respectively even though the peoples from these classifications usually did not and, in many cases, often still do not self-identify even today as one group. Instead, people tend to identify according to their respective communities and nations.

Let’s stop imposing identity. Instead, have students identify who they are. Let them say which groups they belong to, which languages they speak, which nationalities they embrace, what gender they belong to… and allow them to change their minds in their journey of self-discovery. It is this process of exploration that allows students to explore who they are so that they can eventually reach identity achievement. 

Aradhana Mudambi
Author: Aradhana Mudambi

Dr. Aradhana Mudambi is an accomplished, multilingual educator and social justice activist. She is the proud owner of Social Justice and Education. She is currently the Director of Multilingual Education at Framingham Public Schools, Adjunct Professor of Intercultural Communications at Eastern Connecticut State University, and President of the Multistate Association for Bilingual Education. She has extensive experience writing grants for language acquisition programs. She is also an experienced advocate for Dual Language Education and World Languages, having been invited recently to speak at institutions such as Harvard University and the National Association of Bilingual Education. You can learn more about her and her work at www.socialjusticeandeducation.org.

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