Who Gets to Define Identity?

Dual Language Education provides an opportunity for language-minority students to connect to their linguistic identities by learning their heritage language. Connections to one’s heritage language provide many benefits.  For example, they provide students with the ability to develop relationships with family members who may not speak any language other than the home language.  Also, connections to one’s heritage language provide a greater sense of belonging for students with communities where their language is spoken. Both of these benefits help students affirm their own cultural identities. However, as excited as we may be to help in this identity development, which is in fact an element of sociocultural competence, we, as Dual Language teachers, need to steer clear of defining students’ identities for them.

Each individual, including each of our students, has the right to define their own cultural identity. While the way students may identify may seem baffling to us, our job is only to guide them in thinking about their identities; our job is not to define who they are for them. In fact, students with the same ethnic profiles may define themselves differently, and they have the right to do so. For instance, let us imagine a set of siblings, all of whom were born in the United States and have parents who were born in Mexico. One of the siblings may not consider themselves Mexican at all. Instead, having been born and raised in the United States, the student may identify as only American and has every right to do so. To tell them otherwise would fall under the category of microaggressions known as Forever Alien in One’s Own Land, where individuals, no matter how many generations their ancestors have been in the United States, are thought to not be American because of their physical features, name, or another “othering” characteristic. Furthermore, we should not assume that this student is denying their heritage either. Part of their identity may be that they are a child of Mexican immigrants or that they are Mexican-descent, and therefore, they may embrace that part of their culture and identity without having to label themselves Mexican. This is totally okay.

On the other hand, another sibling may consider themselves both American and Mexican. This is also a perfectly acceptable way of identifying themselves. To tell them not to consider themselves American would be again, the Forever Alien in One’s Own Land microaggression, and to deny their claim to be Mexican would be to deny their identity as it pertains to their heritage. Finally, the last sibling may consider themselves Mexican but not American. Again, this is fine as well. The last sibling is clearly highlighting their heritage culture in the way they self-identify, and they have every right to do so. Their upbringing in the United States may shape their identity differently. For instance, they may consider themselves a Mexican who grew up in the United States. While the fact that three students growing up under the same roof may identify differently may seem confusing, there is no one way a person must identify themselves, and we, as educators and as people, must allow for these differences.

Furthermore, identity is also fluid and constantly being challenged and reshaped, especially during the preteen and teen years, so in addition to accepting how students self-identify, we need to allow students to refine how they self-identify as they continue to grow, and we need to help them understand that they are perfect just the way they are however they may identify. To support students in this process I call transcultural acculturation, we need to give students books about other immigrant and second generation students’ experiences. We need to give them space to have discussions about their identities. And as long as we never define their identities for them or try to push them to identify in a certain way, we need to play vital roles in students discovering their identities, whatever that may be . 

Aradhana Mudambi
Author: Aradhana Mudambi

Dr. Aradhana Mudambi is the founder and Chief Advocate for Students at Language and Equity Education Solutions LLC, a consulting firm that supports schools and school districts to build and improve their multilingual programming, especially their Dual Language Education programs. Through Language and Equity, she provides professional development, consulting, and coaching. For the past few years, Dr. Mudambi has run her popular blog, Social Justice and Education. She has taught several courses such as Intercultural Communications, TESOL Methods, and Assessments for Bilingual Students at Eastern Connecticut State University. Furthermore, she serves as the Director of Multilingual Education at Framingham Public Schools in Massachusetts where she oversees Dual Language programs in Spanish and Portuguese. Additionally, she worked as the Director of Bilingual Education at Windham Public Schools, not only overseeing and restructuring Windham’s Two-Way Dual Language program, Compañeros, but also founding and building Dos Ríos, New England’s first One-Way Dual Language program. Dr. Mudambi has served as a building leader, a Dual Language teacher, an ESOL teacher, and a Spanish teacher. She has worked in India, Mexico, France, England, and The United States. You can reach Dr. Mudambi at arm977@mail.harvard.edu.

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