Recently, I participated in a dialogue at the University of Chicago in which Civic Reflection Fellows used a YouTube video to focus the group’s attention on themes of identity and community, diversity and difference, exclusion and belonging.
In the video, Canadian actor and playwright Andrew Moodie discusses the complex feelings of belonging, difference, and otherness he experienced as a child of Jamaican immigrants in Canada. He describes how he was immensely proud to be Canadian while growing up, and then humorously relates how he came to see himself as “all Jamaican” after Usain Bolt won the 100 m race in the Olympics. Moodie quips, “Suddenly, thanks to my parents, I had a genetic connection to the fastest human being in the world. And with a couple of months’ training, I could beat his record easy.”
Moodie tells the viewer that as an avowedly multi-cultural society, Canada “has been at the forefront of a day-to-day struggle to embrace difference and otherness and to do away with the other as an alien enemy.” But he observes that children of immigrants often embrace the “dominant culture” while they “place their parents’ culture in a pocket of [their] consciousness.”
While Canada prides itself on being a society that preserves and values cultural differences, Moodie’s story suggests that Canada has not fully achieved the ideal of multiculturalism, which “imagines a world in which the other is not merely a difference and not an enemy or a threat.” After all, if our society embraced all cultural differences, would there be a demarcation between a “dominant culture” and other “immigrant cultures”?
This video was affecting for me as a child of Indian immigrants to Canada. Moodie’s anecdote led me to wonder about how and why his cultural identity developed and changed as it did. Why did his younger self affirm characteristically Canadian customs and values? Why did he not strongly identify as Jamaican until the moment of Usain Bolt’s Olympic victory?
I have no doubt that he loved hockey and enjoyed his Tim Horton’s coffee and donuts. But Moodie’s personal recollection hints at another motivation that children of immigrants who are visible minorities may have for embracing “the dominant culture.” Perhaps he had to embody Canadian stereotypes in order to be recognized as Canadian because his ethnicity made him look unlike most Canadians.
I suspect that children of immigrants to Canada who are, like Moodie and like me, visible minorities may be inclined at an early age to distance ourselves from our parents’ culture for fear of being viewed as different, alien, and other. We embrace the values and practices of mainstream society in the hope that other members of our society will recognize us as fellow Canadians. I’m reminded of a line from a New York Times interview with Harnarayan Singh, Sikh co-host of the Punjabi broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada, in which he said of his schooldays: “I wore hockey shirts because then I didn’t have to answer, ‘What is that thing on your head?’”
Moodie suggests that evolution predisposes us to view differences as signs of an alien enemy threatening our tribe. But as we probe the topic of exclusion and belonging, I reflect that the problem may not be genetically encoded in human beings, but rather rooted in principles of psychology and even the logic of identity. For every quality that might be used to define our identity gets its meaning in contrast to something else to which it is opposed. Moodie’s story challenges us to think about how a community can genuinely embrace all cultural differences while maintaining a clear concept of its identity.
Vivid stories shared by the group helped us to imagine how a community can embrace those who are different. One student tells us she had several roommates who shared Hispanic language and culture and belonged to OLAS, the student organization for Latin American students at the University of Chicago. She recounts how they included their one Nigerian roommate in many of their OLAS events and enjoyed sharing their cultural heritage with her. Another participant shares with us that she is Jewish and has a husband who is Japanese. She relates that she practices Japanese customs to share in her Japanese family’s culture and to expose her son to his Japanese heritage by, for example, making sushi for her relatives. While her relatives appreciate her efforts, she knows she will never fully understand Japanese culture. She reflects, however, that it is okay for her to be “the other” since it allows everyone to be herself or himself within a community of people shaped by their cultural differences.
I wonder whether we can learn something from these stories about the struggle of a multicultural society to embrace different cultures and the struggle of individuals with mixed heritage to embrace the differences within themselves. As I leave the discussion, I reflect that I never had a moment like Moodie when I completely identified with my Indian heritage, even when I admired the accomplishments of other Indians such as Anglo-Indian writers. Still, reading these authors' writings made me realize that aspects of my life I had assumed to be purely particular and idiosyncratic were actually part of a cultural heritage I shared with other children of immigrants from India in North America. These writings gave me a place where I could go to be at home in Indian (immigrant) culture and get to know the alien otherness that had estranged me from others and from myself while I was growing up. The civic reflection dialogue led me to reflect more deeply on how the struggle to acknowledge cultural differences within oneself mirrors the struggle to accept different cultures within one society.