Defining Your Ethnicity
2. A word such as ethnicity seems like a neat word to express a simple idea and as many people of colour know, we understand ethnicity isn't simple and thinking about our own ethnicity in relation to how others perceive it evokes emotions.
I take a first tackle at this seemingly "direct" question and bring in some thoughts that have been prompted from the book, The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World by Manning Nash and the docuseries entitled Enslaved (2020) featuring Samuel L. Jackson.
The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World by Manning Nash (The University of Chicago Press)
Enslaved (2020) - EPIX
Enslaved (2020) featuring Samuel L. Jackson - BBC Two
I’m T. Vyas, you can call me T became most people do. I’m, as you’ve guessed, a person of colour who looks forward to chatting with you about some things identity, some things colour and ALL things Love! Tune in Tuesdays for a new episode! In the meantime, you can find me on Instagram @lovehowbc.
You are listening to the podcast. Love How Brown Cow episode number two,
Welcome to Love How Brown Cow, a podcast about love, colour, and identity, and we're driving yourself crazy. It's totally sane and curable. Now your host T. Vyas.
Welcome to the podcast today. I'm going to talk with you about ethnicity and in particular, that question that people of colour get often: what is your ethnicity? What's your ethnic group and also questions in relation to ancestry. So where were your parents born? And I kind of clump these together into origin questions. So whether it's ethnicity or your familial line, for the sake of our discussion, I'm going to call them origin questions. And I find any sort of questions like these. I find them actually really fascinating because when you were speaking of origin, it's like, how far back in time are you speaking? And if you keep going back and back and back in time, then everyone's origin. Every human beings’ origin actually would be the continent of Africa. And I actually realised, I don't understand a lot about ethnicity from maybe a sociology perspective.
And so I kind of am going to intermingle some of my thoughts with my, a book I'm reading. It's the first book I'm reading about ethnicity called The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World. And he (the writer) talks about this point of origin actually. And for the sake of his book, the modern world is about 500 years ago. So, so it's the time in history that we know today, where the continents, the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia, all collided. And the second reason why I find this question interesting is what about people who are mixed race? They often get the question, what are you as the origin question? People who are adopted and those that have lost their ancestral ties through enslavement, persecution and genocide, and it gets quite complicated and for so many reasons for definitions, but also because it is an emotionally charged question.
And for the sake of our discussion, I'm going to have basically two definitions. One is how you define your origin and also how you communicate that origin. And the second definition is how everybody else defines your origin. And that could your neighbour and your coworkers, or the NHS, the National Health Service in the UK. And I recently had an encounter with identifying my ethnic group. When I went to their website, I was looking for my, to see what my body mass index is. And I went to the NHS website and there you have to put in your height, your weight, your age, your gender, and then an optional question. They asked what is my ethnicity? And from the dropdown list, I was able to choose one and get a little bit more information about what my BMI meant in relation to ethnicity. And so, so basically two definitions your private.
And then there's the public definition. So kind of, depending on who's asking whether it's the NHS or whether it's a person in an everyday conversation asks you: what is your ethnicity? What does that mean? And the question when somebody asks it in a, in a conversation, it almost sounds more direct when in fact it's a really complicated question. So when I broke down the definitions into these two ways, private and public, I started to realise that there is a mismatch sometimes, and sometimes there isn't. So in everyday conversation, let's say somebody that doesn't look or sound like me. I named her, Ninah, she asks me, what is your ethnicity, or where are your parents born? Or any sort of origin question? I answer that question. Well, my ethnicity is Indian. My parents were born in India and I'm answering from her reference point. And I also answered that question in the NHS website from their reference point. However, sometimes this reference point changes depending on the person that asked me the question. So if somebody who does look like me and I'll name her Neena, she, when she asks me this question, her reference point is going to be different. If she, if we have the shared origin of India, the question is more about where in India or what language we speak.
And so I was starting to see that I would answer any sort of origin question kind of from the reference point of the person that's asking it instead of my own reference point, looking back and thinking about that, I guess I really didn't understand what my reference point, what did I want my reference point to be? What is actually how I see my story, how I see my origin story, and then how I see it, does it actually match how I tell that story. And to me, those are very two different things. Like you can think about your story in one way, and then you communicate it in another way, because it's easier to be heard. And it's easier for the information to come across.
And at the same time that I'm reading this book by Manny Nash called The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World. I am also watching a docuseries called Enslaved featuring Samuel L. Jackson. And in this docuseries, he traces his ancestry to the location, to the tribe in Africa of where he's from. And so with technology having changed, people who have lost their origin, the knowledge of their family, their culture, are able to use technology to find it. And so the reference point today is also changing for people that are presumed to have lost some of their cultural heritage. It helped me see that reference points can be shifted. And in this case, reference points are being shifted because now there's technology. Now there's more awareness and I highly recommend watching the docuseries it's called Enslaved and it's on EPIX (channel), and it's also coming to one of the BBC channels. And today there's been kind of this prompt in not going along with the accepted reference points that have been historically taught to us.
And then it, it got me thinking more about everyday conversations, where I'm answering questions on the basis of someone's reference point. And I thought that in everyday conversation, it is an opportunity to help shift that reference point. So I'm working this out. I'm, I'm reading this book and I was thinking that, and I'm kind of in the middle of it. I'm not, I haven't, and I don't think I'll ever figure it out. And I know definitely that I want to talk more with you about ethnicity. And in the beginning of my journey, reading this book and watching the docuseries and reflecting on past conversations, I think there's actually two things that I think moving forward I'm going to do is one, is really think about what my reference point is and try to match that with how I communicate with somebody else. And the second is to listen harder to people's story of their origin and how they tell it not how I first think about it from my own reference point, and maybe realise that there is also that disconnect between what I think of another person's origin and how they tell their story.
And so that when I start to communicate differently and listen differently, it's no longer that the reference point should help to authorise kind of institutional reference points, but rather help to disempower them and not establish them as the one and only reference point that we have about our stories. And I'll know, I'll come back to it as, as I read more. And as I, and as I learn more and I will put in the show notes, the book I'm reading and the information on the docuseries called Enslaved, and I'm going to leave you with a quote from the book Manning Nash writes: “I am not sure the world can be being better with honest facts and new ideas, but I am certain that it can and has been made worse by lies and falsehoods.” I'll check back with you next week.
Thanks for listening tune in next Tuesday for another episode. And in the meantime, check out the Instagram account @lovehowbc.