Thinking About the Future of Culture and Identity in America

Note: Wrote this in early 2017, obviously an essay for school, but I wanted to share it as I find myself referring more and more to this idea of plural cultural identities. As future generations increasingly become culturally diluted, what are we to think of the future of race and identity? What are the repercussions of such changes?

As an American born Chinese, I face this identification crisis as though I’m constantly straddling western and eastern-influenced ideals at home and at school. I am American. But I also went to Chinese school every Sunday, I celebrate Chinese holidays, I can narrate classic Chinese children’s fables, and I visit China every few years (where I’m immediately deemed an outsider). True, many others around me share this background — but while I feel that our shared experience gives us much in common, we also share a kind of no-man’s land: in between two cultures, two histories, and in some sense, two approaches to life.

Gloria Anzaldúa’s 1987 work Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza captures this identity crisis that young multicultural Americans face — growing up as a Chicana along the US/Mexico border, Anzaldúa was influenced by multiple overlapping cultures with different traditions, different ideals, and different languages. Like many around her, she was not fully “American” like her white peers nor fully Mexican like those living on the other side of the border. This led to the creation of new plural identities that incorporate two or more languages and cultures in varying degrees. Three decades later, we can see the larger political impact that these newly formed plural cultures have had: there’s a disconnect between Americans with different cultures and races. In 2016, we started to see the true effects of a fragmented nation. The middle aged white farmer may not understand the prejudice against minority groups, and minorities may not understand the struggles of the middle aged white farmer whose world has been turned upside down by technological change.

Each subgroup maintains an augmented sense of entitlement (some greater than others), of what their America means. We all hear that America is a nation of immigrants and a melting pot of cultures, but how do we keep our unique cultures while maintaining shared American values that ultimately bring us together? As our new president ironically said at his victory rally after a divisive campaign, “It is time for us to come together as one united people.” Can this realistically happen?

An essential element of what makes one’s foreign culture is native language. Anzaldúa first documents her trouble with language growing up near the border, speaking Spanish at home but being forced to speak English at school. She doesn’t fully identify with either language or culture — not American or Mexican, but somewhere in between. From early childhood, she spoke “a patois, a forked tongue, a variation of two languages” (77). Chicano Spanish was the result of those with similar experiences coming together to establish a unique language for their Chicano identity. The creation of new hybrid languages in turn created similarly mixed cultures and identities, as people “straddled the borderlands” — physically, culturally, and linguistically (84). These are all interconnected; Anzaldúa notes that her “ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity” (81). It’s hard for kids to know what to identify as when on one side they are constantly exposed to their native culture at home and with their family, and on the other side are thrown into an American education system. This isn’t unique to Anzaldúa, it’s a shared conflict among young first and second generation Americans. Throughout elementary and middle school, I subconsciously put my Chinese heritage aside and never considered my race to be a factor at all in friendships. I thought, I was born in America, and therefore I was supposed to be American. I slacked off in Chinese school and spoke Chinese only occasionally with my parents and grandparents — English was my language, the language of Americans. It was only halfway through high school that I started to learn more about my family’s history and appreciate my Chinese heritage. Slowly, my English became Chinglish.

There are many equivalents to “Chinglish” — Hinglish, Konglish, and Chicano Spanish to name a few. Using these hybrid languages are groups of people that also inhabit multiple overlapping cultures and maintain “a kind of dual identity” (85). The potential issue with these new plural cultures is that different groups of people become increasingly disconnected with each other on political and cultural ideologies. Interestingly, today the most prominent disconnect is rather binary: between the white middle class and African-American population. We’ve seen this in the past few years with highly publicized police violence against unarmed black men, where there was a clear divide in how white Americans and minorities saw the incident in relation to race issues.

Technically we are all “American”, but when we hold dual identities, there is less of a sense of what it means to be American. This is no one’s fault, after all, we are most comfortable with others who share similar backgrounds and cultures. Unsurprisingly, self segregation is prevalent in high schools and colleges today — each respective plural culture group becomes its own homogenous clique, and rarely do two groups organically interact with each other. I’ve noticed that Chinese-Americans and International Chinese students don’t interact much; although both come from Chinese heritage, the two groups share little else in common. When does “culture fit” become subtle racism? The issue with this is that we become too comfortable with our newly found Chicano/Chinglish identities and forget what being American is supposed to mean: as printed on our currency, E Pluribus unum — Out of Many, One. Anzaldúa acknowledges this conflict between recognizing individual identity and unity:

Yet the struggle of identities continues, the struggle of borders is our reality still. One day the inner struggle will cease and a true integration take place. In the meantime, tenemos que hacerla lucha. ¿Quién está protegiendo los ranchos de mi gente? ¿Quién está tratando de cerrar la fisura entre la india y el blanco en nuestra sangre? El Chicano, sí, el Chicano que anda como un ladrón en su propia casa. (85)

Splitting the paragraph into half English and half Spanish, Anzaldúa argues that until true integration eventually takes place, there is a true struggle of what the Chicano’s place in society is. The question then becomes, does this “true integration” take place within individuals on an internal level, or will it be the result of a larger societal shift in acceptance of different cultures? Anzaldúa answers this by creating a completely new culture that transcends race or ethnicity: a “new mestiza consciousness, a consciousness of the Borderlands” (99). The “true integration” into American culture she suggests is not one that gives up all previous identity to fully assimilate into America, nor one that is defined solely against a white anglo norm, but rather one that consists of a mix of several cultures, races, and ethnicities. La mestiza is the result of different cultural and spiritual values combining with each other, “in a state of perpetual transition,” more than the binary hyphenated Chinese-American, Indian-American, Mexican-American (100). Anzaldúa further explains this to be someone who:

Constantly has to shift out of habitual formations; from convergent thinking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a single goal (a Western mode), to divergent thinking, characterized by a movement away from set patterns and goals and toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes. (101)

Essentially, it is deconstructing our habit to have binary thought processes, and instead “developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity” (101). This way, we become more open to plural and foreign cultures and are able to understand those completely different from us. Instead of struggling to straddle two cultures and languages, the new mestiza needs to learn to achieve harmony and balance between conflicting entities. This is the difference between the binary and the plural. View this from a future generational standpoint: with each generation, culture and heritage become more and more diluted. The children of Chicanos like Anzaldúa likely identify as a further diluted version of Chicano and receive more American influence. Future generations may feel less attached to their ancestral heritage and transition to a more “whitewashed” American culture.

In 1987, Anzaldúa’s concept of the new mestiza consciousness could have easily be seen as too radical and unlikely to gain mainstream traction. But in 2017, as America becomes more progressive and we begin to enter a post-gender, post-racial society, it is possible that individuals will adopt the new mestiza consciousness in our near future. That being said, we are currently in an extremely divided political climate that may see us regress on progress made on our founding fathers’ American values of inclusivity and freedom. There are effectively two paths from here: individuals adopting the new mestiza consciousness, or cultural subgroups becoming more self-segregated and divided.

In finding my own Chinese heritage through Chinglish, I have started to adapt to the mindset of appreciating others’ different cultural backgrounds — but at the same time have found myself increasingly interacting only with other Asian-Americans. We can’t be sure which path society will take, but what does show hope is how people from all walks of life have come together to protest and fight for not only their values, but the values of others too. As divided as our country is, perhaps the creation of a new American identity lies in the ultimate test of democracy we have in our hands today — it is in this time of need that those who “include rather than exclude” will come together, show humanity, and remind ourselves what it means to be American.