We all know that education often contributes to making us believe that our identities are stable and constant. Yet, at the same time, what we experience when we meet other people is often not constant and unpredictable (Lifton, 1993). This is why we sometimes decide to hide behind a mask or reduce the other to a single identity (be it national, gender-based, etc.). We all have different identities that are relevant depending on the context, our interlocutors but also our health, mood, readiness to speak, etc. A. Sen (2005: 350) also reminds us that:
“The same person can be of Indian origin, a Parsee, a French citizen, a US resident, a woman, a poet, a vegetarian, an anthropologist, a university professor, a Christian, a bird watcher, and an avid believer in extraterrestrial life and of the propensity of alien creatures to ride around the cosmos in multicolored UFOs.”
So, in a sense, following Turkle (1996) when I reflect on my own self, instead of asking ‘who am I?’ the question ‘who am we?’ appears to be more suitable. And to be more precise the question should be ‘who am we with and for other people?’ because it is through the eyes of the other that self is constructed, that my identity becomes alive. So when I meet a newcomer or his/her parents, what happens between us contributes to creating each other’s identity, in positive and/or negative ways, in ways that respect the way(s) I would like to be seen (or not).
Of course, it does not always take place that smoothly. In fact, while some people might feel free to perform their plural identities others might be confined to a single and solid identity, like the stuffing and mounting of the skins of animals for display or study (Chebel d’Appollonia, 2011: 11). In many cases we, ourselves, wish to reduce who we are to a solid identity (Bauman, 2004) because we might feel uncomfortable about opening up some aspects of it for others in specific contexts (ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, etc.).
Many scholars who have written about interculturality argue that we should become aware of our identity and/or learn to be proud of who we are (e.g. Byram, 1997). I believe that this is an illusion because who I am is unstable, contextual and has to be negotiated with others. In fact if one starts looking for the stable in our identity, one will face many challenges: Our memory of the past can change and be different from others; we can acquire another national identity and get rid of ours; in many countries we can adopt a new name with more or less ease; through plastic surgery and cosmetics we can change our appearance (with more or less success). Our date of birth is probably one of the only stable identity markers that we have. However, there are cases when people can request authorities to correct a date of birth on their official documents. Furthermore, if one follows a calendar outside the ‘Western’ system, one might have a shifting birth date (case of the Chinese Lunar calendar).
For the writer Hanif Kureishi (1998: n. p.) it is futile to try to look for our identity. He explains:
“I suppose you reach a resolution when you realize that there isn’t such a thing as having an identity, when in a sense the question does not exist for you anymore. When I was a young man in the suburbs I walked up the streets meeting people who’d ask me where do you come from? And I’d say from the house over there and they’d say no but where do you really come from? And that would really bother me because I would really come from that house over there and there was nothing else I could say. But of course my father was Indian and the question is why you have a brown skin, who you are, and how you put together different notions of yourself to make what is commonly known as a self” (my transcription).
For people who appear to be different from the ‘majority’ (different skin colour, foreign accent) the question of who they are might often be a topic of discussion with others. Where are you from? Where are you really from? You sound foreign, what are your origins? Although these questions might seem ‘natural’ in intercultural encounters, asking them can be very political and answering them difficult, annoying and/or embarrassing. In our societies some people always need to explain their identity while others don’t. And sometimes they have to face situations, which are reminiscent of police inquiries.
In the context of education, we need to be careful with this. Sometimes we feel that it is good to put other people’s origins on the table in order to flatter or empower them. National, cultural and group identities are often at the center of discussions about interculturality. For many thinkers and researchers these are problematic. First of all, they tend to create artificial and politically motivated differentiation and can lead to discrimination, ethnocentrism and toxic treatment. Secondly as Pieterse (2004: 33) explains: “National identities are mélange identities, combinations of people that have been conventionally amalgamated under a political heading (such as Celts, Franks, and others in ‘France’).”
Disentangling the mixing and melange of such identities should be a priority in education. These identities are neither ‘natural’ nor ‘god-given’ (Said, 1993: 33) and they represent ‘analytic stereotypes’ (Sarangi, 1994) as they force us to create clear-cut boundaries between people who may actually share a lot in common.
To conclude let us listen to a wise piece of advice from Michel Foucault about identity (1982: 10):
“I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it?”
Not knowing who the other is – especially in relation to biased and problematic identities such as cultural, national identities – can transform the way we work on interculturality, re-balance power relations and lead to more complex encounters.
Have you ever tried to meet your students (newcomers included) without trying to find out where they come from or what the background is? What difference did it make? Did you feel that it liberated you from certain preconceived ideas about their ethnicity, religion and languages?