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Navigating The Lines Between Ethnicity And Identity


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Every day, most of us wake up, and we start immediately to make choices that express how we see ourselves. The way we dress, or the way we wear our hair can say we're conformists, or we're rebels. The way - the type of phone that we use can say we're tech geeks, or we're old-fashioned, retro.

The car that we drive says family man or maybe green. These are all identities that we choose for ourselves, and they range from political opinions to religious choices to family roles. A central element of our identities is, of course, our ethnicity. And while this may seem like something we're born with, the way we chose and express our ethnicity is also, in many ways, a choice.

So what aspect of your ethnicity goes first? Are you a Latino or a Mexican-American? How do you express that ethnicity? Do you wear a dashiki or a three-piece suit? And what difference does that make to how you see yourself and how you operate in the world? This hour we're talking about ethnicity and identity, and we want to hear your stories.

When did ethnicity become an important identity for you? Is there a time when you changed the way you defined or expressed your ethnicity and why? Call us, our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is Or you can join the conversation from our website, as well. Go to, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on in the program, a profile of Malala from Pakistani schoolgirl to international activist. But first we're introducing TALK OF THE NATION to NPR's most recent reporting project. It's called Code Switch. The team will focus on the changing dynamics of ethnicity in American life, and joining us now is the Code Switch team leader, Matt Thompson. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MATT THOMPSON, BYLINE: Thank you very much, Celeste. How are you?

HEADLEE: So - I'm doing well, thanks for asking. I want to ask you the same question that we're asking our listeners, which is to tell us about a time when you identified your ethnicity and perhaps changed it.

THOMPSON: Right. Well, the time that comes to mind for me is when I was in college. So I was a sophomore in college, and I was meeting my resident tutor, sort of an RA in our dorm. She was doing a sort of standard biographical interview, where she was asking us - asking me just questions about how I grew up, where I grew up, my family background, et cetera.

I was walking through I was born in Canada, I grew up in Orlando, Florida, my family's from Guyana, I was raised Catholic, all that sort of stuff. And she just - at a certain point in this process, she just stops. And she asks the question, out of the blue, apropos of nothing, she says: So what do you consider yourself?

I hadn't quite ever been asked that question before, and so I didn't really have a ready response. But the first thing that I found coming out of my mouth was: I'm Guyanese. And that answer, it surprised even me to hear that coming out of my mouth.

HEADLEE: Have you ever lived in Guyana?

THOMPSON: I have never lived in Guyana, have never visited Guyana, and, you know, I'm the only one of my siblings in my immediate family that wasn't born there and didn't grow up there. But nonetheless, I could have said black, you know, I could have said Catholic. There are so many...

HEADLEE: African-American at this point, yeah.

THOMPSON: Right, there were so many answers I could have chosen, and that was the one that came out of my mouth, and it struck me that whoa, I have formed a sort of - a very particular ethnic identity, this Guyanese-American-Canadian jambalaya that's mine.

HEADLEE: Was that a moment when you feel like you changed your identity, or was it just you identifying something that had already existed?

THOMPSON: It changed in this way, in that I felt that before, in Orlando, black was enough. Identifying myself as being black was sort of a broad enough self-description. And it wasn't until I got to college, which was a much more diverse environment than my high school and Orlando itself, that I really got this fine-grained sense of myself as oh, here's how I fit in racially. I'm Guyanese.

So it was a change in that it became more specific, more pointed. My understanding of myself I think had been a little bit more sophisticated at that point.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with Matt Thompson from NPR's Code Switch team. But let me bring Beverly Cross into the conversation. Beverly's a professor of urban education at the University of Memphis, and she joins us from member-station WKNO in Memphis. Welcome, Beverly, and good afternoon.

BEVERLY CROSS: Good afternoon, Celeste and Matt, thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: You know, Beverly, I wonder, we think of identity as something that we choose, and ethnicity is something that we're born with. Is that true, or are both of those things kind of a moving target?

CROSS: I think it's important to stipulate that race, culture, identity and ethnicity are very different things, and for today's conversation we're focusing on ethnic identity. And so we don't have time to go into what makes all of those different, but identity does fluctuate. It's developmental. So it can change in a way that we don't think about race changing, for example.

HEADLEE: When do we choose, Beverly? When do we make these decisions? Is there a time? Is it adolescence, perhaps, when we start to make choices about what part of our identity is influenced by our ethnicity?

CROSS: Some psychologists would argue that by age three, children are already beginning to formulate their identities, and many would argue it's particularly a part of what happens in adolescence. So it starts very early, and it can be confusing. It can be erroneous. It's largely based in relationship to the family at those early ages.

But at adolescence, because of the interaction of young people at that age with others, the identity can take on new forms and can become more nimble.

HEADLEE: Our question for all of you out there, because we are talking about ethnicity and identity, we want to hear your stories of when ethnicity became an important identity for your or a time when you changed the way you defined or expressed that ethnicity. The number is 800-989-8255. And we have a call now from Jennifer(ph) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jennifer, tell us a story about a time when you changed or kind of defined your identity according to ethnicity.

JENNIFER: Well, I'm still trying to define it, I guess. I still struggle. I was born, my father's black, my mother is white, but I was adopted into a white family. So I have all-white friends, yet I don't look like anybody, and I could never in high school, you know, have the Farah Fawcett hairdo or just look like them or do - and I still struggle, I do, because I'll say, if I'm with my friends, a new person meets me, I'm black, but then they're like no you're not.

And my family, I met my birth family, actually, who all - they all have black friends, and they're like you're not black. I'm like I know because to them it's more of a culture than a color. So I still struggle, if I'm going to be honest. I'm 42, and I'm still struggling.

HEADLEE: OK, so you're pretty much the same age that I am. Jennifer, thank you so much. That's a really good point. That's Jennifer calling from Fort Wayne, Indiana. What she's bringing up here is the difficulty for people who are of many ethnicities to choose the one they want. That would seem to make it a more difficult problem rather than you have all these options, choose one, right, Matt?

THOMPSON: Right, and also the other complexity is the fact that other folks are projecting an identity onto her, too.

HEADLEE: Oh, you mean when they're saying no, you're not black.

THOMPSON: Exactly, and she's trying to choose how to express herself against all of these assumptions and expectations of the folks around her. They're saying, you know, you don't look black, or you don't present as black in the way that I expect black folks to present. So therefore you have to be not black. You have to be something else.

Trying to decide how you present yourself, how you choose to identify in those circumstances I think has got to be particularly complex.

HEADLEE: I would imagine so, and Beverly, there's also this idea of getting a membership card, right. Like if you don't - if you don't do these certain things, then you're not black enough to identify as black. You can't identify as black because you don't have enough of the checkmarks on your list, right Beverly?

CROSS: Right because we actually do have multiple identities, particularly multiple ethnic identities. So - and they can operate at two levels. For example you can have an individual identity that you self-select and self-categorize, but then you also have identities related to other social groups. And what the caller Jennifer was talking about was that her friends are assigning a particular racial identity to her, and she's wanting to think more about her ethnic identity and her other identities in relationship to them.

So they operate by ourselves in terms of how we think about them but also in terms of how others see us.

HEADLEE: You know, let me ask you, Beverly, I mean, this relates to pretty much everyone in the world. I mean right now Matt is black, I'm part black. Beverly, I think it's OK for me to reveal that you're African-American, right. But this relates to an Asian-American who may be stereotyped into a certain identity because of their ethnicity, right.

You can be Asian, and people immediately assume you're involved in science. So they're trying to give you an identity based on the way that you look. This could be true of a Latino. This could be true of a white person, as well. How does this affect any ethnicity, Beverly?

CROSS: That's because our notions of identity really do go through some people would say stages, and I would say these stages occur over and over and over again. Some people say at some point, out identity is defined largely by growing up in a particular home, and whether explicitly addressed or not, ideas about identity will be developed in that home.

Then as we move outside of the home and interact in different situations and contexts, that identity comes up against other identities. I love the story that Matt told about in college for the first time he was thinking about his identity, and college and schools is usually a place where that occurs because people interact across different ethnic groups at that time, and they have the opportunity then to move into what people call ethnic exploration, where you move beyond that singular identity that you may have gotten in your home and start to think about multiple identities and multiple ethnicities and try to think about your own shifting and changing in relationship to those.

HEADLEE: Our question to you out there who are listening is: When did ethnicity become an important identity for you? Or was there a time when you changed the way you defined your identity or expressed your ethnicity? We have an email here from Amanda(ph) in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In college, Amanda says, I had a black advisor who suggested I take African-American study courses, saying I needed to explore my own culture, as I was majoring in Japan studies. I was so taken aback that it forever changed how I felt about race, and I've been slightly more aware of it.

I don't consider myself culturally black. I'm black, that's how I look, but I decided - but I get to decide my culture, and I'm a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, thank you very much.

And then we have Jillian(ph): My mother-in-law immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her Mexican mother when she was nine years old. Her father, who was white, had abandoned the family long before. Since my mother was raised exclusively by a Spanish-speaking mother, I was surprised to hear my husband refer to himself as one-quarter Mexican. I'd always considered him half-Mexican. He was thinking of his ethnicity in biological terms, while I view it in cultural terms.

So Matt, it's - both these emails are kind of addressing this same thing, biology versus your choice of identity.


HEADLEE: How do we - is there a right way to juggle that?

THOMPSON: I don't think there's a right way. I mean, I think that this is a very personal thing. And there's an interesting issue of sort of resolution, the resolution of how you think of your identity as being something more specific than black, like a black nerd...

HEADLEE: Yeah, we're going to continue talking about this very fascinating subject when we come back. I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. The things we wear, the words we use, the way we fashion our hair, the entertainment we prefer, even the products that we buy all send messages about how we see ourselves. Those are choices that we make.

But our ethnicities are part of that, too, though they can seem like fixed characteristics. There's actually an element of choice there, as well. We can play up one aspect, play down another and play with how people perceive us and how we see ourselves.

So as we talk about ethnicity and identity, we want to hear your stories. When did ethnicity play into your identity? And is there a time when you changed how you defined or expressed your ethnicity? Why? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is You can also join the conversation at our website. It's, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR's Matt Thompson, leader of Code Switch team on race, ethnicity and culture is with us; and also Professor Beverly Cross of the University of Memphis. Welcome back to you both. I want to read this email here from Nancy(ph), who says: I'm an American Jew of Eastern European origin. When I lived in Israel for a couple of years, I was startled and amused to hear myself described by Israelis as Anglo-Saxon, a term used in Israel to describe any native speaker of English.

Here in the U.S., of course, Anglo-Saxon is half of WASP, definitely not used to describe Jews. Just a reminder that language is as integral a part of identity as skin color, religions, national origin, et cetera. Matt, what's the difference between the language you choose for yourself and stuff you have no control over, what someone else calls you?

THOMPSON: Well, the funny thing about language, so our team is named Code Switch.


THOMPSON: Which is about code-switching, you know, shifting between the languages you use or the way you express yourself in conversation. I find myself in conversation with my parents completely inadvertently talking with the traces of a Guyanese accent, drawing out my vowels a little bit and saying yes instead of just yes, the way I might with my American friends.

HEADLEE: And Beverly, to what extent - I mean, it would seem to me that you can't really change. You don't have a lot of control over the way other people describe you, right? Does that, does the language someone else uses impact your identity?

CROSS: Well, I think our identities are partially assigned by other people to us based on assumptions they make about our appearance or who they think we are. But on the other hand, in relationship to the whole notion of Code Switch, we do have identities that we choose to form a relationship with or choose to select for ourselves or choose to commit to.

And inside of that there can be different languages, different values, different practices that align with that. One of my students did a whole dissertation on (unintelligible) population and their struggle inside of the U.S. in one community to maintain their identity and the different ways that they worked collectively as parents to translate parts of that identity to their children because they felt it was getting lost in the schools because they were becoming more aligned with the identity assigned to them than the identities of their heritage.

HEADLEE: Let's take a call now here from Mike(ph) in Nashville, Tennessee. Mike, a moment when ethnicity became an important part of your identity?

MIKE: Well, it's actually when I moved to Virginia, and all of a sudden - because I moved from Miami. And in Miami I was just a regular guy. I never thought about my identity as, you know, either Colombian or Latino or whatever. I kind of just was a regular guy, to me just that was it. But when I went to Virginia, it was all a sudden it's like I was the odd man out, even though I am - I am just a regular guy.

They were like oh, you're such-and-so, you're American, and you've got to speak Spanish, and you cannot speak English. It was just very odd. To me it was - so it was like almost I have to defend myself. I was like no, no, no, no, I'm not Mexican, I'm Colombian. And then I took a little bit of, you know, pride of being Colombian, but at the same time it was like I'm not Colombian. I grew up here.

I'm American, and, you know, so it was - it was odd, it was that identity crisis. But the funny thing about it is, like, I developed myself, I would say, I wore like, you know, (unintelligible) I'm just going to be myself. I'm going to be whoever I wanted to be. If I want to dance salsa, if I want to dance hip-hop, if I want to speak English, if I want to speak French, or, you know, whatever, it's not going to define me as, you know, I'm - you're Colombian, or you're American.

No, I'm me, and that's it. You know, take it or leave it, you know, I don't care.

HEADLEE: You know, that's a good life philosophy, Mike in Nashville, Tennessee. And I want to take a call now here from Ray(ph) in Kansas City, Missouri. Ray, a moment when ethnicity was important for you?

RAY: Well, as I started to get to know my grandfather when I was kind of a preteen, and he came from this really, this long line of kind of radical Irish socialists, secularists, intellectuals. And just it was something that was very charismatic to me. It was very attractive. And the other side of that is for me, as I grew up, I found that just being white wasn't enough. I needed something - I needed a scaffold, as it were, to sort of tell my story.

And so I increasingly identified myself as Irish, as Irish-American, even though, you know - I mean I guess by blood I may be, you know, slightly more than 50 percent Irish, but the rest is - I mean, there's probably half-a-dozen different countries where my ancestors come from. You know, but there did come a point where I sort of needed that. I needed that identity. And so ever since then, I've sort of - you know, that's sort of what I've latched onto and what I've decided.

I made that decision. I made that choice to identify myself in that way.

HEADLEE: That's Ray calling from Kansas City, Missouri. Beverly, this idea of getting to pick and choose, I mean, we're all - I mean, there's no pureblood human, right. I mean, as far as we know, you know, barring some isolated population somewhere, everybody's a mix of some sort. Is it healthy? Is it OK to pick from among the myriad ethnicities that we're all made up of?

CROSS: Absolutely. On the individual level, we can all do that. We can select the identity. We can ascribe a membership to it, say we're part of it. We can engage with them, absolutely. But it's always also the case that we are part of social groups and that those groups have identities, as well.

And sometimes we can select those, and sometimes we don't because if we reflect on the conversation we just had the last few minutes, there is a kind of an exchange between race, culture and identity as the same thing. So it really makes it very complicated.

HEADLEE: I want to read a couple emails here. Daniel(ph) in Birmingham, Alabama, writes: I think ethnicity is a contrasting concept. In other words he's pointing out how you choose it - how it gets pointed out by differences. He says: I never thought about it until I was the 6'3" white guy living in China. As a gay man, my sexuality has always been more defining to me; it's something I have to address on a daily basis. But my ethnicity doesn't seem to influence my life at least in negative ways.

So Matt, what he's talking about, Daniel in Alabama is talking about, is the fact that in the end we end up choosing our identity like our guest was - the American whose parents were from Colombia also meant, because it made him different.


HEADLEE: So how often do we choose to distinguish - choose our identities to distinguish ourselves from the surroundings that we're in?

THOMPSON: I think very often. I mean, I think that part of just having an identity, projecting a distinctive image of yourself, thinking of yourself as a person who has unique fascinations and traits and characteristics, part of that is saying hey, I have this unique background that's mine. But we are all this mix of nationalities and cultures all brought together.

And choosing which of those we'll express to make the particular expression of ourselves that's unique.

HEADLEE: But that would assume that means we'd be changing it all the time if we move, right. If you move from where - I can't remember if he was first from Tennessee maybe, he moves from there to California, or if he moves to Arizona, where there's a larger population of Latino-Americans, that's going to change.

THOMPSON: And the funny thing is we do change the way we express this all the time.

HEADLEE: Our identity.

THOMPSON: Right, express our identities. So I was having a conversation the other day with a friend of mine who's Latina. She would identify - outside, she lives in New York, and outside of New York she said - I asked her, you know, how would you identify yourself. And she'd say, oh, as Latina. Inside New York, no, no, no, she would say I'm Dominican.

HEADLEE: Of course.

THOMPSON: Right, you have to - she has to choose a more particular identity in this place where there are lots of folks who are Latina. She wants to...

HEADLEE: Of different kinds, Puerto Rican and all kinds of different things going on.


HEADLEE: Let me read this email here from Chrissy(ph). Chrissy says: I am black, an American of African descent, a Negro, colored, Southern. Growing up in the South, I've always identified as all of these things and have been proud of it. When visiting East Africa, I was African until I opened my mouth, then it was: What are you? I responded: American.

And we have another one here from Sheila(ph), who says: I'm Mexican-American, fourth generation, American-born. It's amazing to me how I'm looked down upon by other Mexican-Americans or even immigrants because I don't speak Spanish. I love my ethnicity, but I also love I'm an American. I wish they'd understand that just because I don't speak Spanish, it doesn't mean I'm not one of them as well.

So let's now go to Phoenix, Arizona. Nathan calling in as well. Nathan, tell us about a moment when ethnicity became important for your identity.

NATHAN: It came when I was 13. I consider myself Jewish-Mexican. And when I was 13, having to explain to my family what, in fact, a bar mitzvah was, and likewise, you know, just being more a darker shaded Jewish kid at Sunday school. So it was on both sides I'm just trying to identify with either by just coming to the conclusion that I was who I was in the household and I - that identity can kind of shift from the conversations that I've heard. So...

HEADLEE: I wonder, Nathan, if you think that because you were so different, that made you more firm on your grasp of your own choice of identity.

NATHAN: Absolutely, absolutely, 'cause I think during the formative years of - from about 12 to 15, and even going on into adulthood, there is a need to identify with both groups and come to the conclusion that you can equally identify with both just based on what your - who you are as an individual.

HEADLEE: That's interesting. That's Nathan calling from Phoenix, Arizona. Thank you so much. Beverly, this idea of straddling cultures, to a certain extent, of feeling that you're just as much a part of, say, the Jewish community as you are a part of the Mexican community, is that - other people would challenge that as being, look, make a choice, right? But it - is it still OK to straddle the two?

CROSS: In a modern society like ours, it is essential that people be accepting of - that everyone has multiple identities, multiple cultures. In fact, some people say that most Americans are at least by not - by now - bicultural and have multiple identities. And they will say this is important because it's a part of your self-concept and your own self-esteem. So to be forced to identify only in one way is a direct challenge against anyone's own identity and self-esteem.

HEADLEE: Well, Matt, you're obviously - you're called - your team is called Code Switch. You're familiar with this idea of changing according to what group that you're in.


HEADLEE: Have you heard stories of people - kind of interesting stories of people doing this or maybe being challenged when they've code switched?

THOMPSON: Yes, absolutely. I mean, some of my favorites came - we actually have a few stories. So we've been soliciting stories from people, examples of people code switching. So changing the way they speak out of the language they use...

HEADLEE: Or dress. Right.

THOMPSON: ...or dress or express themselves in the middle of a conversation or from conversation to conversation. Some of my favorites came from light-skinned women who identified as African-American, identified as black and attested to sort of finding others like them and speaking the secret language and sort of slipping into the secret language.

We heard from a woman in New York named Rachel Daschle(ph), who said - you know, she was on the phone with another woman named Donita(ph). And because of her name, because of that name Donita and thinking it sounded black, she just assumed, and she slipped into a hey, girl. You know, she just slipped into a more casual way of speaking with her that was identifiably black.

And when they met in person, they were both surprised to find that they were so - they did not expect what they saw. Both of them were both quite light-skinned, and they were surprised.

HEADLEE: Oh, interesting.


HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm going to take a call now from Samantha in San Antonio, Texas. Samantha, a moment when ethnicity became an important part of your identity or when it changed?

SAMANTHA: Well, for me, I've kind of always struggled with it. I find myself in a gray area, really. My mother is Puerto Rican. My father is Mexican. My birth father is Mexican. And I speak Japanese, and I always kind of - I don't know what I really identify with.

And I - when I think about the future, what I'd teach my kids, I really don't know what I want to teach them. I find that I understand Japanese culture more just because I've studied it, and I haven't really studied Puerto Rican culture.

HEADLEE: OK. So that's an interesting thing. Samantha, stay with us for just a moment. Beverly, she's talking about choosing an ethnicity which - of which she's not biologically a part of. What's your response to that?

CROSS: What many people would say like the ultimate identity is a global identity or national identity and not a single ethnic/racial identity. So she - I just - I wouldn't say for her that she has to tell her children that this is your identity. It's developmental. They're - they will learn about it and experience it in different context - the home, the school - and all of that. And they will be stronger because they have these experiences and memberships in these different groups.

HEADLEE: Samantha, thanks so much for your call.

SAMANTHA: Mm-hmm. Thank you. Bye.

HEADLEE: Since she mentioned, Beverly, age, I want to read this email from Kelly(ph), who says: I think the best answer I ever heard about how a person can identify oneself came from my niece, Sophie(ph), when she was about 3 or 4 years old. She's an adopted girl, born in Korea, living in rural California. A stranger approached her and asked her if she was Chinese. Her only response to the question was: I'm Sophie. We're all unique individuals.

I wonder, Matt, you're nodding your head, and yet that seems to me to be she's able to say that because she's 3 or 4. How long can you keep going with this sort of global identity that Beverly was talking about?

THOMPSON: Right. The funny thing about global identity is that often I hear stories from folks who want to. Their impulse is to, when asked how do you identify, what do you identify yourself as? Their impulse is to say, oh, I'm American. And then they get pushed back. Or...

HEADLEE: Pushed back in terms of, yeah, but what - what's your background? Where are your parents from?

THOMPSON: Exactly. Right. No, but where are you really from, right?

HEADLEE: There you go.

THOMPSON: Like, folks will hear that a lot. And their response, their - you know, I'm American, or I'm black, but folks will press them on it. They'll want them to get more specific, and they'll push back on that. I mean, I feel like that dissonance also - it's a troubling moment for some folks. It's something that...

CROSS: Well, how do they handle? How would you suggest they handle it then?

THOMPSON: Particularly folks there are the travails of folks who I - we call ethnically ambiguous. Yes.

HEADLEE: That would be me. I'm raising my hand.


THOMPSON: Yeah. And the thing is - I mean, sometimes I think the best response is actually call folks out on it like OK. So you're asking and what do you want to hear? What do you expect to hear? When I say, you know, I'm American, what do you expect to hear more than that or different from that inside?

HEADLEE: Ah, it's interesting. That's Matt Thomas. He is leading the Code Switch Team here at NPR's the new race, ethnicity and culture team, and he joined us here in - Matt Thompson. Sorry, I said Thomas. Sorry about that.

THOMPSON: It's all right.

HEADLEE: Don't want to screw up your identity on this identity show.


HEADLEE: Matt Thompson of NPR's Code Switch Team joined us in studio 3A. And joining us from our member station WKNO in Memphis was Beverly Cross, who holds the Lillian and Morrie Moss Chair of Excellence in urban education at the University of Memphis. Thank you both so much.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

CROSS: Thank you very much.

HEADLEE: When we come back, the quote, "shining young lady," who wants more for her fellow Pakistanis; a profile of Malala Yousafzai after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee and it's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.