As a bi-ethnic individual, I’ve always had a keen interest in the concept of multiple identities. I don’t mean in the sense of having multiple personalities, but in the sense that no single ethnic identity can fully capture who I am. I am fully both/and at the same time. I am more than one ethnicity while I am a single full human being. At it’s worst, it can feel fragmented like there’s no people group that represents “me,” but at it’s best it can feel like I found a cheat code to experience a unique fullness in life for being able to toggle identities while simultaneously embodying both.
Maybe you can relate with some of these experiences too.
My interest in multicultural identity led me to research the topic in graduate school. My dissertation explored The Experience of Racial Identity Development Among Biracial Asian-White Adults in the U.S. (try saying that two times fast). I found this work fascinating and intended to keep racial and ethnic identity as a primary focus in my practice as a therapist.
After I graduated I began working as a therapist in private practice. Jumping into the real world post-graduation brought me face-to-face with the reality that multicultural experiences touch all of us in unique ways and isn’t limited just to race, ethnicity, or immigration history. And what a lovely thing to discover! There is something quite joyful about dipping our hands in the honey pots of an array of cultural experiences and having them stick to us as we integrate those experiences into our identity.
What is Culture?
Merriam-Webster defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group,” as well as, “the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.”
I love the phrasing, “people in a place or time,” because it captures how culture doesn’t need to be tied immediately to race or ethnicity, but it’s tied to all of what you do in your day-to-day life. By this understanding, culture is something we experience in our families, workplaces, churches, grocery stores, and anywhere else we find ourselves on any given day. Culture is also part of broader settings we interact with remotely, including TV, internet, music, books, and other forms of media that allow us to access people, places, food, and art from locations far away from where we might ever be in-person.
Identity is Fluid
Since identity reflects how we integrate cultural experiences into our sense of self, it shifts with us as we encounter new experiences, people, and places. Often there’s a mythical sense in our culture that identity is static and something to be discovered once and for all. A more accurate understanding is to see identity as a snow ball slowly rolling through life, growing and building up new layers of snow as it passes through new places. The core of the snowball may remain the same, but there is more to be added on to it with new life experiences.
When we talk about identity formation, we’re less concerned about locating who we are like a piece of lost treasure to be found and hoarded. Rather, the hope is to make movements towards integrating our various cultural experiences into a coherent sense of self, ever forming and growing as we add new pieces to ourselves.
Often times our various cultural experiences can feel as though they directly clash against each other. A simple example illustrating this is the felt dichotomy between values of collectivism and individualism often experienced by first, 1.5, and second generation immigrants to the U.S. Healthy identity formation may involve the work of reconciling these internal tensions rather than rejecting components that seem like they don’t fit in to who we’ve known ourselves to be or who we want ourselves to become.
Multicultural Identity, Redefined
Based on this framework, all of us are multicultural in our own ways. However, it’s important to be clear that some of us have been exposed to more homogenous cultural experiences than others. We use the term “multicultural identity” more effectively to reflect those who have experienced less homogenous cultures in significant ways, whether it be connected to geography, faith, food, art, gender, race, language, interests, or any number of additional possibilities.
Lack of Representation in the Media
I can’t talk about multicultural identity without bringing up representation in the media. I hope our TV shows, movies, books, magazines, and other media can have more representation of “people like me” for all the diversity of people of the world – especially of those who might be consuming the media. YouTube is a great platform offering space for creators to represent diverse identities.
Of course, if you haven’t found “people like you” represented in the media, maybe you could be the one to break the ice by putting yourself out there!