Somewhere after the initial pleasantries and standard surface questions there is “the story”.
“The story” is always trouble.
It begins with what should be an innocuous question: “Where are you from?”
I start debating with myself. Do I really want to explain myself again? I was a senior in college when I first heard the term “Third Culture Kid”. I was taking a course on moral development and social context and was writing my major research paper for the seminar. I hoped to draw from my own experience as a “Nowhereian”. I was born an immigrant. Moves during my childhood and adolescence paired with the complexities of multi-ethnicity left me with a feeling of “otherness” before I could give it a name. Where am I from? Who am I? That’s a long story.
Wikipedia defines Third Culture Kids or TCK’s as “someone who [as a child] has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture”. Of course this assumes you have some sort of consistent “base culture” and that the “cultural integration” is smooth and uniform. What really happened was that with every move things became more complicated. The choices offered by my environment were often binary and I tended not to fit either option. I longed for a useful shorthand for explaining who I was to people, or even to myself. At various times depending on my motivations and circumstances I aligned my identity according to one or another aspect of my upbringing. I would fiercely espouse certain ideals and try to be “genuine” but there was always a strain – a feeling of performance. It was only after I learned to embrace the instability of my identity that I was able to self-monitor less and feel more comfortable with the many facets of me.
From the beginning President Elect Obama has inspired debate over matters of race and identity (of varying levels of depth I might add). Over at TNC’s blog these issues are being examined again. Most of the discourse mirrors the stuff I was talking about here about freedom of personal identification, but it also touches on something I’ve felt for a while – Obama is the ultimate Third Culture Kid. Obama’s global appeal isn’t so much about race but about culture. Along with the difficulties of growing up between cultures there is a host of benefits which he appears to have reaped. Tolerance. Empathy. Cognitive flexibility. Code switching. Adaptability. The issue of Obama’s race is an important thing but it isn’t the only thing.
Cory Booker rejects the concept of a “post-racial” America, but his notion of diversity still involves celebrating the diversity that exists between groups. What about the diversity within groups and more importantly, within individuals? People like me, Obama and others like us are what the 21st Century is going to be about. Technological advances and travel are making the world smaller by the minute. Even for those who have no lived in more than one culture, the world will be coming to you in the form of immigrants, in-laws, teachers and colleagues. This new landscape favours the culturally agile; people who can draw deeply from a well of varied experiences to aid in their attempts to find common ground with others.
I found some of the comments over at TNC’s exhausting because to me, it’s not about thinking that being mixed is “better” or not wanting Obama to be “reduced” to being “just black”. He chooses to call himself African American and claims a black identity, but I don’t think his choice is any more valid than Tiger Woods’ wish to be seen as “Cablinasian” (well aside from the fact that the word sounds a bit silly, but I get where he’s coming from). What I find more interesting than the labels these people and other’s like them choose to give themselves is the varied heritages that impact upon how they interact with others. Claiming “blackness” does not erase Obama’s white mother, or his Indonesian sister. They are a part of him. They are part of why it’s so easy for us to see ourselves in him.
My experience has been that the more heterogeneous a group of people are the more comfortable I feel. I can delight in our differences and similarities knowing there are no rules for who I am “allowed” to be. I know Obama’s presidency will not instantly transform our understanding of culture and identity, but it’s a step in the right direction.