On Monday I (Clive) shared my previous blog on multicultural education and stereotyping with my social foundations class. This proved to be a great literacy activity on blogging as a writing form that both teachers and students need to master, one that helps us clarify our ideas and make our communication more precise. It also renewed our conversation about how to approach ethnicity in the classroom. We went round the whole class, each person commenting in turn on the blog. No one chose to pass and everyone was interested in what others had to say. A couple were struck by my profile of “Mike”: they had no idea that people of Irish and Scots background might look down on each other. On the whole people liked the blog, but they continued to refine points and add personal stories.
We heard a new story of complex ethnicity from a class member of Indian ancestry who grew up in Madagascar, lived in a French-speaking environment for several years and became fluent in French, spent time in India where she was told she spoke Hindi with an accent, and then moved to Canada where she hopes to teach French as a second language. What is her ethnicity?
Then on Tuesday the wonderful personal essay “Just Call Me Paul” appeared in one of our local newspapers. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/changing-my-name-doesnt-mean-im-betraying-my-identity/article16406166/
G. Paul Sileika’s grandparents migrated to Canada from Lithuania over 50 years ago. In the 1970s when multiculturalism was on the rise his parents decided to give him a name that “reflected their ancestral origins.” They named him Gintaras and called him Gint for short. With rich humor, no self-pity, and trenchant common-sense he talks about the impact of this decision on his life. The whole article is well worth reading.
What struck me especially was how he felt his identity was lost. “Before I can even begin to build rapport with someone or connect on a common interest, my name catches his or her attention. Before I can share my personal story one is already written for me.” Because the name was unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce correctly (the “G” is hard), many called him “you” or simply nothing. Long after finishing university he finally decided to switch to using his middle name – Paul – and hasn’t looked back. He says he believes in multiculturalism and is proud of his heritage, but wants to go by Paul in informal contexts and G. Paul in formal ones; if anyone asks what the G. stands for, he’s “happy to tell them.”
Of course, although you can change your name you can’t change your accent or physical appearance. But Paul’s story illustrates well how we should often move beyond such markers, rather than dwelling on them unduly – as so often happens in multiculturalism classes. While prejudice and discrimination must be studied in depth and actively opposed, there’s so much more to a person than the ethnicity of their parents and grandparents. We must also explore and celebrate their constantly emerging individual identity, of which their complex ethnic identity is just one part. Otherwise, like Paul, much of their identity may be lost.