Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cultural Identification in School: What are you?

Jessie Pimentel

     At college, one is exposed to numerous clubs/organizations that represent cultural identities while providing a group in which one may join to meet new people based on similar interests. At New York University alone there are clubs ranging from L.U.C.H.A (representing Latinidad) to clubs that celebrate specific ethnicities, like Mexico Lindo Y Querido. While these clubs encourage newcomers to join, with the intension that one may find a new group of friends in the process, a concern tends to arise as a newcomer may feel the need to overcompensate his/her identity to fit in. In Bonnie Urciuoli’s piece, “Whose Spanish? The tension between linguistic correctness and cultural identity” she includes interviews with Latino students who have joined cultural clubs in college, seeking a sense of ‘belonging’; however Urciuoli also brings up the problem that arises from… “the ways in which academic Spanish correctness norms play on students’ self consciousness…” (1). In doing so, a student may either feel welcome or in some cases may feel like an outsider within a minority.

     Overcompensating ones identity is not something that only occurs at college. The act of overcompensating can and does happen based on where one lives and who his/her friends are at school. For example, in my high school, a friend named Joshua felt the need to over identify as a Latino because he could not speak Spanish. In return, he was determined to represent his culture whenever it was possible, by listening to Salsa, wearing the colors of the Puerto Rican flag and appropriating Spanish slang in any context possible. While he and I were just two of very few Latinos at our school, he seemed to be the only one who represented his Latino identity openly and frequently. In college, this behavior was only enhanced when he joined a Latino fraternity. This example demonstrates how language or the lack of knowledge of a particular language may drive someone to seek acceptance by overcompensating certain cultural aspects. “Language has a complicated place in these processes of identity formation. It occupies a place in the list of things one ‘has’ when one ‘has’ a culture” (11). When language is used to exclude, it may cause one to view his/her lack of knowledge of Spanish as being a culturally marked as an outsider, meaning you can not be Latino if you do not speak Spanish. Urciuoli explains how language, when used as a marker of culture creates conflict as it then makes certain members of a group feel as though culture is so malleable that in order to fulfill or take on a cultural identity one must follow a list of what it means to be Latino. In that sense, culture is nothing more then a checklist that anyone can take on if they essentially follow a list of stereotypes.

In this video from YouTube, Latino students discuss how Latino identification is something that is almost required when one enters college in order to define who you are and relate to other students.

     Furthermore, when language is used as a vital factor of culture, it also creates conflict within groups of people who share the same cultural identity. Here a binary is created between those who speak one type of Spanish and those who speak another. Colloquial Spanish from differing communities may share some similarities but are also distinguished based on who is speaking. Here, overcompensating as a Latino may play a role for college students who enter a school speaking a type of Spanish and are marked as ‘other’ due to the way he/she speaks. Correctness also plays a role in creating a binary as one persons’ Spanish may be perceived as incorrect, therefore creating a hierarchy of language. Additionally, a binary is created between colloquial Spanish and academic Spanish that is placed on a pedestal because it follows the Spaniard standard. For Spanish speakers who take Spanish at an academic level, some may find that they are not familiar with all of the rules taught at school and consequently, may feel as though their Spanish is substandard. “The engagement with a reinvented ‘educated’ version of one’s native Spanish further reinforces this. This identity is very much a product of college experience, so that one’s specific awareness of being e.g. Dominican, Puerto Rican, Ecuadorian, etc. is framed by a generalized Latinidad” (26).

     Moreover, in Shalini Shankar’s piece, “Speaking like a Model Minority: ‘FOB’ Styles, Gender, and Racial Meanings among Desi Teens in Silicon Valley” language is used in a slightly different context then Urciuoli’s piece. Here, students categorized as FOB’s or fresh of the boat, utilize language in order to mark a difference within a group of Desi teens. In this piece, FOB students were pinned against popular teens through language and the communities in which they lived. Language was used to demonstrate how difference in dialect or terms used assisted in marking certain students as being part of a social status, which determined what group he/she was apart of. Fob teens used a certain language while interweaving some African American vernacular English into their conversations, whereas popular teens were more so inclined to follow monolingual norms. Here, like in Urciuoli’s piece, overcompensation was used for FOB teens who maintained a difference between them and the popular Desi teenagers, going to far as to assume that popular Desi teenagers were incapable of speaking Punjabi. This use of language to determine who belongs and who does not essentially creates difference which is ironic as language is usually used to define what it means to have culture, a factor meant to unify people.

     While language is an extra factor in this equation of cultural identification, it should not be used as a factor of exclusion or inclusion as language does not define culture. Cultural identification, while vital when creating unification or solidarity between people who seek acceptance, must also be something to be cautious of. If the need to culturally identify yourself is something that is so important that you are willing to overcompensate what you actually like to something that you are forcing yourself to be apart of, then identification in this sense is false and a performance that should be reevaluated.

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