When my oldest son was a baby, we looked at pictures together. He would point out different objects, and I would name them. When he started talking, the game evolved, and he was the one to name everything. Looking at a picture of people from many different ethnicities, he would point to everyone with dark skin, one by one, saying, “Daddy. Daddy. Daddy…” Then he would point out everyone with light skin, “Mama. Mama. Mama…” He noticed the difference in our skin before he noticed the difference between genders.
A couple of years earlier, after getting engaged to my husband, I collected and read a stack of books about intercultural marriage and families. One book recommended to me was Third Culture Kids. As I read it, I realized that our hypothetical kids would not be TCKs. They would be biracial, dual citizens, bicultural, and possibly children of an immigrant. All of these (and TCKs, too) fit under a larger umbrella: Cross-Cultural Kids. Each type of CCK has specific experiences, but they have much in common with each other. Trevor Noah was also a CCK, and his story of finding his cultural identity is what sticks with me from this week’s reading in Born a Crime.
The title of the book refers to aparthied laws against race-mixing. He explains in chapter 2:
“In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mix — and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”
I did not know that apartheid used the term “colored” to refer to mixed race people, to try to keep them separated from other racial designations. That blows my mind – as does the separation of Japanese and Chinese people, by police who probably couldn’t tell the difference.
Despite the racial designation established by apartheid, Noah says that his grandmother treated him as white. I had to laugh at the antics he got away with because his grandmother couldn’t bring herself to punish a white kid. But at the same time, this is how my sons are treated by their Kenyan relatives, and it’s not really funny, you know?
In chapter 3, Noah starts getting into finding his cultural identity. He says, “Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says ‘We’re the same.’ A language barrier says ‘We’re different.’”
I agree with him to a certain extent. Language barriers demonstrate our differences, even more than appearance. On the other hand, being a white American who lives in Africa, I think I will always be regarded as an outsider, even if I can speak the local language.
I notice, however, a difference with my kids. When they play with their Kenyan friends or American friends/cousins, they adjust their language to fit the group they are with, adding in Texan slang or mixing Swahili with the Kenyan dialect of English. And they fit in with those kids, whoever they are. There seems to be a difference between kids fitting in with kids across cultures and adults trying to fit in to a different culture. Have you noticed this difference in your context? (Or is it just me?)
What Noah said about the government dividing people by ethnicity in order to keep them under control is so true. “Because of [teaching children only in their mother tongue], we’d fall into the trap the government had set for us and fight among ourselves, believing that we were different.” There are many comparisons we could draw between this and the United States. I see the concept playing out in the residual effects of colonialism in Kenya, as well.
Ultimately, Noah concludes in chapter 4, “I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black…I got along with the white kids, but I didn’t belong with the white kids.” He felt like he belonged with the black kids, and they accepted him because he was able to speak their mother tongues.
One of the books in my intercultural family book stack had personal stories by adults who had been raised in intercultural families. Different experiences and different personalities led each one to their cultural identity – some identified with the culture around them, some with their other culture, and some as both. All agreed that the important thing was for them to determine their cultural identity on their own.
My kids currently identify themselves as both Kenyan and American, Giryama and Texan. They don’t yet feel they have to be only one or the other. This is the value I see in the TCK “label” as well: that a person doesn’t have to choose one cultural identity over others. It’s okay to be more than one thing. Still I wonder if, like Trevor Noah did, they will settle into a single cultural identity.
Join me in the comments. What’s your impression of Born a Crime so far? What stands out to you? What questions do you have?
P.S. The reading schedule is:
September 10: chapters 6-11
September 17: chapters 12-16
September 24: chapters 17-18