Race, Culture and Language {Book Club}

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

15 Comments

  1. Sarah Hilkemann September 2, 2019

    The section about language was intriguing to me. In Cambodia I had two reactions- people who saw my foreign face and were immensely relived when they heard me speaking Khmer, and those who heard me speaking Khmer but it was like I was speaking gibberish. They couldn’t hear me speaking their language because of how I looked. The situations he described of the shop owner believing they were going to steal something, then apologizing when his mother spoke their language, and when Noah spoke to the guys in their language before they could mug him were so interesting to me.

    I know so little of the history of South Africa or the apartheid, sadly. This book is making me smile at Noah’s antics as a kid but also sad for a world where such racism exists- past and present.

    P.S.- I’m listening to the audio book and loving it! Noah is the one reading it and it makes the stories so interesting! 🙂

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 4, 2019

      I don’t know much about apartheid either, and it’s a shame. This was during my lifetime! Social studies at school rarely mentioned anything besides the US and Europe. I definitely need to learn more.

  2. Esther van Niekerk September 3, 2019

    I am from South Africa and never knew these things growing up. We adopted there and it was a cross cultural adoption, that was the first time we started to experience some of the same issues. My son’s Afrikaans is perfect and that through people off, not knowing where to place him. Now we live in Eastern Europe and he is learning Macedonian and his English has changed to American English. He became a chameleon. He fits in, not always but most of the time. Not sure if he would fit in amongst his own race if we ever return, because he does not have their language or culture. This book is really funny at times and I know what he is talking about it. It is also very sad for me and I hope my children will not have to go through all he has gone.

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 4, 2019

      I appreciate your perspective as a South African. In the next section, he mentions how apartheid was taught in schools (vaguely and not much at all). He was a child when apartheid fell, so I wonder how much of this he learned as an adult.

  3. Bayta Schwarz September 3, 2019

    This to me was the most heartbreaking incident of all:”She believed my prayers were more powerful because I prayed in English. Everyone knows that Jesus, who’s white, speaks English. […] English prayers get answered first. How do we know this? Look at white people. Clearly they’re getting through to the right person.“
    It reminded me of an incident when a friend (jokingly) made a somewhat unkind remark about another country. When we challenged him on that, he said:”Oh I’m from (small country in Eastern Europe), no one is interested in what we say anyway”.
    Oh the privilege of being from a country that has a voice, and speaking the language of the powerful… I still have so much to learn about all that I take for granted, and about how to live wisely with the privilege that I can’t help but have…
    This dynamic is bad enough when it plays out in the human realm but when people (understandably) assume that God sees it the same way, that just breaks my heart ☹

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 4, 2019

      I remember reading (I think in Cross Cultural Servanthood) a story of a white missionary who refused to pray for sometime to be healed, deferring instead to the local pastor who could pray in the local language – because of this misconception. Shocking to realize, but I do see where it comes from.

      1. Abigail November 4, 2019

        Wow, that’s so good of him! That part was sad to me too.

  4. Elizabeth September 3, 2019

    “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.”

    Wow, that is so insightful. I’m not reading the book, but I really appreciate that quote.

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 4, 2019

      Me too. Knowing that my own marriage would not have been allowed in my home state just a few decades ago. It was an aha! for me. So this is why people say “just don’t marry one…”

  5. Jenny September 5, 2019

    Our kids are also CCKs as I’m American, my husband is Indian, and we live in West Africa. I also find that our son (a 6-year-old) can fit in with kids across cultures more easily than my husband and I do. Of course, there are the topics that are relatable to almost all boys his age whether we’re in the U.S., India or West Africa — superheroes, poop, etc.!

    I really hope that he (and our daughter) will see that it’s ok to be more than one thing. I wonder if the path to identify will be a painful struggle for them. This is one of my concerns as a mom.

    1. Jenny September 5, 2019

      I’d also be interested to know that the titles are in your intercultural book stack if you’d be willing to share. 🙂

      1. Rachel Kahindi September 5, 2019

        Superheros and poop! Lol! Sounds about right. 😁

        The books I recommend for intercultural marriage:
        * This is the most academic, and really helpful, with “worksheets” to help compare cultures with your husband (my husband was not into it, but it was still useful to help me understand my own culture better and to start good conversations with him):
        Mixed Matches by Joel Crohn

        * This one is a collection of first person stories, from many different perspectives. Not a lot of self-help instructions, but so good. The stories have stuck with me more than anything else I read during that time: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Celebrating Interethnic, Interfaith, and Interracial Relationships by Brenda Lane Richardson
        * I think this one addresses religion and children more. It’s the first book I read, and I don’t remember as much about it, but I gave it 4 stars and kept it in my library: Intercultural Marriage: Promises and Pitfalls by Dugan Romano

      2. Abigail November 4, 2019

        Yes, me too! 🙂

  6. Jenny September 5, 2019

    *what the titles are

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