Special to CSMS Magazine
The following article is a reflection on cultural identity stages written by Dr. Jacques Garcon. The article focuses on the multidimensional characteristics of the development of cultural identity. It is a crucial element in understanding cross-cultural awareness. As we live in an ethnically and culturally diverse society, the constructivism that we long for while fighting our dormant rejectionist sentiment when it comes to dealing with differences, knowing where we are in the ladder can utterly preempt senseless mishaps as we work daily to strengthen our common sense.
I’m not entirely sure of my stage in the multidimensional characteristics of the development of cultural identity. I guess my dubiousness stems from an altruism that cultural identity is not something that can sharply be defined. The only thing one can absolutely be certain of is the relativism that transcends all stages in the cultural identity typology. With all intellectual probity, the hypothetical nature of any strategic analysis on the cultural identity issue should always be emphasized as Banks (2005) himself notices it.
I was born in Haiti, a country with an overwhelming population of African ancestry. So, growing up, I never felt the need to search for a self-identity. My environment was almost totally homogeneous, where the way people talked, their peculiar beliefs, their food, their music and all other forms of their characteristics were also mine. So, in my subconscious little mind, there was an instilled form of identity that did not matter much to me or to any of my friends I was accustomed to playing with. That was when I lived in the small coastal town of Saint Louis, where I was born. My unconsciousness quickly unraveled when I was sent to a boarding school in Port-au-Prince. Although we were all Haitians, people looked down on me not because I looked different, but because I sounded different, my walk was different and the way I acted upon meeting certain things was also different. I knew then I was different, and a quest for new identity was ushered. I wanted to blend in. Here one can see the perfect assertion made by Banks (2005). “Even though ethnic groups share culture, values, a sense of identity, and a common history, there are tremendous differences within ethnic groups,” Banks tells us. These differences may remain buried deep under the surface until these “ethnic groups are studied” to avoid the emergence of “new stereotypes and misconceptions.”
So, on the scale of the stages, I can’t say that I was in stage1, for I was never a rejectionist—neither toward self nor toward others. I never suffered from low self-esteem. My cultural isolationism was the direct result of the milieu in which I was raised—unbeknown of the complex world elsewhere. Never once have I ever felt cultural and psychological captivity wallowing in my inner self. But I believe I was clearly moved to stage 3, when I understood the differences around me and that I was able to adjust by learning how to appreciate others different from me while still being able to keep my pride, my self-inherited dignity and everything that crafted my character as a country boy.
I was only eleven when I suffered from my first identity crisis, and it was the same sensation I felt when I immigrated to the United States some years later. The shock was even greater. I was transplanted into a land totally unknown to me, where people of my ethnicity were regarded as the most wretched of society. I spoke no English, and I did not know my way around. Just to go to the store, I needed someone to guide me. I never felt so useless in my life. For a short while, I regressed to stage 1. But I quickly rebounded, back to stage 3 after I was enrolled in school and I began to appreciate the differences around me.
Today, I can say that I belong to stage 4 or even stage 6, for I haven’t felt any sense of inferiority in a long time, and the fact I have been able to teach multicultural classes over the years, I can now safely say that I have mastered the confidence that anyone needs to grasp the sense of “global competency.”
Last year, a young student from the China—from the Chinese province of Manchuria to be precise—came to my class. She had just arrived in the United States, and all seemed strange to her. She did not even understand the Roman alphabet. In her fist day in class, I quickly realized that she was not the typical Chinese students I’m commonly accustomed to. She bent her head down, refusing to make eye contact with her peers. Her eyes turned red and watery, and appeared totally bewildered. I did not know how to communicate with her, but I felt her pain. I have been there. So, I called up on another Chinese student from the class to try to appease her fear, but the Chinese student could only speak Cantonese, and the new girl only spoke Mandarin.
The next day, she did not show up in class. Nor did she show up the day after. I thought she had redrawn. I called her parents, and I was told she had been in school. When I spoke to the school guidance counselor, I was told that she had been suffering from school phobia, and she was afraid of being in class. So, she kept the new girl in her little office, where she felt safer. I told the guidance counselor that she was doing a disservice to the girl. By keeping her into this reclusive situation will only trap her into a “Cultural Psychological Captivity (Stage 1). I requested a parent conference with all of her teachers involved. I pleaded on the girl’s behalf, although my plea could have been very well rejected by her at first glance. I asked the teachers to allow her to go to classes, even if she were going to cry. Failure to do so, I claimed, will deepen her cultural trauma, lower her self-esteem and quicken her hatred for school. Her parents quickly agreed, but they also made an offer I could not resist. They offered to send her to school with a cousin of hers, who had just graduated from high school, who was fluent in English and who was willing to stay with her at school as part of a shock-diffusing process until confidence building measures could be created.
Within weeks, she was laughing, mangling and speaking English—though with limited proficiency—with her peers in class. She herself asked her cousin one day not to come anymore. Today, she is one of the top students in the ESOL program, well on her way to being exited out of the program next year. She is very focused, she usually displays a never-seen-before eagerness to learn. She admitted to me last December that she was crying at the beginning because she was scared. “Now, I enjoy the multicultural atmosphere in class,” she gleefully admitted. She is now the quintessential student loved by all her peers and esteemed by all her teachers; she is the authentically engaged one, not the strategically compliant one that usually characterizes the nature of American schools. To me, she has made a giant leap from stage 1 to stage 3.
Note: Dr. Jacques Garcon teaches Cross-Cultural Studies at Nova Southeastern University. He also teaches ELL students at Florida State College in Jacksonville. He is an essayist and a thinker on many social issues. He wrote this piece, especially for CSMS Magazine.
Also see Be aware of intercultural communication