What Makes Up Identity

Having lived in a cultural singularity for most of their lives, many people find going to Boston College is an eye-opening experience. Personally, I considered myself a cultured person before attending BC, having been fortunate enough to travel around Europe often growing up. I was fluent in Spanish by the time I was 6 years old. As a result, I thought I had seen enough of the world to be “cultured.”

Then I came to BC where half my friends ended up being international students. The first friend I made at BC was from Morocco. Now she is my roommate and my best friend, and she educates me about global issues every day. She was the friend that introduced me to the other international students that I would soon call my friends. I learned about new cultural norms, which led to interesting conversations. One time, my friends and I were debating so passionately in the dining hall that someone approached us and asked us which club we were a part.

We had been discussing the intersections of race, ethnicity, and nationality. Specifically, we were considering how people answer the question, “What are you?” My international friends claimed that it is very rare for an American to answer “American.” Instead, you will often receive a response filled with convoluted miniscule percentages, tracing back generations. Rather than a national identity, Americans will give you their ethnic background.

Any other citizen would respond firmly with their nationality. Because America is a new country relative to others, it will take some hundreds of years for this national sense of identity to be the primary answer to “What are you?” Countries with thousands of years of history generally have a more homogenous population. There are fewer immigrants, fewer first-generation kids, fewer ties to other countries. Because of this, wherever you came from “before” is less relevant. Not only do Americans lack an individual national identity, but they lack an ethnic one. There is no fully developed American ethnicity yet. Again, this is something that will take years to completely manifest. The United States is still a diverse country. But then that raises the question of whether diversity is our identity. Can mixed ethnicities and nationalities be a cultural signifier? What happens if Americans answer the question, “What are you?” with, “I’m American?” What does that imply?

It implies what you would imagine: diversity. Identity will always be complex. It will never be a simple answer. After all, no one’s simply American, or Moroccan, or any other nationality. Perhaps you’re a citizen of the United States, but you grew up in El Salvador. In that case, how do you answer the question of identity? The answer is that you can’t. No one can.

Identity incorporates ethnicity, nationality, and culture. If one word can incorporate all three of those, then that’s great. Otherwise, as in the case of Americans, one word sometimes isn’t sufficient. Recognizing that one word often isn’t enough to describe an ethnic and nationalistic background allows us to examine our real identities. For example, if someone asked me my ethnic background, I would tell him or her that I’m 50 percent Italian and then maybe German, English, French, and Welsh. I was raised in a predominantly Italian family, however—my relatives were constantly speaking Italian, visiting Italy, keeping the traditions. Because of this, I closely identify with it and more than any other of my relatives’ homelands in my ethnic background. Knowing nothing of Wales, I don’t consider it a part of who I am.

The simple question of “What are you?” warrants a complex and detailed answer. Nationality and ethnicity are two different things that often times don’t coincide with one another, particularly for Americans. One might contribute more to your identity than another, however. Before answering this question, you have to ask it of yourself. What do you really identify with and what’s really just in your genetics? People are not static. Most of the time, American or not, you can trace your family back to another country, another background. We have roots everywhere and we must consider that when questioning our identities.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic