The Great Cultural Divide for Multiethnic Teens

Young people learn to think about their cultural identity in new ways

Irau Brooks juggles two cultural backgrounds. “I have dark skin, but long wavy Pacific Islander hair. I have the African-American nose, but I have the slightly slanted Pacific Islander/Asian eyes,” she said.

A senior at the Urban School of San Francisco, she says she is perceived differently by those in each culture. “The Pacific Islanders consider me one of their own, while African-American recognize that I am of a mixed background by my dress and speech,” she said. Irau is like many teenagers who are struggling to define themselves. Yet pinpointing one’s identity is often an even greater challenge for those who represent contrasting cultures.

Many of Irau’s peers classify her as solely African-American based on her physical attributes. “It bothers me when people tell me that I should know something because I’m black — like a certain rap song — but then I think, ‘Wait, I’m also Polynesian, so I shouldn’t have to know.”

More than one identity

Irau says she doesn’t want to choose one identity. “I want to be known as ‘multiracial,’ not ‘other,’” she said. She may get her wish. California is considering becoming the first U.S state to allow people of mixed ethnicity to check more than one box indicating their race on official registration forms and documents.

Some multicultural teens are criticized by others from their groups of origin. Such criticism is often directed toward their proficiency in the mother language, and the way they dress or act. This can be a source of frustration and disappointment.

“I’ve been accused of not being Indian enough,” said junior Sharadha Naidu of Northgate Senior High in Walnut Creek, California. “I can’t speak the Hindi language, but I can understand it.”

Other teens feel a sense of cultural isolation. Northgate senior Chinwe Ohanele moved from Nigeria 15 years ago. “As I grow older, I feel more disconnected from my original roots.”

A cultural catalyst

On a positive note, a teen’s multiethnicity can often be a catalyst for wanting to learn more about one’s culture and traditions. That was the case for Natasha Mody. “Being half Persian, half Indian and American had influenced my interests, values and choices. It taught me tolerance of others’ beliefs and helped me form my own opinions,” said Natasha, a senior at Northgate High. “I learned cultural expression through the study of the Hindi language and classical East Indian dance. I’ve also gained greater appreciation of diversity through multicultural community events.”

Natasha also frequently travels to Iran and India, which she says has opened her eyed and led her to both question and cherish her diverse background. As a member of Northgate’s student government, she encourages other students to explore their diversity. Natasha embraces all sides of her ethnicity. “I definitely see myself as both Persian and Indian and American.”

A different view of diversity

Natasha’s classmate Blanca Hernandez holds a somewhat different perspective of diversity. “I don’t think ethnicity creates diversity; I believe personalities and beliefs do.” She is proud of her Spanish roots and visits Spain each year. Yet she does not feel the need to speak out about her family’s origin.

“That does not express who I am,” Blanca continued. “My expression comes out in the things I believe in and the actions I take, not my ethnicity.” She added, “In my application for on-campus college housing, I was offered the choice of living in a Latino Community Residence Hall. I declined.”

“To me, college is about diversity and expanding my knowledge of other cultures and types of people. Living with only one race would not satisfy my need to meet and learn from new groups of people.”

  • juggle : to succeed in arranging your life so that you are able to involve yourself in two or more different activities at the same time
  • slanted : sloping in one direction
  • attribute : a quality or characteristic
  • catalyst : a condition which causes great change to begin
  • multiethnic 多元族裔的;多種民族的

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