Friday, April 10, 2015

Week Five: Identity

Katie Wilson & Louise Edwards

We close the front gate of our home in Windhoek and run downhill, our shirts already sticking to our sweating skin in the still-hot evening hours.   The sound of barking dogs follows us, the dogs straining against gates and fences as we whiz by.  When we make it to the top of the next hill, we see the golden halo of the sun illuminating the dusty purple mountains and a blanket of lights revealing the expanse of houses on the rolling landscape. This is one way Windhoek will be defined in our memories. 
View of Windhoek on a sunset run. 

It will also be walking to the Wernhil Mall to pick up floss, potato chips, or chocolate – past the Polytechnic of Namibia, down a set of metal stairs and through a maze of taxi drivers. 

Louise: When I make a purchase, the cashier asks if I am Brazilian –  a response that I have gotten from several people in Namibia because of my thick curly hair and skin that’s sometimes considered a shade too dark to only be a white person’s tan.  I am used to people misreading my race both at home and abroad, never guessing correctly that I am a quarter Chinese and three-quarters Caucasian.  However, I never thought about what it meant for people to misread my nationality.

Katie: People misread my nationality all the time.  I am ethnically 100% Chinese and because of my physical appearance, am automatically assumed to be from China and Chinese speaking.  In reality, the only part of me that identifies with China is my DNA.  I see myself as an American and nothing else so it can be abrupt when I’m walking and someone greets me in Mandarin.  

Looks don't define who you are.
Louise: This week in my history class, “Racism and Resistance in Southern Africa and the United States,” I started thinking more about nationality and how it impacts identity when we watched a video titled The Color of Fear.  The video documents a conversation about race relations in America amongst men of differing races.  One man of color participant, who did not identify as an American even though he was born and raised in America noted that, “The word American really means white to us.  It doesn’t incorporate all of us.”  While the video focused on American perceptions, it was interesting to see from my own experience in Namibia and traveling elsewhere that the correlation of American being synonymous with white exists on a global scale.  People who perceive me as white have no problem assuming that I am American, while people who perceive me as non-white jump to the conclusion that I am from Spain, Brazil or another Central or South American country.

Katie: I’ve often had the experience of having individuals that I meet argue with me about my nationality when I say I’m from America.  There is no hesitation in assuming I am Chinese because I do not fit the Caucasian stigma and then it is hard to convince anyone elsewise.  My perceptions of myself are so very different than individuals I meet here.  However I have a double-edged sword: I am identified as both American and Chinese and neither are received completely favorably.  In our “Politics and Development in Southern Africa” class, we heard another unique Namibian perspective from Herbert who talked about the impacts of globalization in Namibia.  He discussed how the influence of Chinese investment in Namibia affected the country on an economic, political, and social level.  Using the textile industry he explained how exploitive China had become toward Namibian workers and how that created a lot of the xenophobic feelings in response.  I thought that was fascinating since I have experienced firsthand both Namibians gratifying from Chinese investment and then discrediting it in the same sentence quite often.

Louise: In another video in History, another man of color noted that he strongly identified as American, not because he felt like the stereotypical view of an American fit him, but because he felt that identifying as an American would help broaden the definition of who can be American.  Sometimes I want to run away from my American identity and leave it behind like the rows of barking dogs.  Sometimes I am proud that I can be perceived as a non-American and lose the stereotypes of Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s portrait of “the ugly American” intervening abroad – the arrogance, incompetence, and ignorance of Americans that breeds problems.  Yet other times I find it important to identify myself as an American, not only to broaden the definition of American, but also to recognize that I come from a place of privilege, as well as a place built on violence.  A place where my great great uncle had the power to authorize the poisoning of Patrice Lumumba’s toothpaste and his assassination. 

Katie: The defining of nationality and ethic identification is a constant confrontation no matter what your story and genetic makeup are.  Whether you are a visitor or a citizen you are a representation of something greater than yourself.  Whether I identify with one race or am grouped with one by someone else, I am a representation of both things.  I would like to imagine that I can represent both my nationality and ethnicity with justice, however it is important to remember it is not one individual’s job to educate 2 million people on cultural sensitivity.  

Louise: In reflecting on defining my own identity, it has also been an exercise in remembering that all of us have complex identities.  Just as there is no set portrait of an American, there is no set portrait of a Namibian.  Coming back from out homestays from last week, it was exciting to hear stories from my classmates about their unique experiences with diverse people – everything from going to church on Sunday morning, trying on traditional Herero and Oshiwambo clothing, or having a braai. 
Katie in a traditional Oshiwambo dress with Meme, her urban homestay host mother. 
Katie: Identity is a concept created by people to limit experiences of others.  It establishes who someone is but in doing so trails multiple stigmas.  It is essential to realize that identity components are made up for humans, by humans.  In order to fully embrace an experience one should look past those limiting stigmas and meet the individual wherever she or he is at, without any predominating factors.  

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