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Cultural stereotypes


The problem lies in equating the racial, ethnic, national identity imposed on an individual by the state's bureaucratic system, and that individual's self-ascription. Group identity is not a natural fact, but a cultural perception, to use the metaphor with which we started this book. Our perception of someone's social identity is very much culturally determined. What we perceive about a person's culture and language is what we have been conditioned by our own culture to see, and the stereotypical models already built around our own. Group identity is a question of focusing and diffusion of ethnic, racial, national concepts or stereotypes. Let us take an example.

Le Page and Tabouret-Keller recount the case of a man in Singapore who claimed that he would never have any difficulty in telling the difference between an Indian and a Chinese. But how would he instantly know that the dark-skinned non-Malay person he saw on the street was an Indian (and not, say, a Pakistani), and that the light-skinned non-European was a Chinese (and not, say, a Korean), unless he differentiated the two according to the official Singaporean 'ethnic' categories: Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others? In another context with different racial classifications he might have interpreted differently the visual clues presented to him by people on the street. His impression was focused by the classificatory concepts prevalent in his society, a behavior that Benjamin Whorf would have predicted. In turn this focus may prompt him, by a phenomenon of diffusion, to identify all other 'Chinese' along the same ethnic categories, according to the stereotype 'All Chinese look alike to me'.

It has to be noted that societies impose racial and ethnic categories only on certain groups: Whites do not generally identify themselves by the color of their skin, but by their provenance or nationality. They would find it ludicrous to draw their sense of cultural identity from their membership in the White race. Hence the rather startled reaction of two Danish women in the United States to a young African-American boy, who, overhearing their conversation in Danish, asked them 'What's your culture?'. Seeing how perplexed they were, he explained with a smile 'See, I'm Black. That's my culture. What's yours?'. Laughingly they answered that they spoke Danish and came from Denmark. Interestingly, the boy did not use language as a criterion of group identity, but the Danes did.

European identities have traditionally been built much more around language and national citizenship, and around folk models of 'one nation = one language', than around ethnicity or race. But even in Europe the matter is not so simple. For example, Alsatians who speak German, French and Germanic Platt may alternatively consider themselves as primarily Alsatians, or French, or German, depending on how they position themselves vis-à-vis the history of their region and their family biography. A youngster born and raised in France of Algerian parents may, even though he speaks only French, call himself Algerian in France, but when abroad he might prefer to be seen as French, depending on which group he wishes to be identified with at the rime.

Examples from other parts of the world show how complex the language-cultural identity relationship really is. The Chinese, for example, identify themselves ethnically as Chinese even though they speak languages or dialects which are mutually unintelligible. Despite the fact that a large number of Chinese don't know how to read and write, it is the Chinese character-writing system and the art of calligraphy that are the major factors of an overall Chinese group identity.

A further example of the difficulty of equating one language with one ethnic group is given by the case of the Sikhs in Britain. Threatened to lose public recognition of their cultural and religious distinctiveness, for example, the wearing of the Sikh turban in schools, Sikh religious leaders have tried to bolster the group's identity by promoting the teaching of Punjabi, endogamy, and patterns of behavior felt to be central to Sikhism, including hair styles and the wearing of turbans. However, seen objectively, neither the Punjabi language nor the wearing of turbans is peculiar to Sikhism either in India or Pakistan or Britain.

Many cultures have survived even though their language has virtually disappeared (for instance the Yiddish of Jewish culture, the Gullah of American Black culture, the Indian languages of East Indian culture in the Caribbean); others have survived because they were part of an oral tradition kept up within an isolated community (for example, Acadian French in Louisiana), or because their members learned the dominant language, a fact that ironically enabled them to keep their own. Thus in New Mexico, a certain Padre Martinez of Taos led the cultural resistance of Mexican Spanish speakers against the American occupation by encouraging them to learn English as a survival tool so that they could keep their Hispanic culture and the Spanish language alive.


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