Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ethnic Identity

Another issue that's been coming up in my Kenya studies is ethnic identity. Funny, we've embraced the idea of the "nation-state" (the idea that a governing, geopolitical boundary (the state) encompasses one single people with a common heritage, history, and destiny (the nation)) so much, we've made assumptions about the people. The truth is, Kenya is a State that houses many nations. With forty different groups, languages, and ways of life, as well as the outside influence of colonialism and global society, there is no one way to be Kenyan. What's interesting is that we can say the same about America.

I've been finding this to be true for me. Ethnic and cultural studies have always fascinated me because, in some ways, I'm searching for my own culture. I've identified as Italian-American since I knew I had Italian ancestry, but I had no idea what that meant at the age of eight. All I knew was that A) my paternal grandfather was a Florentine and B) I liked pizza. Unlike most of my Italian-American friends, I didn't grow up with it. Like my Catholicism, it was something I grew up around but chose to identify with as an adult, especially when I moved away for school and felt the need to figure out who I was, outside of my old neighborhood. I've gotten some strange reactions because I'm not full blooded Italian, not even half blooded. I'm a quarter and, while that may be enough for the Sons of Italy, it's had people raise eyebrows. I've also gotten the, "Well, you're American! No need to hyphenate!" and, "Why does searching for your roots matter so much?"

Searching for your roots matters because there's no more ancient identification than the bloodline. In Somalia, children know theirs by heart, tracing back through generations of their paternal lines. That was what told you (and those around you) what kind of family you came from, what traditions you practiced, what trades, talents, and personalities you were known for. Yet, sadly, for many of us in America, many of those stories and traditions were lost, whether due to colonization, assimilation, "sea changes" or other factors. Even today, we struggle with culture, as evidenced by the insistence of Anglo ways over Latino ways, the "necessity" for immigrants to "become American" by forgetting their traditions and choosing the dominant culture. From the Native Americans, to the Africans brought over as slaves, to the Southern and Eastern Europeans who came for opportunity, this expectation has remained. At the same time, there are countless people searching through genealogies, resurrecting stories/rituals/recipes, reclaiming old family names, wondering, "What does this mean to me?" "What is it, to be Irish-American/Lakota/African-American/Chinese-American?" "Which do I keep and which do I lose?"

What does it mean to be Kenyan? What does it mean to be Kenyan and Kikuyu? Luo? Masai? Luyha? Do they deal with these same issues? How do they resolve ethnic tensions? How is there situation different? How is it similar? How does it impact daily life? Finally, how does it impact the way we, as humans, as family members, and as participants in culture, see ourselves and each other?

I search for my roots as I go the continent that houses the roots of humanity............