Diversity & Identity — by Susan Popoola

It was my birthday recently and I was presented with the following question – “Do you celebrate your birthday with a cake in your culture & country? Would love to know if this a recent cultural phenomenon or long established? Is this a personal sign of globilisation?”

The questioning left me feeling puzzled and uncomfortable.  This led me to reflect on the definition of culture, something that is known to be difficult to define. However, according to Tyler, a British Anthropologist of the 19th Century, “Culture … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.’

Reflecting on my own identity based on my birthday experience I’m further reminded of how complex identity and as such culture is.  My parents were Nigerian and I have indeed lived in Nigeria – Nigeria reflects part of who I am and I have no shame in saying so. However, I was born in Britain – to be a bit more precise, I was born Lambeth, London in England. My early up brining was is in Essex so I at times joke and refer to myself as an Essex girl. I now live in Milton Keynes as I have done now for over 10 years. I also, have a British passport. I therefore wonder why anyone would just assume that my country is anywhere other than the country that I live in. Is this based on the colour of my skin, my name or what?

As for culture – regardless of what my country is – how do you define culture and specifically my culture? Is it based on where a person originates from, where they live or what? To me my culture is quite eclectic and personal to me, as I believe that I have taken what I believe to be some of the best parts of both British and Nigerian cultures and infused it with experiences of other places that I have visited and learnt of. Ultimately, I’m more interested in Being Me than fitting to a stenotype of any kind.

At the same time if you were to speak to my sisters that I grew up with, they have had different experiences and interpret things differently – they will therefore identify themselves differently.

Just through my family experience I would say  identity is becoming more complex and at the same time more individual.  I have two friends – sisters who both live in England.  Their dad is Ghanaian, their mum Italian. The older sister sees herself as black, the younger sister sees herself as white.  I have neighbours – the husband is British of Pakistani origin. The wife is Polish. How do you therefore define their son who is likely to speak English, Urdu and Polish within the next few years with the additional strong influence of my Scottish neighbours with whom he and his parents have developed a close relationship.

You then have Mo Farah the Somalian born long distance British runner. He acknowledges his Somalian origins and runs a charity that does development work in Somali.  At the same time, having spent most of his life in Britain he runs for Britain and sees himself as British.  You also have the white British cyclist who was born and raised in Kenya – cycling in Kenya for most of his life, yet now cycling for Britain – at the same time planning to set up a cycling foundation in Kenya. Fascinatingly, you also have Jennifer Grout, the young American lady who sang in perfect Arabic on ‘Arab has talent ‘without being able to speak a word of the language.

Statistics show a growing mixed race population reinforce this message but they don’t show how complex the issue of identity has become.  Simultaneously in the last few years I believe the organisational focus on diversity diminished during the recession years.

On the other hand, I have found that there are an increasing number of people talking about values. Whilst values cannot and will not take the place of diversity. If the agenda remains on diversity, whilst the diversity agenda may aim to include, I believe there is a strong risk that it is unable to recognise ad represent the growing complexity of diversity, which means that by its very nature it excludes and disengages.

I therefore believe that there is a need to align the values and diversity agenda. Starting with shared values or commonalities, which may form the backbone or glue of a mosaic and go on to accommodate diversity or individual needs from this line with diversity focusing more and more around individual identity.

Susan Popoola

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *