It’s More Than Just DNA
Camila, a successful professional, grew up in Buenos Aires with an Argentinian mom and a Guatemalan dad. Her native language is Spanish, and she dances tango and sips yerba mate.
But when asked about her cultural identity, “Latina” is not her first answer. “Because my grandparents are European Jews who migrated to South America and I grew up celebrating Jewish traditions and learning Hebrew, I feel more connected to Israel than Argentina,” she says. “I am a Latina, but I’m other identities too that mean as much to me.”
In an era when diversity goals categorize people into simple identity boxes, Camila’s story is not unique, and raises questions: What makes someone Latina? Is it DNA? Parents from Latin America? Who has the right to claim a Latinx identity?
Susana, one of Camila’s colleagues, has a similar experience but a different story. A fluent Spanish speaker with dark brown hair, she studied, worked, and lived in Mexico for many years – including dancing and singing backup in a grupo versátil band. Most of her closest friends, romantic partners and godchildren are Mexican.
For decades, many people have assumed Susana is Latina — but she is racially White. While Latinx multiracial heritage includes White Europeans, Susana has no Latin American DNA. Can she declare she is culturally Latina?
The Impact of Latinx Multi-dimensional Identities
Identity – one’s sense of self – is a core and ancient human need. For millennia, identity has been synonymous with belonging, and belonging synonymous with safety and sustenance. This belonging was granted through the happenstance of one’s birth – random genetics and geography.
What forms our identity today is far more complex, nuanced and dynamic. Navigating a world where name and appearance don’t always indicate affiliation can be disorienting. However, as growing trends in migration, interracial mixing and cross-cultural contact continue, learning to navigate this world is a must-have. Latinxs are the vanguard of a trend in multi-identity that will affect more people over time.
This trend presents three major challenges:
- Multi-identity people face challenging cognitive and social complexities. As genetic and geographical borders blur, more people have more identities to manage. Managing them through “code switching” can require greater awareness and brain power as well as skill, which can be stressful or confusing. While there is freedom in identity fluidity, there is also limitation in the loss of a singular personal point of reference.
- Multi-identity people disrupt traditional identity categories. While many argue that the U.S. penchant for racial categorization is divisive and outdated, brain science indicates that we do notice physical traits in others we categorize as racial, then assign qualities based on those traits. Connecting identities to outcomes helps institutions track whether or not their policies and practices are equitable. But when identities become increasingly blurry and fluid, such data lose their usefulness. Eventually institutions will have to redefine what “diversity” means, and re-examine how to track equity and progress.
- Greater disorientation and disconnect for everyone. Not always knowing “what” another person “is,” nor having clear norms for how to identify someone, presents a new challenge for our species. People may be less likely to engage deeply with one another for fear of making a wrong assumption. Those with multidimensional identities can experience exclusion or bigotry towards their non-visible identities. They also bear the burden of managing others’ confusion and questioning when those identities are revealed.
Creating inclusive environments for multi-identity individuals
The following six practices can create more inclusive environments for multi-identity people:
- Don’t be afraid to be unsure, or to guess. Noticing that you’re not sure about someone’s identity, and maintaining curiosity, will keep your brain from solidifying around the initial assumptions we all make when meeting someone new. Have fun inside your mind trying to guess, but be careful about guessing out loud until you know someone better.
- Be curious and listen for cues. This isn’t stereotyping, it’s discovery. Learning about another person’s identities and seeing all their selves respects their full humanity and creates connection. Listen to how they talk and what they say. If they trust you, multi-identity individuals will give you clues about who they are.
- Consider asking. If rapport and trust have been built, most multi-identity people appreciate the question. It shows that you understand identity is important to them, and that you want to know all of their selves. Steer away from clichéd questions like “Where are you from?” and try “May I ask, how do you identify culturally?” Avoid direct or continued probing if the person’s body language indicates discomfort.
- Catch and check your assumptions. Camila recalls her first Mexican restaurant experience in grad school where her friends asked her what she’d recommend from the menu. She answered: “You probably don’t want my advice. Tacos are shoe heels, burritos are donkeys, and fajitas…means ‘girdles!’” Another approach might be, “Camila, I’m not sure of your background, do you have any insight into this menu?” Pay close attention to nonverbal feedback to gauge how your good intentions are received.
- Focus on what a person’s identity means to them, not what it means to you. An identity label is an entry point, not the entire story. Once you discover someone is Brazilian, you risk damaging connection if you immediately start talking about your trip to Rio. Balance curiosity with respect – the other person may not be interested in satisfying your curiosity. Avoid treating them as your personal tour guide or cultural interpreter (“Your dad was Mexican? How did he treat your mom, was he ‘macho’?”). Such conversations aren’t taboo, but they will emerge organically as trust is built.
- Reflect the person’s identity back to them. Spell and pronounce the person’s name accurately and avoid shortening it or creating a nickname. Not everyone named Pamela likes to be called Pam; some who pronounce their name as “George” spell it “Jorge.” When in doubt, ask. Never contradict or tell someone how they should name or identify themselves.
Multi-identity people like Latinxs play a critical role in bringing the “should” reality of identity closer by disrupting what “is.” Camila, Susana and others like them embody a new approach where identity is defined by both embracing and transcending the simple facts of a DNA test. ■
Note: Names and some details have been changed to protect anonymity.