Monday, June 21, 2010

Weird Linguistic Identity Regionalism

I've been lucky enough to live in a couple different places in my life, and not spend my entire life in one part of the world, or even in the same town my whole life. I got to live in Germany for a year, Long Island for eight, some big cities (Brooklyn for the summer, on the NYC Department of Education's dime), Philadelphia for a year; I've spent most of my life in eastern Pennsylvania, though - went to school here up through community college (except for that year in Germany). I'm pretty familiar with the people who live here, how they speak, where they work, how to get around. But I've noticed a regionalism in teaching at LCCC that I don't hear from people in casual conversation. It's not bad, just....weird.

One of the assignments I have my students do is a cultural autobiography. This is the first assignment they do (with the exception of my 5-week summer course, in which I start them out with the research paper, but it's a time thing as much as anything). I like assigning this paper first because it doesn't scare them as much as a big, bad research paper; it's more casual in terms of linguistic formality; and while it might be difficult because they're not used to thinking of their own culture(s), it gets them thinking about themselves and how they identify themselves. They're interesting papers for me to read because many students have, I see, gone through a process by which they think, "I have these ethnic backgrounds, but I don't really identify with them because they're too far away [either geographically or by having those relations go back several hundred years] / no one ever taught anyone in my family about them / I just don't care about them; how else can I define culture?" And it is that last question that really gets them thinking about how we identify culture that I want them to think about.

In the first few paragraphs of describing themselves, many students will mention their race, although I've noticed it is the white students who do this. And many who do introduce themselves as white refer to themselves as Caucasian. Now, since I have never physically met any of my students this summer, I have no clue what their race is. I don't care what their race is, and 98% of the times their names don't tell me too much about their race. (Sometimes it does; sometimes it tells me they're at least part black, or from a Muslim culture, too, but I'm also aware that this is not always the case: "Solomon" can be a Jewish name, and I've been mistaken for a Jew because of it, but in my family it's not a Jewish name, so I'm aware of the misleading quality of names.)

It's just interesting to me: I can't ascertain why they're saying "Caucasian" instead of "white." It doesn't matter, really. It never occurred to me to refer to myself as Caucasian, outside a biology or forensics discussion where features are more important. Perhaps they're trying to be more formal, or be aware of language, or politically correct. I've heard this self-identification from students in all my classes at this point.

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