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Defining Identity: moving beyond Us and Them

I recently listened a podcast on the Ezra Klein show titled, “how politics became a war against reality”. Klein talks with Soviet-born TV producer turned journalist Peter Pomerantsev about his new book This is Not Propaganda. One segment of the show focused on how politics is now about creating identity. Sharing an experience about a conversation with Jonah Peretti, founder of Buzzfeed, Klein suggests that the rise of the internet has led to a shift in framework around what we consider identity. He argues that the rise of the internet has brought with it the capacity to turn interests into identities.

Initially, Buzzfeed acted as an incubator to see what would go viral and one of its earliest innovations was discovering that identity goes viral. Early lists included titles such as; 17 things only the children of Asian immigrants will understand, 27 things you’ll only get if you’re a left hander, 32 things you’ll only understand if you are an Eagle Scout. What these lists were doing was saying; here are the things only you know; that’s the us and everyone outside of us is the them. Essentially, the internet is taking a powerful psychological force and super charging it, so that we are consistently looking at whether people are strengthening our identities or threatening them. My argument is that teaching is the same.

Our students are now walking into the room with an array of ‘identities’ and too often we are trying to boil these ‘identities’ down into catch all terms. One of the phrases that particularly irritates me is the use of ‘Māori and Pasifika’. The problem here is two-fold. Firstly, it makes the assumption that these two groups share the same educational whakapapa. But beyond that, by using such overarching terminology, such phrases fail to identify the many different social, ethnic and cultural groups captured in them.

Now I’m not saying that having ‘umbrella’ terminology is the problem, it’s merely the vehicle for peoples’ assumptions. How loaded are the terms which we choose to identify or not identify with? For a long time, I refused to identify with terms such as ‘religious’ because of the connotations it held around attitudes towards topics such as marriage equality or abortion. I didn’t want people to make assumptions about my own beliefs, so I stayed quiet. Do we ever think students might feel the same way? That they too might be unwilling to identify with the catch all terms we have for them, in the fear that we as teachers might be making assumptions around who they are.

This is where it becomes a balancing act for teachers. On the one hand, teachers should know their students’ ethnicity and cultural background. However, they do students a disservice when they mistake this as identity. Convolution of terminology leads to a one-size-fits-all (in that particular grouping) model. It leads to you ‘tick-boxing’ your relationships with students. “Yes, I can list the seven Māori students in my class” is not culturally responsive practice, it’s not building relationships and it’s not activating identities. It’s data management.

This isn’t semantics; it’s a fundamental shift in how we view our students. It humanizes them. When we can see students identities as a combination of interests, ethnicities, cultures and social backgrounds, we are able to relate to them more easily. The educator’s role, like the political leader’s, is to somehow unite disparate identities under a common vision. This is where we need to break down binaries of them vs us and find a new state of pluralism in our classrooms. It’s not enough to co-exist; we need to thrive together.

I have two challenges this week;

1) Begin exploring how you can break down fractures in your classroom and start uniting the seemingly disparate identities of your students. Think about how you might unite them behind a vision for the future.

2) It’s much easier to unite disparate identities under a common vision, when you know what those identities are. So, try and move beyond a single term, ethnicity or identifier on your student management system. See if you can get to know a little bit more about some of your learners. Be deliberate. When you do, I can guarantee it will strengthen your relationships but also strengthen the learning.

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