Alex M. Balgóbin
19 December 2012
Global Cultures and Leadership Final
Investing in Cultural Diversity
As growing rates of migration and culturally integrating communities are evident worldwide, it is apparent that we are promoting an inevitable approach towards globalization. Investing in cultural diversity and promoting multilingualism is an asset to our society. Below, I present cases of prejudice among interracial communities, how victims of discrimination work around it, and how this may be beneficial to a globalizing world.
1. The Dynamics of Identity
Anthropologist, Jonathan Friedman, defines globalization as a process of decentralization—usually among wealth and power, but can also be accompanied by a migration of cultures to establish diasporic regions within other cultures (744). Globalization leads to a decline in hegemony, the social power exerted by one group over another—which, in turn, leads to diasporization (746). Shalini Shankar’s ethnological study of Desi teenagers in the Silicon Valley section of the San Francisco Bar Area of California focuses on South Asian-American culture, class mobility, and success. Shankar notes the attribution of Desis as “model minorities”—successful, progressive, and blended into American society (2). This “Desi Land” represents a group of ethnicized and racialized communities that take pride in their culture and social standing while acknowledging a lingering past of prejudice and racist outlooks, “Desi Land…is inflected both with a spirit of wonder and enthusiasm as well as immense obstacles of class and race for those who are not well positioned to realize their dreams” (2). Many of the Desi teenagers in the Silicon Valley are first-generation American-born to immigrant parents, which presents them with the challenge to retain their family’s culture at home while conforming to American culture at school; this challenge brings about a “diasporic culture” that entails code-switching and hybridity in order to differentiate between two opposing cultures (6-7).
Many Desi teenagers in the Silicon Valley have developed their own “Desi teen culture” composed of local and global media, “[they] draw on stylistic elements from global media such as Bollywood as well as from local media such as hip-hop and pop music videos on MTV” (Shankar 54). Like other high schools across America, Desi students can choose to be part of one or more cliques—social groups of students based on common traits. Movies and music are also a major part of Desi teen culture as it is for many American teenagers; but this culture draws heavily on Bollywood media, from South Asia. The expansion of this hybrid culture has brought upon many diasporic songs and films, mixed with English and South Asian languages along with their respective cultures.
The widespread availability of high-tech jobs in the Silicon Valley has brought in many South Asian families from working to upper-class types looking to cash in on these stable job positions. Besides South Asians, the Silicon Valley has also had a significant demographic shift in other minority groups that have established “a strong residential and retail presence” (Shankar 33). The classes of the Silicon Valley Desis are mostly separated based on the line of work—with upper-class Desis working in more of a white-collar, professional setting and middle-class Desis doing manual labor. The technology that has drawn in many Desi families to America is also a major component of Desi teen culture in that it is utilized to communicate with peers through paging and instant messaging; this may also be a contributing factor in the ethnicization among South Asians as technologically proficient. Silverstein draws on the ability teens have to electronically communicate with each other whenever they please as a way of speeding up the linguistic diffusion process and, in turn, standardizing this diffused lingo, “So new orders of mobility and of text-transmission and circulation seem to be transforming ethnolinguistic identity and its modes of possible recognition within a politicoeconomic order such as ours” (548).
The term “fresh off the boat”, or “FOB”, is a term denoting marked minorities—of non-American descent—who have not fully conformed to American culture and society. One can be a first or even second-generation American-born Desi and still be classified as a FOB by fellow classmates if their style of appearance is not “American” enough (Shankar 69). Contrast to being a FOB is being “whitewashed”, which also has negative connotation as it can indicate Desis who have fully conformed to American culture and steer away from their ethnic background. Shankar provides an example of a popular group of Desi teen girls at a high school that take pride in their culture and, because of their high social status among their school, have proclaimed themselves as the “FOBulous Six” as a way of de-racializing their culture (Shankar 69-70).
Another byproduct of globalization—as Linguist, Michael Silverstein explains—is lingual diffusion (536). Linguistic diffusion does not only entail code-switching, but also code-mixing and accented English. Shankar’s studies show that code-switching is more used by those who are comfortable and fluent in speaking multiple languages in a conversation whereas code-mixing is more-so used by those who do not have bilingual mastery and try to incorporate their native language in with their secondary language speech, “Such group-specific talk functions as a form of insider language in the context of a range of other practices that contribute to the construction of Desi teen culture and cliques” (109). Shankar also found that Indian-accented English is more often used by upper-middle-class students who prefer speaking English over their Indian tongue but end up faking their accent in order to digress from speaking American English—I believe this is their way of showing social superiority over lower and middle-class Desis who use code-switching and mixing while still retaining their culture (109). The way Desis speak to their friends is a huge distinguishing factor among social levels; FOBs, being the group that code-switches the most, are prone to racialization by other cliques, “ Whether youth code-switch regularly or only use accented English, these language practices and others are integral to shaping meanings of identity in schools” (Shankar 117).
2. Racialization and Language
Race and ethnicity are two similar attributes used to describe origin differences. Ethnicity refers to cultural background, inclusive of several factors such as a shared language or heritage. An example of an ethnic group would be people that practice Judaism from Israel. Regardless of skin color or race, those of Jewish origin in Israel are likely to share a common culture and therefore can be classified as one general ethnic group. Race refers to the genetic, biological, phenotype of a person—the way someone looks. Different races can exist within an ethnic group (i.e. North African Jews and Middle Eastern Jews living in Israel) and different ethnic groups can exist within a single race (Afro-Jamaicans/Caribbeans living with African Americans in Flatbush, Brooklyn). In countries where interbreeding and multiracial towns are common, race is more specific than it would be in America. The Latin American word, raza, classifies Latinos on a finer scale than how Americans would, with sub-categories such as mestizo and mulato.
The assumed, generic, American is thought of as white, middle-class, and fluent in Standard American English. Any ethnic groups outside of these guidelines may be referred to as “marked”. Generic white Americans are an unmarked epitome of what it means to be American. Certain ethnic American groups such as German Americans are not as highly marked as Indigenous Australians would be because German culture and ethnic values are more common and accepted in American society as are German people. Over several decades and centuries, most ethnic groups will become decreasingly marked in American societies as their cultures become more accepted. It is also possible for other ethnic groups to become increasingly marked if more prejudice outlooks arise.
Urciuoli describes ethnicizing discourses as a “focus on the achievements of ethnic families and individuals” (17). Ethnicizing one’s “cultural difference in positive terms” or unmarking, to an extent, certain ethnic distinctions can counteract—but never fully negate—racial markings of a recently racialized group. An example of an unmarked group would be Chinese-Americans, who were once an exiled ethnic group in the 19th century but now encompass large, enculturated, “Chinatowns” filled with pawn shops and restaurants in many of America’s largest cities. Most “white ethnics” from European countries have worked their way through these discourses via economic shifts after World War II. Other, less fortunate, ethnic groups such as Hispanics and African Americans have not been as privileged in being as unmarked through ethnicized discourses as those of Caucasian descent.
Urciuoli conveys racializing discourses as means of distinguishing white Americans from other ethnic group in terms of morals, traits, language, behavior, etc. Racializing is a way of demeaning ethnic groups in order to justify xenophobic thoughts. A significant factor in racialization in America is bilingualism and accented English. Immigrants or lower class Americans with unorthodox, or nonstandard, dialects of English, are often looked down upon as nonconformists. Those that speak languages or dialects other than Standard English in a public setting are placed in a category of their own, away from the true, natural, Americans. Even after decades of racialization among Hispanic ethnic groups, Hispanics are still not technically an official race as not every Hispanic considers their self to be Hispanic, according to national census records. Many light-skinned Hispanics, especially those of the upper class would classify themselves to be “white” rather than Hispanic.
3. Indexicality in Language and Culture
Urciuoli defines semiotics as “the study of signs and interpretive systems” (14). Communication comprises a semiotic “complex system of meaningful social action” (1). Indexes are “words, sounds, or grammatical elements that carry information about the speaker’s identity or location” (7). On a broader aspect, indexes are “signs of connection…of cause and effect” (133). Examples of natural signs of a person’s origin are race/class indexes, which are almost permanent features such as skin color and accent. Indexes are creative, or performative, when they lay out boundaries of interactions, inclusive of the social relations of the individuals. Indexes of education and class mobility can correlate to the use of correct English. “Good” English, albeit indefinable, is a strong means of indexing someone’s speech to correlate with their social class. Good English can also be used to access “symbolic capital in the form of prestige and material rewards” (107). Symbolic capital is a byproduct of unmarkedness; it is the amount of resources available to someone due to honor, prestige, or recognition (Foley 309). Correct English, however, only brings symbolic capital when the “prestige” outweighs other racial markings (Urciuoli 121). Language is, bluntly-stated, a very significant factor in not only how one is treated but also how they are socially ranked by others, “Class, race, and authority imbalance make people aware of language correctness as the one thing that they should be able to control” (9).
America’s involvement in Puerto Rico had both racializing and ethnicizing outlooks, “The United States sought to make Puerto Rico profitable by turning Puerto Ricans into a reserve labor supply. At the same time, the United States sought to turn Puerto Rico into a model bilingual democracy…” (41). America had viewed Puerto Rico as a disordered country. English was imposed onto Puerto Rico as a means of liberation (47). The outcome of these foreign affairs produced English-speaking middle-class Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico due to ethnicizing but also English-speaking working-class Puerto Ricans living in the United States due to racializing (41).
Markedness refers to the degree of how positively or negatively judged a certain ethnic group is (8). A fully unmarked American would be a generic, middle-class, white citizen that speaks only unaccented Standard American English. Multilingualism contributes to being marked as many non-American speakers of English can have noticeable, non-standard, accents. These unmarked Americans, in the eyes of most working-class Puerto Ricans, embody the stereotypic white person and represent figures of authority in many workplaces and other venues (8). In these American venues, the Spanish language is marked and is therefore not welcomed to be spoken. Bilingual speakers, notably Puerto Rican New Yorkers, use code-switching to help transition from speaking English and Spanish. Non-Caribbean Hispanics use code-switching considerably less than Puerto Ricans because they believe it is “marked for class and race” (104). This concept of markedness can be applied to many other untypical ethnic groups living in America.
Accents bring together multiple semiotic concepts in order to differentiate between different ethnic groups (8). A person’s accent can cause them to be indexed under a certain ethnic group, regardless of how they look or what ethnicity they might actually be. Accented English is racially marked as having a poor education, which in turn is perceived as low class, because those who learn English are expected to perfect it (119). Speakers are expected to have control over every phoneme they blurt out and how it is pronounced, “If an accent is too strong, it can be diminished bit by bit. Not only can this be done, it should be done” (120). The ability to control your accent is a sign of proper education and also shows interest in class mobility. Those who are unable to “correct” the way they speak are also unable to disassociate race from class, “They abdicate any hope of metacommunicative control” (126). The cultural/symbolic capital of accents may have co-evolved with the political economy in the United States and other industrialized/stratified nations which are “tied into moralistic discourses about correctness” (134). This obsession with having standard accents and the way these discourses are embedded in our economy has caused our nation to invest a significant portion of money into accent therapy via speech classes (134).
Many light-skinned Latinos unmark themselves by “acting white” in order to blend in, “They become reactors, shaping themselves to fit dominant standards…” (147). Unfortunately, in many American minds, even the smartest of minorities are not a sufficient basis for unmarking an entire ethnic group, “that individual remains an ‘exception’” (27). Then there are some minorities who would not deny or try to hide their race but are still accused of “acting white” when they do things that invest in class mobility such as speaking Standard English or receiving high grades in school (29).
As obstructive as racializing is to our society, ethnicizing discourses can also be harmful as it prolongs racialization, “Ethnicizing and racializing are both about markedness in ways that reaffirm the terms that define the unmarked American” (Urciuoli 38). As many minorities strive to become unmarked, they are still burdened by the accusation of “acting white” (173). Any foreign language speaker in America is subject to racialization and will never fully be unmarked as long as they are unable to hide their ethnic background.
The Desi teen community of Silicon Valley share many similar cultural concepts in how they retain their ethnic background while blending in with American society, but not every Desi teen expresses their culture the same way. Some teens, like Shankar’s Rafiq, prefer their acquired American culture over their family’s heritage, “…he avoids being tied to a clique because he finds his way of being Desi to be different…” (Shankar 53). Many Desi teens, conversely to Rafiq, strive to maintain and overtly express their culture. While there are Desis on the opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, there will always be those in the middle, who create a hybrid culture for themselves and for others—contributors of globalization.
Bonnie Urciuoli Exposing Prejudice: Puerto Rican Experiences of Language, Race, and Class. 1998. Westview.
Foley, William. Anthropological Linguistics. 1997. Oxford: Blackwell.
Friedman, J. “Globalizing languages: Ideologies and Realities of the Contemporary Global System” American Anthropologist 103 (2003): 744-52.
Shalini Shankar, Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley. 2008. Duke University Press.
Silverstein, M. (2003). The whens and wheres—as well as hows—of ethnolinguistic recognition. Public Culture, 15(3):531-557.