The Influence of Immigration on Youth Identity
Series: Human rights, Immigration
Published by: My Social Interests
Contributors: Niki Mohrdar
A Washed Persona: Immigrant children and youth identity formation
Immigration is a topic that has been studied, researched, and analyzed by countless scholars for several years now. Extensively, the impact of immigrating to a new country, and how newcomers adjust to everyday life has received a great deal of attention. It is important to note that many researchers focus on adult immigrants and their families in general. Very little, research has been done on first-generation immigrant children and youth, as well as the impact immigration has on their lives. We all know that we are constantly forming our identities each and every day, in order to develop who, we are today. While identity formation among children and youth is already awkward, complex, and challenging, the added obstacle of immigrating to a new country and juggling two cultures can make the process much more confusing and difficult.
A Constructionist Approach on Immigration
This article will discuss race and identity formation from a constructionist approach, as discussed by scholar Joanne Nagel. According to Nagel, race is a socially constructed concept, one that is fluid, contextual, and intersectional (39). Race, Nagel states, is not biological or “an inherited feature, but a social construct,” (38) and one that will either be highlighted or muted depending on location and historical context. The only way a racial category is given meaning is socially. Through interactions with others, we therefore create a race. If we believe there is such a as racial difference, then racial differences will exist in our constructed reality.
Moving to Canada
In 1996 my parents decided to immigrate to Canada from Iran. My mother has always told me that the decision to move was an easy one. After having lived through the revolution and seeing how ways of living had changed under Islamic law, my parents decided that it was not the right place to raise a young girl. I cannot remember exactly how I felt about this decision to immigrate, but I do remember my deep desire to learn English, only days after arriving. At three years old, I felt left out. The simple fact that I am able to so vividly remember a feeling from the age of three speaks for itself: immigration made me incredibly selfaware. There were no kid’s television programs, or any programs, in Farsi, I could not practice reading, I could not communicate with any children at the playground—the only people I could communicate or engage with were family. A few weeks in to our move to Vancouver my mom caught me in front of the mirror with a comb in my hand, speaking in complete gibberish. I had been pretending to be a newscaster, speaking in ‘English.’
Race and the Importance of Context
Between the ages of five to seven I attended a school in the city of West Vancouver--a city that at the time was home to a variety of minorities-- so, I was easily able to make friends with people who looked like me, sounded like me, came from families that were similar to mine, and ate lunches that smelled like mine. I didn’t have to feel isolated, alien-like, or different if I didn’t want to, because I had the comfort of hanging out with fellow-Iranians. However, once I reached the second grade, my mother decided to move to a smaller suburb in North Vancouver known as Deep Cove. Deep Cove, at that time, was predominately white. Much of the land sits on a First Nations reserve; however, the feeling of racial segregation is imminent. I began attending a new school where now, I saw no one who looked like me, sounded like me, or had the same sort of history as I did. In fact, most families who lived there had been there for generations and generations. This is a situation in which what race means, politically and socially, has changed. In West Vancouver, my race was less visible, however, in Deep Cove, North Vancouver, my race is much more visible and much more real (Nagel 38). As a mostly clueless seven-year-old, this did not initially bother me. It had been drilled in my head from a young age by my family and other authority figures such as teachers, that Canada was an accepting, open-minded, multicultural country that greeted newcomers with open arms. Differences were celebrated, not ignored or mocked. For this reason, I was extremely perplexed on one of my first days at a new school when I brought out my food and a young boy behind me began talking about how ‘gross’ it smelled.
The problem with this sort of racism and discrimination is that it is couched in ‘jokes.’ It is rarely addressed as ‘racist’ because racism is considered to be a thing of the past, something that simply doesn’t meld with modern and developed societies, such as Canada. This is what scholars Frances Henry and Carol Tator call democratic racism. Due to the fact that Canada is a democracy, there are many value we assume the society holds, such as “fairness, tolerance, individual rights, and equality” (Frances Henry & Carol Tator 90). This sort of dialogue like the one I heard about my lunches as a child, however, shows “how racism is woven into every day discourse,” and therefore “helps to maintain existing systems of inequality” (89). In that sense, it becomes a form of gatekeeping, keeping the ‘abnormal’ out, and reinforcing constructed social norms. I can say that because of these "jokes" I never made the mistake of bringing in an Iranian dish for lunch ever again. It confused my mother, but I demanded food that was more ‘Canadian,’ whatever that meant. A Visual-based Society Although the teasing about my ‘weird’ lunches went away because I had forced it to, teasing about my physical appearance took its place. Many will argue that children of all racial groups face bullying at a young age, but as writer Brian J. D’Souza notes in his piece “Children of Immigrants and their Challenges,” immigrant children are more frequent targets of bullying because they are more easily labeled as an ‘other,’ which makes them easier to attack. However, the older I got, the harsher the teasing became. Comments were made about my darker coloured arm hair, and facial hair such as thicker eyebrows or darker coloured peach-fuzz all around my face. One day, a boy asked me where my “bindi was,” a clearly racially ignorant comment, as I am not Indian. This is what Nagel would refer to as the ‘one-drop-rule.’ Although it is discussed in her book in reference to “all Americans with any degree of African ancestry” (43) being referred to as black, I believe it works with all racial categories, as people often make grand generalizations about racial origins based solely on skin colour.
A fractured moral view
Due to these racially ignorant comments, which, as a young growing child, I felt to be true, I began making changes to myself. According to sociologist Ian Burkitt, our social interactions are “infuse[d] with ethical principles about the right and wrong ways to act” and these principles reflect the sort of society “we want to live in” (Ian Burkitt 58). Through my interactions with others, I began to realize the way I look was not valued. I began to shave my arms and pluck my eyebrows—something I had no idea how to do at the age of 9,10, and 11. As each year went on I began to resent my heritage more and more. ‘Why do I have to be Iranian?’ I’d ask myself. ‘Why can’t I have blonde hair and blue eyes like the girls in the movies and in my classes?’ My moral view of myself weakened, because the view we have on ourselves is “drenched in the words of others” (Burkitt 58). We learn to discipline ourselves through others interaction with us. If we laugh at a situation that isn’t humorous, we will be judged or mocked or perhaps given a weird look and we will know from this point forward not to laugh in similar situations. Our physical appearance is also regulated in this manner.
Our OBSESSION with visual differences
The concept of visual modernity speaks to this. According to Scholar Robyn Wiegman, visual modernity has become our truth, our reality, and our way of enforcing boundaries and segregation. Visual modernity can be defined as our society’s tendency to frame what is visible as what is real. For example, if someone is white, then they must be inherently different from someone who is black, because visually, they are different. It has become, as Wiegman argues, almost a science for many people Our obsession with visual differences, differences society has imbued with political and social meaning, has made issues of race relations, as demonstrated here, increasingly complicated, and has made it a struggle for those who are coloured to feel accepted, welcomed, or that they belong.
An abandoned heritage
For years, I began attempting to erase my ethnicity and racial background in hopes of being recognized and accepted as someone who fit in, someone who perhaps, could be ‘white’ like most other kids around me. At the age of 12 I went out and bought skin bleaching products. It is alarming that these products even exist, however, it is even more alarming that a child feels they need to go out and purchase them in order to belong. I began doing anything I could to make my skin look lighter. I wanted to assimilate as deeply and as fundamentally as possible; beyond mere physical alterations, I wanted to embody what it meant to be ‘white,’ what it meant to be ‘Canadian.’ My mother, however, demanded we keep our culture, something I now am extremely thankful for. In our home, my mother played Iranian music, hung up Iranian art, cooked Iranian food, bought a satellite that would allow us to watch Iranian television, and, most importantly, would refuse to speak to me in English. My mother can speak English; however, she often would be angry with me if I would speak too much English around her—she wanted to ensure I would never forget our language. However, I found it would often upset me when people came over and our fridge would be filled with foods that no one could recognize, and when my mother and I would speak in a dialogue that no one could understand.
Many of my friends told me that when we spoke, it sounded as though we were angry, and as far as I knew, anger wasn’t a very positive emotion or feeling to have. I would find myself almost embarrassed to have my friends over at times, or to go to events where they would have to hear me interacting with my mother, as I knew that would instantly label me as different or ‘other.’ I would avoid these situations; I would push away any trace of Iranian that I had left within in me.
An Accepted Version of Myself
Although I had been attempting to ‘whiten’ myself for several years it took a long time before I began to feel accepted as someone who was not an ‘other.’According to G.W.F. Hegel, in his piece “Independence and Dependence of Self Consciousness,” and as briefly mentioned before, we are who we are based on our interactions with other people. Meaning, we can only be ourselves “by being acknowledged and recognized” (70) as ourselves. Instead of attempting to accept who I am the older I became, I broke down who I was and attempted to become a whitewashed version of myself. It made me angry, and sad, and frustrated, but I felt it was better to feel this way than to feel judged or unaccepted. Shortly after graduating from high school, I moved to Montreal for postsecondary school. When I entered residence (dormitories that are on-campus), I immediately noticed the diversity of people who surrounded me, making me instantly feel more at ease. Credits: Canadian Iranian Foundation Sharing My Iranian Roots This year I invited all of my friends over to my house to celebrate an Iranian holiday known as Norouz.
It is the celebration of Iranian New Year, and falls on the first day of spring. I called my mother and asked her for an Iranian recipe that was easy to make and cooked all of my friends an Iranian-style feast. I brushed up on my knowledge about the holiday and shared all I knew. One of my guests brought me an apple and some coins, a symbol for health and wealth that is associated with the holiday. Another friend baked me a traditional Iranian cake. That night meant more to me than I had led on, because that night was the first time I felt truly and entirely accepted for who I was, who I am, and who I hope to be. It was the first time that I felt I didn’t have to hide anything about myself, that I could embrace my differences and instead of feeling judged—I could feel accepted and welcomed.
My guests were willing to come in with an open mind, to listen to what I had to say, learn about my culture and heritage, as well as to celebrate how truly beautiful it is to be Iranian. While this information may be relatable to many immigrants, it is important to note that immigrant children and youth’s identity formation will of course radically differ depending on their age, gender, sexuality, location, etc. However, because we live in a visually oriented society, one that is imbued with ideologies that value white, heteronormative ways of being, the identity formation of immigrant children and youth can become extremely taxing. For these reasons, it is important for research in this field to grow.