MLK Jr school children singing "We are marching"

Identity, diversity, community

Our son started Kindergarten in September, so needless to say it’s been hectic. But fantastic as well, as we’ve discovered all the resources and people there for us at the Cambridge Public Schools. Tuesday we attended a community conversation on identity and diversity at the Putnam Avenue Upper School. The timing couldn’t have been better, and on-site daycare and some food offering meant we could go with our little ones in tow!

Educators Mona Abo-Zena and Christina Brown facilitated the room-packed event. They introduced the concept, and dangers, of the single story with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s inspiring Ted talk. “If we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”

What is a single story that has put you/your identity in a box? What’s being left out? What are the possibilities that you want your child to see in their story? These are some of the questions that guided our conversations.

I moved to the U.S. from France more than ten years ago. My first years in Boston, people would often tell me that I must be a wine connoisseur, or that I must love cheese, or would just talk to me about such and such famous French person that for sure I must know and admire. One day, the mailman talked to me for over 30 minutes about this 19th century author that wrote what he considered some of the greatest novels, repeating his name over and over to my perplexed look. And then it hit me that he had been talking about Jules Verne all along.

That evening, talking about identity and diversity was challenging and complex, but we did it together as parents of Cambridge students. This tells me that identity thinking (some would argue “identity politics”) does not preclude common grounds or community. Some people want, need, one story. Too many stories make them uncomfortable. But one story can have many arcs and a common core. Does this mean diversity in how we, Americans, think about identity? I’m not sure. I was reminded of this while listening to Eric Deggans talk the other day on NPR about complex female characters in shows, “after high-profile shows about black people […] again, there’s this push to create more diversity. And Hollywood has responded by looking towards women’s stories.”

Where does this leave me? Again, not sure. When asked if we’re French or American, my husband and I always end up saying we’re both, or at least a little bit of both. Our cultural and societal references are meshed together, and still complete each other with me leaning French and him American. We “co-translate” along the way. My 5-year old son, on the other hand, tells me he’s American and does not speak “my language”, even though he only spoke French until he was three.

Another aspect of the identity narrative is the common story. In France, I sometimes felt like the national common story of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” trumped everything else. Was this from the founding of France, incorporating many small kingdoms and cultures into one nation? Or becoming a secular country with a uniquely strong public education system? Or welcoming generations of immigrants from everywhere, but especially Europe and former colonies, into one ideal? One thing is sure: last summer’s burkini ban fiasco tells me it’s still a thorn.

And this is what we closed the evening with: a reflection on our child’s identity using the Rose, Thorn, and Bud approach. We also filled out “identity trees”, writing about where we come from at the roots, about our core values along the trunk, and what has filled our journey so far next to the branches. It was satisfying and comforting for our family to do this exercise, and to hear others’ stories in that they are different but also familiar. Most importantly, we were with our community, in our city. And that’s our renewed commitment, as we enter the age of Trump.

Feature photo: Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with my son’s first all school assembly today, January 20, 2017. This is the end of the event, when we all sang Siyahamba. “We are marching.”

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