Dear Dr. Debbie,
Between my husband and me, we are a hodgepodge of European ancestry and a microscopic strain of Native American (my husband is 1/128 Chippewa). Our 4-year-old adopted daughter has African-American genes. Our neighbors and friends are a nice variety of ethnic backgrounds and skin tones, some with adopted children. How important do you think it is for our daughter to identify with her biological ancestry? Is this an important part of one’s identity? I don’t feel like it is for me.
All Mixed Up
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Cultural heritage may or may not be an important part of a person’s identity. It’s up to the person. Developmentally, ethnic identity is absorbed during consistent experiences in childhood — through language, music, food, holiday traditions, informal social interactions, direct instruction and the celebration of life events, and usually is quite solid by adolescence. A distinct ethnic base can set one up with values, standards of behavior and a shared history. Ethnic identity gives one a connection to others beyond the immediate family, and from the past to the future.
On the other hand your family’s expression of “culture” could be any part of the mix that best serves your immediate family and circle of friends. A little from this, and a bit from that. That you adopted a child may say more about who you are as a family than her particular genetic lineage. Unless she is going to have any ongoing relationships with her birth family, their ethnic identity is probably less relevant to your daughter than the next door neighbor’s. That you say your neighbors and your friends are “a nice variety” suggests that your family values cultural diversity. African-American culture then is merely part of the array.
Cross-cultural connections are good for all of us. In our shrinking global village, with commerce, higher education, philanthropy and adoption melting away former divisions between cultural groups, we have lots of opportunities to be aware of and to enjoy each other’s cultures whether we travel around the globe or just get to know our neighbors. The planet is becoming less of “us versus them” and more one human culture with lots of ways to express our common humanity.
This Saturday, Sept. 27, you can enjoy west African culture at the Kunta Kinte Children’s Festival at Chesapeake Children’s Museum in Annapolis.
The following Saturday, Oct. 4, you can explore the diversity in your own family tree at the Family History and Genealogy Festival at the Maryland State Archives, also in Annapolis.
And as close as you are to Washington, D.C., you might as well take claim to the heritage of your husband’s 4th great grandparent and visit the National Museum of the American Indian some time.
Looking backward, we can find many examples of an ethnic group having a strong hold on individuals — being an explanation for personal purpose and group behavior. Moving forward, this may not be the case. These ethnic distinctions may lose their relevance in the future. Groups may define themselves by ever-evolving attributes of commonality. The international space station is evidence of this. Ellen Ochoa, who is a second generation Mexican-American, says, “What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background, but motivation, perseverance and desire — the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery.”
Perhaps one day everyone will see that on this planet we are one family.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com