Authentic identities: Immigrant children and multiculturalism

The May 8th editorial in the Calgary Herald is titled Caught Between Two Worlds and lightly touches on immigrant children’s identity development: the Canadian way or the way of the child’s family and culture of origin. “Forging an authentic identity in Canada is not an easy task” concludes the editor.

canada.com reports Sat May 10th that Governor General Michaelle Jean, during her trip to France, called upon the people to remain “ever vigilant in the face of the slightest sign of intolerance, and to use every means possible to counter the lack of understanding by some that too often leads to the exclusion of others”.

For children, inclusion and identity and inextricably linked.

Media coverage of Jean’s official visit was rife with comments on the success of Canadian multiculturalism. Is (official) multiculturalism the best way to support forging authentic (Canadian) identities for immigrant children?

A reading of the most recent report in the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s series on Early Childhood in Focus, blogged on below, provides a useful framework for this discussion. From the preface, “Traditionally, identity formation has been perceived as mainly as being about processes of development, socialisation and enculturalation, with child-rearing experts offering wide-ranging views on how these can best be achieved. One prominent view has seen the young child as immature, unformed and dependent. Acquiring identity has been understood as a gradual process of embedding into the norms, values and social roles of the parents’ culture, shaped by the training offered by parents and others. An alternative view has seen the child’s identity as largely preformed and maturing through play and exploration in the protected spaces offered by caring adults.

Neither of these views accord with contemporary theories of identity formation, which respect children’s unique identity at birth and their role in constructing and reconstructing personal meaning within cultural contexts. There is also increasing recognition that children negotiate multiple, shifting and sometimes competing identities, especially within complex, multi-ethnic and multicultural contexts”.

The Bernard van Leer Foundation asks us to consider “as children move into group care and education, further sensitive support is needed to enable them to forge new identities which do not conflict with the family and cultural identity they have acquired at home”.

One more excerpt from this excellent report:

” When considering identity development in migrant families, the traditional view has led to seeing migrant children and adolescents as having to bridge two cultures or value systems. In this dominant tradition, it was believed that many children either reject their home culture in favour of the dominant culture (assimilation), or on the contrary reject the dominant culture and cling to the traditional beliefs and values of their origins (separation), although the ‘ideal’ situation would be the integration of both worlds recognising children’s multiple identities….Educational practices that foster children’s multiple identities need to avoid two pitfalls: colour-blindness and tokenism. Colour-blindness is the denial of differences, very often out of an honest concern to treat ‘all children equal’. In practice this means that parents and children from minority communities are welcomed, but receive the (unintentional) message that they need to ‘adapt’ as soon as possible to what is considered ‘normal’ within the dominant culture.

Tokenism on the contrary involves teaching the ‘culture’ of a child’s home life as fixed and static. Parents’ and children’s identities are thereby reduced to their origin by assuming there is something called ‘the Magreb culture’, ‘the Asian way of doing things’ or a ‘typical lesbian family’. In practice this means that special, yet stereotypical, events or displays are set up for children and families (such as a festival celebrating Iraqi new year with traditional clothes and food). Such activities risk being both patronising and stimatising, in that they overlook the complexities of children’s personal histories and family cultures and ignore socioeconomic and other differences.

An important way to avoid these pitfalls is to build real and symbolic bridges between the public culture of the early childhood centre and the private culture of families, by negotiating all practices with the families involved” (Michel Vandenbroeck, Senior Researcher, Department of Social Welfare Studies, University of Ghent, Belgium).