Identity. Derived from the Late Latin term identitas meaning “over and over” or “sameness,” it’s defined as “the set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group” and “the distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity.” These are two divergent ideas: identity makes one belong (“member of a group”) and it makes one stand out (“distinct personality”). Identities, therefore, have the potential to both include and exclude. They are socially-constructed, meaning they’re susceptible to social context and can differ depending on how one sees oneself vs. how one is seen by others. And perhaps most importantly, they’re not static; they have the potential to shift and adapt with time.
Migrants face the concept of identity more acutely than many other groups. As they move from one geographic and cultural setting to another, they are presented with a new set of rules and codes for becoming a “member of a group” – their “distinct personality” may be interpreted differently than it was in their home country. The transition from migrant to “resident” or “citizen” is also laden with complications – legally, personally, and socially – both from the perspective of the migrant’s identity and the national identity of the host country. Part of this is due to language. Countries categorize immigrants differently, which in turn affects how people within that country view immigrants. It’s certainly not the whole story, but it plays a role, and it merits some thought.
For example, I was recently asked by a German why Americans are so quick to evoke information about their heritage (right after I had told him about my heritage, funnily enough). “Why isn’t being just American enough?” he asked. My responding smirk, nod, and shrug were half-agreement and half-annoyance. While I am proud of my mixed background and international family, I also roll my eyes at the 3rd generation, self-proclaimed “Irish-American” whose only connection to the country is celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, or the Jersey Shore star claiming to be Italian. But for good or for worse, Americans have embraced the idea of the hyphenated identity, and it spans generations.
In Germany, the language is reversed. Rather than being Turkish-German, Germans with Turkish roots are often called Deutschtürken (German-Turks). In this linguistic formation, German is modifying Turkish, and Turkish remains the defining attribute. Within everyday speak, the Deutsch is often dropped and they are simply called Türken, even if they were born in Germany. For official state statistics and in the census, the German government classifies any migrant or their offspring as mit Migrationshintergrund (with migration background). Also common is the term nicht deutsche Herkunft (not of German origin).
While these classifications are useful for targeting migrant groups for integration efforts, they can also be exclusionary within social discourse. This is especially the case for the 2nd and 3rd generations, who are classified virtually no differently than newly arrived migrants despite having been born and grown up in Germany. It was also only a little more than a decade ago, in 2000, when Germany introduced a jus soli (birthplace) citizenship provision to allow children of migrants to apply for German citizenship. Thinking back to that German from earlier: I wonder if he’s thought about the fact that while many of those mit Migrationshintergrund would find being “just German” more than enough, they may never have the opportunity to.
– By Sophia Burton