Kira Burgard (UWCAC ’14-’16 UK/Germany)
That’s how I introduced myself at the beginning of the last term. Indeed, it’s how we all introduced ourselves. First the name. It makes sense since this is what we are called by, it’s the word people use to address us or referred to us. Then the country. This seems like the second most important part of our identity. But why? Why not our hobbies, our pets, our favourite swim stroke?
At the end of last term we had a Critical Engagement Conference. One of the activities consisted of a number of papers lying on the floor with words such as “age”, “religion”, “sexuality” or “family” on them. The activity leader would mention a specific point in our lives, say for example secondary school, and we were asked to stand by the paper with the word that we believed to be the most important factor in determining our identity at that time. When “coming to AC” was mentioned, most people flocked to the paper reading “nationality”. Upon disagreeing I was told that it is, after all, this is the second thing that we mention when introducing ourselves.
This may be true, but I would like to offer a different explanation. It’s not nationalities that define us so strongly in this way, it’s the culture we come from. And this culture doesn’t share the same borders as our country or our state. It’s not as if on one side of a border, in many African countries’ case a line drawn across a map by Europeans who had never been to these countries let alone have familiarised themselves with the local tribes and ethnicities, the culture is significantly different to the other side of a border. Also, the population of a country doesn’t exclusively follow the same cultures, traditions and everyday rituals. It’s these different cultures we are interested to discover, as this is what makes the UWC movement so unique. But cultures are difficult to define and are often not associated with names. It’s a lot simpler to name the country we come from, and let the other person guess any other details concerning background from there.
Sometimes I introduce myself as being “from London” and have often been told that London is not a country. As you may well have guessed, I know that my hometown is not a country, but the culture is so unique and so unlike the rest of the UK that I thought naming London would give a better idea of my background. But when asked where we are from we are automatically expected to name a country.
I am not saying that, once we have made the connection with a person’s culture, we are completely oblivious to the country or government a person comes from. If you were introduced to a Palestinian and an Israeli at the same time, you would almost inevitably think about current conflicts. But these conflicts are not what define these people. It certainly doesn’t mean they agree with their country’s stand on the conflict. But what we do do is associate a person with our view of the people with this country’s nationality, or its stereotypes.
By sharing information about one’s identity, one is also, inevitably but often unintentionally, creating divisions in the society. Many people are not comfortable with sharing their religion, sexuality or economic background, so why does this controversy not exist with nationality? Why is it that a national flag and dress is on the list of things to bring to a UWC? It’s because “UWC makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures”. But doesn’t putting so much stress on students’ nationalities create more of a division in the community than unity? Does it encourage patriotism, and does this patriotism encourage unity? This could also be considered from a different angle, that stressing these differences in a place where everyone lives together in similar circumstances trying to make the world a more peaceful and sustainable place is the path to unity.
I will finish by encouraging you to think about why our country is the part of our identity mentioned in second place when introducing ourselves, and whether it really is mentioned solely to give an idea of our cultural background, or if it is, after all, a trait that defines our character.