Some white people appear to think that non-white people have a strong ethnic or racial identity by default. They may think that if a non-white person is unaware of her race or ethnicity, it is a result of white interference. However, ethnic and racial identities are socially constructed, not genetically inherited.
Infants of colour, for example, are born without knowing their race, their ethnicity, their culture, or their history. These things are learned. Learning culture may involve learning skills, learning history may involve learning knowledge, but learning racial and ethnic identity often involves the internalization of social categories of difference and otherness.
Perhaps white adults have a weak sense ethnic and racial identity—if they have any at all—because they have not had the same experiences with being othered and being different.
In the blog post From Crib to Caste – A Personal Story, the author recounts the formation of his ethnic and religious identities. He begins as a child, having no concept of ethnicity, religion, or race. It is only when his (probably white) kindergarten teacher asks his parents where they are from, that he learns that his parents are from “India”, and that he is “Indian”. It is only when he finds out that his Indian friend speaks a different language and ate different foods, that he learns that he is “North Indian” and that his friend is “South Indian”. He learns that he is “Hindu” in Grade 1, when he is the only child who comes to class with a red tikka on his forehead. (He learns that he is “Punjabi” in Grade 8, and he learns about “caste” in Grade 11.)*
Like the author, I am also a second-generation Canadian of colour. My experiences are similar to his, except I am of a different ethnicity. I do not remember such detail, but I remember being embarrassingly ignorant about things related to my ethnicity and culture, and learning it from others. I remember being confronted with shocking knowledge about my identity coming from the mouth of another, and then going home to ask my parents about it. Society knew more about my racial and ethnic identity than I did, but then again, it is society that constructs these racial and ethnic identities.
The formation of my ethnic and religious identities undertook a rather amusing process. I grew up in the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of North York in Toronto, Canada. My family was one of the few Indian (East Indian) families on the block; which was fine by us. I must have been in kindergarten when I learned that I am, in fact, a second-generation Indian. My teacher curiously asked my mother where our family was from. I overheard ‘mummy’ blurt out “India”. Cool! I had no clue. As far as I had known, my siblings and I were Canadians from North York General Hospital.