Friday, October 12, 2018

The Twofold Identity Survival Strategy

My co-worker Greg, a young black man, and I were employees in the graphic arts department of a large Fortune 500 company. I wrote copy for the company's internal publications, and Greg did artwork. He and I gradually became acquainted over time and on one occasion, this University of Minnesota graduate remarked, "I sometimes feel like two people. At work I use standard English, but when I go home in the evening, I revert to our African-American dialect.

I could easily relate to Greg's twofold identity. I'm the 10th of 11 children in a family that shortly before  I was born, immigrated to northwestern Ohio from Kentucky in search of work. We were a large impoverished family whose speech and mannerisms revealed our identities as hill people - our Buckeye neighbors were not above making fun of our Kentucky ways. Thus, I learned in elementary school to imitate the speech of my teachers and classmates while in the classroom, but like my black friend Greg above, I developed a twofold identity and reverted to the family dialect at home.

Nevertheless, I soon mastered standard English and by the time I was in high school, I was scoring high on state scholarship tests.

After high school graduation, I enlisted in the military as my only route to college. Honorably discharged from the US Air Force, I completed four years of undergraduate school on the GI bill. I majored in English and graduated with a 3.7 grade point average.

I've never forgotten my mountain heritage, though, and I can still easily slip into the dialect of my family of origin, a gift that used to give my son and daughter pause as they overheard me talking on the phone  to a family member back home.

Today I understand that developing a twofold identity is a survival strategy for those who are rejected early on for speech and mannerisms they learned from parents and older siblings. And actually I'm glad I've had that experience as it allows me to identify with and feel compassion for others, like my co-worker Greg, who have experienced the pain of discrimination for a variety of reasons in addition to blatant racism and/or sexism.

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