The Borderline Researcher: Identity and Academia in the "Third Space"

When Antía Ben from Spain arrived to the United States, everything she knew about who she was crumbled. She simply became known as “the Spaniard” by her friends, not white, not European, not Latina. Continue reading.

Prior to my move to the United States (U.S.), I had a fixed image of myself as a Galician (Spanish) and European woman that came from a humble but decent household. This idea was probably the result of being raised by a mother who had no studies but an endless love for her daughter, and a distant but supporting father, with whom I used to spend three months of the year. At the same time, my identity was probably influenced by the twenty years I spent on the Galician public school system. On the one hand, the school curricula I studied from kindergarten to my senior year of college tended to put a special emphasis on the cultural differences that made Galicia, my region, different from the rest of Spain. On the other hand, I also participated in different student exchange programs, which imbued me with a sense of belonging to that political transnational entity called the European Union.

Yet , upon my arrival to the United States, these assumptions started to crumble. For the first time, I realized that my self-identifiers were clearly ethnocentric. In my new environment , not only Galicia sounded completely extraneous, but even saying that I was European raised many eyebrows. Thus, as my new friends introduced me to their friends, I came to be known as “Antía, the Spaniard.”

international student voice magazine Antia Ben Gonzalez

Similarly, I became more conscious about my race and ethnicity identifiers, as I was repeatedly asked to report this characteristic in many forms. While trying to discern to which category I belonged, I realized that I was transitioning into a new social structure in which I did not fit very well. Through conversations with people from the U.S., I learned that I was not European according to U.S. criteria.* But neither was I totally white, given my country of citizenship and my linguistic limitations. Finally, I was not totally considered as a Latina either because, despite of my language and my hair color, I was not from any Latin- American country. In short, coming from a place where I had an unquestioned identity, I suddenly came to occupy an undefined identity space, a sort of “identity vacuum” where I found myself half in and half out of several groups.

This ambiguous space I came to inhabit pushed me to continuously question the existing identity categories in place, since it became very clear to me that , using Ian Hacking’s terminology (2008), identity categories are not natural kinds, but social constructions whose targets are continuously changing and, therefore, forcing the categories themselves to be constantly reinterpreted. This identity clash definitely enriched me as a promising scholar. I lost my comfortable and unquestioned position of a researcher who belongs to the dominant social group to become what, building upon Gloria Andalzua’s work (1987), I would call a “borderline” researcher.

In turn, lots of interesting research questions arose from this circumstance. The ambiguous position in which I am neither a part of the dominant culture nor a part of any of its widely recognized “minorities” encouraged me to think about issues of legitimacy and positionality. In effect , whenever I conduct research in a U.S. environment , I am never completely sure of to what extent do the participants see me as part of their identity group, or as a foreigner. Of course, not being totally considered as a member of any identity group does not locate me in a position outside the culture (Andreot t i 2009). Nevertheless, I think that this circumstance still situates me in a privileged position from which to look at both the dominant and the oppressed cultures “from the edge,” providing a different perspective that is derived from having one foot in each. Likewise, being between these two commonly opposed worlds has also allowed me to enjoy a variegated artistic life, by actively participating in music groups of disparate styles. Finally, it allowed me to further my own agenda as an education activist . In t his sense, I found tactical productivity in appealing to my commonalities with both groups, so that I could act as an ally of the less privileged people.

Paradoxically, it is precisely in t his no-space or space-to-come that Homi K. Bhabha (1990) calls “third space,” in which claims of cultural hierarchy, power relations, identities and knowledge are questioned and opened to re-negotiation, where—thanks to my current studies in the U.S.—I have found my own niche as a graduate student and as a scholar. I am confident that my dissenting voice can contribute to an ongoing debate about inter/multicultural music education in the U.S., in my home country, and even in other parts of the world.

Note: * I learned that , in the United States, the words Europe/European are used in a more restrictive way than in Spain, referring only to the United Kingdom, Germany and the Northern Countries.

Hacking, Ian (2008). Kinds of People: Moving Target s.
British Academy Lecture. In P. J. Marshall (ed.),
Proceedings of t he British Academy, Vol. 151. New
York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Andalzua, Gloria E. (1987). Borderlands/La Front era:
The New Mest iza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute
Andreot t i, Vanessa (2009). Engaging Critically with
‘Objective’ Critical Analysis: A Situated Response t o
Openshaw and Rat a. International Studies in
Sociology of Education, 19(3), 217-227.
Bhabha, Homi K. (1990). Nation and narration. New
York, NY: Rout ledge.

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