Encouraging kids to be proud of their identity
This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner and author of A Kids Book About Identity, Taboo Nawasha. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
What is your identity?
Identity can be many things. It can be your race, your ethnic background, your faith, your spirituality, how you identify amongst your friends. That's something that I learned growing up is really being comfortable with my own identity, being a biracial kid, growing up with my native culture and my Mexican ancestry; really understanding how I can embrace and celebrate and honor both cultures.
In fact, the more we get to know ourselves and the more experiences that we have in life, the more our identity might change or become more clear to you and to others.
I think it's a process of growth and understanding, you know? A lot of mixed kids like myself, we are confused. Which is a natural situation that as time goes by, you start really connecting with the roots and your ancestry.
Sometimes you start connecting with people that may educate or inform you about other things that you embrace as your identity. For example, when I met my bandmates, Will I Am and Apl.de.ap, we were like-minded kids at 17 years old. And together, as a group called Black Eyed Peas, we found our identity in the music world, in the music space, as dancers, as music producers, as songwriters, as creatives.
I mentioned that to Taboo before getting into talking about whether or not we control our identity or if it’s a mix of how we’re born, how we’re raised, our community, and other factors.
I think you learn how to embrace. I wouldn't say control. Controlling is such a harsh word for me. I'm just like, I don't say diversity. I say a mosaic of culture, you know? Cause a lot of corporations will say, “Oh, we need diversity.” I'd rather say “I want a mosaic of culture” because it's more beautiful.
And when I think about control, it's like you're controlling somebody. I think control can be let go. And you can say you embrace and you understand, and as you go along, you're able to learn and inform and educate yourself.
Man, I'm still educating myself at 46 years old. I'm still trying to learn information and be a student of the world of life. I learned from my kids. I learned from you just speaking to you right now, I learned that you're a skater that was part of the whole culture of the Warped Tour experience.
You know, that's when I met some of my iconic figures, like Caballero and you know, Hosoi and, and Tony Hawk, and those guys that were putting it down back to the date, Lance Mountain, the Powell-Peralta guys. Like, that's what the community was about, was embracing. And that's why I like to use the word “embrace” your identity, or you know, grab a hold of understanding who you are because it's beautiful.
It's beautiful when you're able to have a cultural exchange, just like we have right now. You talked about skating and hip hop and how the 411 videos were a huge asset for us to be able to have our music, you know, our first album be played in the skater community and embraced by the school.
You contain multitudes. That means, you are not just any one thing. You’re the combination of many, many experiences and thoughts and ideas and accomplishments and yet-to-be named things.
And you don’t ever need to be everything or anything all at once. You’ve probably already started discovering this (as did that grown-up near you… and they’re probably still discovering), but there are different times and different spaces where you lean more heavily into certain parts of your identity.
For me being a kid of Mexican descent, not really knowing that part of my life because I didn't really connect with my grandfather.
My grandfather was not part of my life. My biological father was not part of my life. So the only connection I had was to my grandmother, who was a strong Native woman from Jerome, Arizona. And so a lot of time I was trying to figure out, what's the identity of, or what's the representation of that part of me, you know?
I will always embody it and, and I knew that the culture was so beautiful because I was born in East Los Angeles and it was a predominantly Mexican-American community. But then you also had immigrants coming from Mexico who really didn't speak English or, you know, I guess you can say culture shock sometimes to understand that part of me.
But as I became a little older, my mom met a man from Mexico, and I started learning more about Mexican culture.
And so I leaned heavily on my Native culture cause that's what my grandmother was about, she was about empowerment. She was about, you know, pride for Jerome, Arizona and her roots. And then when my mom got with Julio, which is my mom's boyfriend, I started learning more about Mexican culture from Mexico.
In A Kids Book About Identity, Taboo writes “But identity isn’t just formed by easy or fun things—part of what shapes you is the challenges you’ve faced. These challenges are like big, scary giants, towering over you, trying to take you down. I like to call it ‘Fighting Giants’ because even though they may seem impossible to beat, we do have the strength to fight back and not give in to them.”
Let’s talk about those giants for a minute.
I could speak on two different times, where one of them being as a kid, an obstacle of not being able to—feeling a certain way, cause I didn't have my father in my life and as a boy, you want to be able to share those moments with your father. But the reality was, that was an obstacle that I felt, but my grandmother lifted me up. My mom lifted me up to the point where it was an obstacle at first, but I found strength within the matriarch system, as I told you earlier.
And so these women, these powerful women were leading my tribe, and I overcame fighting that giant of not having my dad in my life by a super human, like metaphorically superhuman giant, which is my grandmother. And she was stomping through good times and bad times to lead the way for us.
So that was one obstacle. And then another obstacle in 2014. I got sick. I got diagnosed with cancer. So you know, I physically had to fight this horrible disease. I had to do chemotherapy and I did that for 12 weeks. There were moments where I wanted to give up and the giant was trying to win the battle.
But as I always do, I went into warrior spirit and I overcame and I beat this horrible disease. And I'm proud to say that I'm seven years removed from that time period. So that was another physical giant that I had, you know, I had to overcome. So that's why I was fighting that giant, but I beat it.
That's why I'm here, brother.
I want to end in a space that leaves you ready not only to advocate for yourself and for your identity, but also to work for the protection and respect and visibility of the identities of others.
A lot of times people have a misconception—and I'm speaking about my personal identity—a lot of people have a misconception about Native people.
Whether it's a stereotype [like] monolithic, we're not monolithic. You know, there's a misconception, especially in Hollywood and on television, about what a certain way, community—if not all communities—are supposed to be. Fortunately, we have amazing storytellers that are starting to change the narrative, whether it's Marvel, whether we have an animated series called Spirit Rangers, we have Rez Dogs, on Hulu.
And we also have Rutherford Falls on Peacock, which is an amazing way to change the narrative, but also to exchange culture and really learn. Because a lot of times it's about being misinformed, especially about appropriation and not knowing exactly how to go about informing yourself so that you are not naive or ignorant to the fact that native people are still here.
We have a term, invisible no more. And I'm glad that you said about invisible because a lot of times we are. You know, as this CNN once said, you know, something else, put a class like Latino, Asian, African-American then they're like something else is 6%. So, you know, it's funny, but it's real.
It's about self-awareness and empathy and respect and understanding, but you won't understand unless you share information and educate yourself. And that's something I never get offended [by]. I like to inform and educate and, and learn from each other. Because a lot of times, like I said, it's ignorance, it's just not knowing.
And whether it's people wearing headdresses and wearing war paint at a football game and thinking that that's like, you know, it's just [a] mascot, which is a horrible term. We're not mascots. So these are the types of conversations—and whether it's uncomfortable or not—these are the conversations that need to be had just so that we can move forward and really respect.
And it's about empathy, as I mentioned to you earlier.
Before we go, one last shout out to Taboo’s grandmother. I’m glad we got to learn more about her through this conversation.
Man, it's a beautiful thing. And once again, it goes back to my hero. She was that—the ultimate give back [at] every opportunity she had; sometimes to her own detriment of putting others before herself and always wanting to be a beacon of light and hope and inspiration.
That's something that, a value that I took, you know, I learned how to fall into it because for a while, I was kinda trying to figure myself out. But by her grace, by her leadership and her guidance, I was able to embrace that idea of how I can be once again a bridge and connect inspiration and motivation for the youth.
Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week we spoke with Taboo Nawasha, the author of A Kids Book About Identity.