Richard McDorman’s Cultural Autoethnography

My Family

Most of my family was born and raised in the mostly poor, small coal mining towns of southern West Virginia. Many of my close family members (including all but one grandparent) have passed away. My mother died of a stroke when I was a child and my father, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, remarried but the marriage failed and I have been estranged from my stepmother for many years. All of my family members have been native English speakers and at least nominally Protestant, although I had two distant relatives who were bilingual and bicultural (a great grandmother who was Cherokee and a great grandfather who may have spoken a bit of Irish).

My family has been unevenly educated, but compared to the average levels of education for the southern West Virginia area as a whole, their education level is high. Grandma Betty was one of the first women in our town to earn a college degree; she was an elementary school teacher for more than thirty years. My mother died while in graduate school at West Virginia University and my father earned degrees in political science and engineering. My grandmother’s strong belief in the power of education helped to shape my own values and beliefs.

The values and beliefs shared by my primary cultural group (the white, Protestant and poor rural Appalachians) include self-sufficiency, industriousness, making the most of limited resources and opportunities, charity and conservation. I learned these values at home and in school, both explicitly and implicitly. As a child, I often heard the aphorism “waste not, want not.” Even though I moved out of the area of my primary cultural group in early adulthood, I still share these values.


My family was poor during much of my childhood. Despite my father’s high level of education, his disability often prevented him from finding gainful work. Nevertheless, I excelled in school and became the valedictorian of my high school class. I have spent the majority my adult life pursuing higher education while working at the same time. I earned a B.A. in Linguistics from the University of Virginia in 1994, an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Chicago in 1997, an M.A.L.S. (Master of Arts in Liberal Studies) from the University of Miami in 2003 and a Professional Certificate in Translation from New York University in 2011. I became an American Translators Association (ATA) Certified Translator in 2010, which I consider one of my greatest accomplishments.

I have been involved in athletics since junior high school and this has continued throughout my adult life. I took up boxing a few years ago and still compete in several long-distance (5-10 km) races each year. I love strategy and word games, something I “inherited” from my grandmother.

My Identity

Due to my choices and the circumstances of my life, I have acquired multiple identities and other cultures: as an athlete, a linguist and translator, a teacher, a Spanish speaker, a liberal progressive, and a Miamian living in the inner city, among others. Each of these identities contributes to my beliefs, values and sense of “self.” For example, I share the discipline of the athlete, the multicultural-multilingual perspective of the translator, the teacher’s love of learning, at least a part of the Spanish speaker’s understanding and interpretation of the world, the liberal’s conviction that the less fortunate should be helped by those more fortunate, and the urban identity forged from life in the big city.

These identities are complex and diverse, so I cannot easily discern how similar or different I am from others (who are also complex and diverse) in some of these groups. Not being Hispanic, I am not fully integrated into Hispanic culture, although my advanced Spanish fluency, experience living in Mexico and work as a translator, along with the fact that I live in a predominantly Hispanic city, provide me significant access to that community. As a non-Hispanic white person, I am in the minority in Miami and especially in my neighborhood. For over ten years I have lived in Overtown , in the heart of Miami’s inner city, where about 3% of the neighborhood’s 10,000 residents are non-Hispanic white persons like me (75% are Black and 20% are Hispanic). In Miami, diversity is an inescapable fact of daily life.

The most serious stereotyping/prejudice I have experienced as a result of my identity affiliation has come at the hands of police in my own neighborhood. I have been pulled over multiple times, and was once briefly arrested by a racist police officer who believed I was in the neighborhood for some illegal purpose, because I am white. The policeman demanded to know what a “white person like [me]” was doing in “a neighborhood like this.” I was eventually released without charges after the officer realized I was only two blocks away from the home address on my driver’s license. Because I had no power in those encounters and knew that I would be taken to jail if I argued, I simply endured them. I believe this type of stereotyping exists because individuals make unwarranted, blanket assumptions and generalizations about others based on their outward appearance and features, such as skin color, language/dialect, and style of dress.

My affiliation with these diverse groups has shaped me in many ways, including how I view myself (as a complex person with multiple identities) and others (as individuals who each have a unique “story”). I understand that I have many “faces” (culture is multifaceted) and that how I act, speak and interact with others is contextually determined. The language I use (whether English or Spanish) when giving a lecture at work is not the same language I use when speaking with my neighbors, friends or acquaintances. My sense of “self” is complex and multi-layered, with some layers (e.g., my identity as a native of Appalachia) deeper than others (e.g., my identity as a translator). I believe that being a member of these groups has changed me more than I have deliberately changed myself to belong to these groups.

Instructor Comment: “You have a fascinating life history with diverse life experiences. I enjoyed reading your story (and loved the links which made it come alive a bit more). We have a few things in common….Spanish, coal-mining town origins, Mexico, linguistics, but not translation, that’s way too demanding of my language proficiency.”

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