In this essay I intend to explore the concept of identity in relation to contemporary understandings and representations of racial and ethnic identities. I intend to explore this concept in relation to the cultural representations that are portrayed through the news (the media) and social/political events. This issue is particularly important, especially in contemporary British society due to increased immigration, the perceived link (perpetuated by the media) between Muslims, terrorism and Asian orientation and the amalgamation of the ‘other’ (the notion that Westerners are the concrete/real/higher identity and ‘other’ social groups are defined against, or in opposition. to it). It is important, however, to outline within this essay what is meant by identity, cultural representation, ‘news events’ and my own positionality in relation to answering this question.
Based on the reading I have undertook for this essay, I have come to realise that identity is a very complex issue that we often do not think about until questions are raised about our identity. Coming from a country outside of the United Kingdom I have seen how identity, and the classification of different identities, differ within different cultures. I am a black Nigerian and although I have only been here for six years I find it much easier to interact with people from my own country than people from other countries, including the UK. I think this is due to a number of reasons which will hopefully become clear in this essay. These main two reasons are that (1) people from my own ‘community/social group’ have similar ways of classifying identities that I can recognise and interact with, (2) this facilitates symbolic interaction within which the meanings that are attributed to these classifications and the historical context within which my identity has developed can be represented.
Jenkins (2004) suggests that in our everyday life we are constantly identifying and classifying individuals, objects and ourselves in order to relate and interact with them. Jenkins (2004: 23) goes further by stating that
‘… identity is bound up with classification. In order for persons to be classified, however, a classificatory lexicon must exist: positions and categories, for example… Thus individual and collective identities are systematically produced, reproduced and implicated in each other.’
Within this essay, and in relation to the above understanding of identity, I intend to, firstly, explore how our collective identities are shaped and sustained outside of their context of origin (meaning the geographical base where they were started). Secondly, I intend to explore how this classification can often get distorted through media representation, especially in relation to contemporary racial and ethnic identities.
‘The majority of people in this country continue to believe that they belong to a specific race, and this has an impact on the way they conceive of their social identity’ (Darder and Torres, 2004: 5). It is often difficult for people to interact with other social groups as they believe they are from a different ‘race’ than themselves. This, however is not the case. There is only one ‘race’ – the human race within which there is multiculturalism. This multiculturalism is brought about due to different interactions with the world and different symbols to represent these interactions and to turn them into meanings.
The term cultural representation is often used to describe the stereotypical characteristics that are represented within different cultures to distinguish one from another. There are, however, essential problems with this idea as although people do ascribe to certain social groups; these social groups are by no means homogenous. The main reasons for diversity within a social group are the other social categories that interplay within one social group. These social categories may include gender, ethnicity, beliefs, age, disability, financial status, educational achievement and sexual orientation.
‘Collective identification evokes powerful imagery of people who are in some respect(s) apparently similar to each other. People must have something significant in common – no matter how vague, apparently unimportant or apparently illusory – before we can talk about their membership of a collectivity’ (Jenkins, 2004: 79).
Goffman (1959), however, sees identity as central to the way people live their lives and not just by the social categories people define under or are attributed to them. Although this is essentially still homogenizing people into categories of attributes and behaviours it is important to note that identity is acknowledged to be a much more complex issue. Central to Goffman’s writings is that he allows us to locate our identity according to the way we communicate with each other and other societies.
‘Goffman begins with the concept of social identity, the category and attributes of a person that are available to us on first appearance. Social identity is a better term than social status to describe these attributes because it invokes personal qualities like ‘honesty’ in addition to the structural features, such as ‘occupation’, that social status includes’ (Smith, 2006: 85).
Outside of the original context of identity (geographical) there are, however, issues about how this commonality can continue due to misunderstandings and misrepresentations of actions that were once understood (within context). Often people, like myself, find comfort within situations that we can relate to. Outside of the geographical area within which the ‘identity’ has developed we often find people/groups of people that can understand our identity. This allows the perpetuation of the traditional nature of the identity, even out of context. This is important issue to acknowledge within multiculturalism, as our identities are shaped (and are shaped by others) because we watch and learn from other people, their habits and behaviours: both what is acceptable and what is not ‘acceptable’.
In relation to the media, however, identity has often been used to appropriate blame and homogenize groups of people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Two good examples of this are, (1) how young people have been treated within the media. The perceived homogenous nature of hoodies, gangs, lack of sexual responsibility as well as alcohol and drug problems are all issues that have been attributed to young people and not other groups in society. Secondly, which is the main focus of this essay, is how ‘ethnic minorities/identities’ have been treated. I use this term very broadly to cover a number of identities and issues: mainly because this is what the media does, which confuses the population.
Identities can often get distorted by the media based on the perceived cultural representation (which is often the minority and the visual representation of the specific identity being discussed/portrayed). Goffman’s The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959) explores the concept that we have different identities according to the different social settings we are presented with. For example, we have two main stages how we ‘perform’ our identity. Firstly, the front stage (the public stage or the visual stage), is based on the ‘performance’ we give of our identity to different people in different social settings. For example, when we are with our friends and family we may ‘act’ more like our selves than when we are with strangers. Secondly, our back stage (the private stage or the non-visual stage), is the only time when we are truly ourselves as we do not have to ‘perform’ for anyone, as this stage is when we are on our own. These performances can be interpreted in many different ways according to the cultural classifications we have learnt. The media has a big part to play within the misinterpretation of some cultures due to that fact that they are inserting western ideals on non-western identities.
The, often, false representations of racial/ethnic minorities that are portrayed by the media prevent these social groups from being understood, explored or even engaged with. Although there are many different types of media mediums, only those who claim a certain identity can ‘truly’ know (and have ‘real’ representations of it) about that identity. This can also be the case when we attempt to answer the question about who shapes our identity – we do.
In conclusion, this essay has explored a number of issues that have not been exhausted due to the space constraints. However, the three main points that this essay has described and explored are: – (1) Identity is subjective, learnt, collective, practical, theoretical, historical, political and social amongst a number of other variables. (2) Collective racial/ethnic identities are sustainable outside of context as the historical meanings and traditions that are the essentialized elements of that identity are perpetuated and passed down through generations through stories, food, cultural celebrations, pictures, gatherings etc. Finally, (3) our identity is shaped not only by cultural representations but also by media related interpretations of a specific identity. This can be both positive and negative but is often homogenous. I do, however, agree with Darder and Torres (2004) that ‘race’ has no scientific basis as the categorization and identification of collective racial/ethnic/cultural identities is simply constructed: socially, historically and politically. We have to accept that people are different. This is what multiculturalism perpetuates. An equality of identities is not a hierarchy.