The Roles of Identity in Society Many would argue that social justice is being served when someone says “we are all the same under the skin”. We are not all the same under the skin. Within us are our own senses of identity, constructed by our familiar discourses, the physical environment and its embedded culture, and our individual differences. Our sense of identity accounts for our perceptions of ourselves and how we are positioned by others in terms of culture, tradition, rituals, race, family, religion and education (Allen, 2004).
Our identities affect our life chances through our positions in society, the access we have to power, status, education, and wealth (Allen, 2004). Examining our own identities gives us insight into the role identity plays in life and society and therefore some understanding of the impact that the identities of others has for them on their life choices (Austin, 2005). This essay will examine the importance of the search for identity, and the desire to reconcile those identities with society’s expectations, for the narrator in the novel by McDonald and Pryor (1999), ‘The Binna Binna Man’.
The journey of this character will be positioned against my own life’s story as I attempt to compare the roles our identities have played in positioning us as members of Australian society. The narrator in The Binna Binna Man is a character who has a very secure sense of his own identity. He has a sound knowledge of his spiritual heritage, his people’s traditions and the importance the strength of his identity has for him and for his people. He seems perplexed by the idea that his cousin Shandell is “…living different from all that stuff’ (McDonald & Pryor, 1999, pg 17).
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He is reminded by his “girragundji” (a guide for life sent by his ancestors) that the way to stay strong and avoid getting lost is to have faith in his spirituality and his identity (McDonald, et al. , 1999). This is proven to him when he almost follows Shandell down the path to self-destruction. The Binna Binna Man, their beliefs, bring them both back to the strength they gain from knowing that they are Aboriginal Australians, with a wealth of culture, history, knowledge, and skills. Unfortunately their people bear the scars of that wealth being devalued and misunderstood by the Anglo Australian hegemonic society.
This is demonstrated through the sadness they carry and the way they feel how many of their people they have lost. The narrator and his family have to scrape together the means to travel out of the community they live in to be able to participate in their cultural rituals of grief and burial because they are not traditions easily accessible to them in Australian society. The narrator does not carry around the invisible knapsack of rights and power described by McIntosh (1988) that gives him access to the ability to carry out the roles of his identity.
Rather, he realizes the struggle he has ahead of him, to keep the strength of his identity and to be able to survive life and society with it proudly intact. He can see the strength of his people, but he can also see their struggle (McDonald et al, 1999). As noted in McDonald (2004) Australian Indigenous youth battle on a daily basis with the pressures their identities generate such as racism, poverty, the hegemonic culture of school, and having English as a second language, while trying to maintain the roles expected of them from their Indigenous cultures.
It is an enormously demanding and frustrating battle for these youth to get through their daily lives intact, let alone being able to achieve well in either world. The narrator is struggling with his identity as an Aboriginal youth in Australian society and is trying to emerge from a history of oppression and denial. He has not inherited wealth from his parents or the social and cultural capital necessary to be able to identify with the hidden curriculum of the education system (Allen, 2004).
His family has only relatively recently emerged from a period of oppression under The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Genever, 1992) where the Indigenous people of Australia were denied, by the Australian Government, the right to own anything, freedom of movement, the right to practice their cultural traditions, or the right to the education required to “participate as responsible citizens” (Genever, 1992).
He is caught in Australian society, within his cultural boundaries “…(the objective presence of cultural difference)” as discussed in McDonald’s paper on ‘Forms of Social Justice’ (2004). In no way is he served by social justice by being given the same chances I was, under the pretext of “treating us all the same”, as though we share a common identity. The development of my identity has benefited from what McIntosh (1988) terms “unearned privilege”. The life choices and chances I have, I have inherited, not struggled or worked for.
I am fortunate to have a very strong family support structure within my immediate family and my extended family. Traditionally, as a family, we celebrate birthdays, special events and seek advice from one another as needed. There is a strong sense of respect for elders in my family and the younger generation bears responsibility for their well-being. Predominantly, my family follows the Catholic religion and my values and beliefs reflect this. Consequently, I have developed a strong sense of self worth through the influence of my family and their cultural practices.
I am a third generation Australian. My family was middle class and although not overly wealthy in terms of material belongings I can see that my life was rich in opportunities and choices that the narrator was not afforded. I was born into an environment that set me up to be able to succeed at school. English is my first language and I speak it well enough to succeed at school and to be accepted into university. I am immersed in a society where the traditions, customs, practices and language of my heritage surround me and dominate all other identities.
The practices and language used by my family were consistent with those of the schools I attended, where the autonomy and independence encouraged in Indigenous children like the narrator may have been misinterpreted and devalued as neglect (Malin, 1990). I did, however, experience a brief time in my schooling that bore a stark contrast to that described above. When I was nine years old, I attended a school in Hawaii for twelve months and for the first time in my life was part of a minority group where my language, culture and experiences were not valued by the students or the teacher.
I was never asked to share anything about myself or my life in Australia and was the victim of some ridicule from my peers because I lacked knowledge of, and a skill for playing, baseball. I was subjected to racist remarks about the colour of my skin and was never supported or really even acknowledged by my teacher. As a class, we were required to write a paper detailing the history of American presidents which I found extremely difficult. The exercise held no meaning for me and I was unable to connect with it on the same level that my American peers did.
My developing experience as a pre-service teacher now allows me to see the value that would have come from the teacher asking me to write my paper on the history of Australian Prime Ministers, and to share that with my teacher and the class. This would have been an opportunity for the teacher to encourage a rich, authentic learning experience for me and for my American classmates – a sharing and valuing of knowledge and cultures and an opportunity to break down some of the cultural barriers that were present within the classroom and the school.
I strongly believe that education is the key to success in society and that teachers hold powerful positions with regard to recognizing and valuing the diverse groups in their classrooms. My development as a pre-service teacher depends on an ongoing commitment to value and support every student in my classroom by understanding their cultures and how their identities shift and change, have different importance amongst peers, family, and the community. I will continue to make myself aware of the role identity plays in shaping our self perceptions and, therefore, our life chances.
The education system has, in the past, failed certain groups and continues to reproduce social disparities, prejudices, conditioning and spirals of failure for these groups (Keefe & Carrington, 2007). As teachers, we should not see the cultural differences of our students as excuses or reasons for students to fail. Rather, we need to adapt our teaching practices and find ways to give them access to education and opportunities. Students need to be taught to view the world, themselves and others critically in order to recognize and discontinue the perpetuation of social inequities in education and other institutions.
If teachers can work towards identifying the inadequacies in teacher service, they begin to address the needs of disadvantaged groups ensuring equitable access to education, as is every student’s right. As I raise my own child and instill in him the same practices, language and culture as my family did for me, I am aware I am equipping him with that “invisible knapsack” that McIntosh (1988) writes about. I am aware that I am sending him out into a world where he does not have to carry his identity around with him like a weight around his neck, restricting him access to education, his choices, his rights and responsibilities.
I do hope however as I continue to grow and learn, that I instill in him the ability to understand ‘identity’ and what that means for him and for others. As he grows and learns he will understand that if he were to be treated “the same” as many of the minority groups he lives amongst, that he too would have to struggle to maintain his identity, just like the narrator. I know that his identity will provide him with more than his share of opportunities and choices. It is clear that various cultural and traditional factors shape our unique identities.
Teachers have a responsibility to recognize and value the diverse backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge that their students bring to the classroom, and to ensure that pedagogies incorporate a variety of styles to cater for this diversity. Researching this topic and reflecting on my own experiences has been a valuable exercise that will influence my teaching philosophy and the way I view identity and diversity. Compiling this essay brought back virtually forgotten memories of events I myself encountered during my schooling when I experienced a situation akin to those described by the narrator.
I strongly believe that our education system must implement inclusive curriculum programs that value all cultural identities. This will ensure that all students receive educational opportunities and the chance to develop self respect and positive dispositions towards learning, thus enhancing life chances and empowering them to succeed. . References: Allen, J. (2004). Sociology of Education: Possibilities and Practices. (3rd Ed). Southbank, VIC: Social Science Press. Austin, J. (Ed. ). (2005). Culture and Identity (2nd ed. , pp 139-154).
Sydney: Pearson Education Australia. Genever, T. (1992). Black and Blue. Aboriginal-Police Relations in Far North Queensland During The Currency of The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1893 – 1939. Unpublished Honours Thesis, JCU, Tsv. Keefe, M. , & Carrington, S. (Eds. ). (2007). Schools and Diversity (2nd ed. , pp 108 – 127). Sydney: Pearson Education Australia. McDonald, H. , (2004). Forms of social justice. Notes prepared for teacher education students. Townsville: James Cook University. McDonald, H. , (2004).
Supporting Indigenous students as “smart, not good” knowers and learners: The practices of two teachers. Paper adapted for exclusive use of students enrolled in ED2990 and ED3290 at James Cook University. McDonald, M. , & Pryor, B. M. , (1999). The binna binna man. Crows Nest. NSW: Allen & Unwin. McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack. Available from http://seamonkey. ed. asu. edu/~mcisaac/emc598ge/Unpacking. html (Accessed 17 September 2008). Malin , M. (1990). “Why is life so hard for Aboriginal students in urban classrooms? ” The Aboriginal Child at School, 18 (1), 9-29.
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