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Ethnicity and Identity


Disciplines > Sociology > Articles > Ethnicity and Identity

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Race, class, ethnicity and nationality have a complex intertwining.

Cultural identity can be seen as a one-ness, a collective 'one true self' based on a shared history and common cultural codes. This is a common post-colonial frame, where ancestral roots provide a collective dignity and meaning.

Cultural identity can also be understood through difference, where ancestral histories are changed by recent history and a constant dynamic of 'becoming' (beyond just 'being'). Finding who you are thus becomes more personal and flexible. Rather than re-discovery, it becomes creation, potential and power.

Ethnic trauma can be derived from the sense of oneself as the 'other', where the true subject is in the dominant class and you are their not-me. Identity is given to the subject, but stripped from the other.


In this page, 'ethnicity' is used to imply all factors of difference such as national culture, language, skin color, class, etc.

Ethnicity is sometimes viewed from a cultural Marxist viewpoint.

Lacan has been criticized as covering gender, but ignoring ethnicity.

Stuart Hall argues that the representation of the black subject has been through two phases, of challenging of the racist stereotype and asserting a positive black identity, and from within regimes of representation.

Recovered histories

'Hidden histories' provide for re-discovery, re-telling and rebirth in identities that slough off identities of oppression and giving hope for a better future.

When there has been a 'diaspora', a dispersing of a people, then re-unification re-creates identity, giving common meaning and re-building cultural codes. Separation leads to loss of identity. Re-unification restores, albeit possibly more to ideals than actual historic codes.

Inclusion of recent history builds a more diverse and real feeling, for example where the history of pre-colonial past is moderated by colonial trauma.


Identities can be viewed along two axes: similarity/continuity and difference/rupture, where catastrophic diasporas bifurcate cultural history, in the way that significant emotional events can cause split personality in the individual. A tension of sameness and difference can thus pervade an ethnic group.


Hall describes how Cesaire and Senghor use the metaphor of signifying 'presences' in a culture, such as the presence of Africa, Europe and America in Caribbean culture.

Africa represents both repressive slavery and also ritual, art, language. Thus black Caribbeans see themselves both as sons and daughters of slavery and also spiritually related to a tribal history and vibrant presence (Western tradition seeks to anchor Africa in a primitive past). This does cause problems: when 'home' is an imaginary signifier, you can never go home, and hence become homeless and lost.

The European presence is one of power that constantly 'speaks' the black subject, excluding, dominating, exploiting. It is so ingrained that it seems impossible to unpick and extract.

The American presence is about ground, place, territory, eradication, migration. It is the land emptied and recolonized by Europeans, where Africa and the West collide in a new and sullied place, where perhaps the European domination and rape of the land echoes their abuse of African culture.

The diaspora of dispersing peoples leads to constant renewal and rediscovery. Dispersion also leads to recombination and endless new mixes. This happens to language too, as those in search of meaning recreate words and meanings in their search for themselves.

See also

Hall, S. (1986). Introduction: Who needs identity? in Questions of cultural identity, eds. S. Hall and P. Du Gay, London: Sage

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