Friday, November 05, 2010

Self Identify And Perceived Identity

We're diversely meta here at Shiny Ideas, and nothing says "meta" quite like discussions of identity. So when I saw this post on perceived identity over at Feministe I felt compelled to add my $0.02. Stipulating that the entire incident is absurd and unfortunate I'd like to examine some of Chally's reasoning a little more closely.

Ey offers the following:

Well, let's try some logic: Ms Betterridge is a Wiradjuri person. Ergo, how she looks is what an Indigenous person looks like.

I don't think it's quite that simple; let's turn eir statement into a syllogism:

  1. Ms. Betterridge is a Wiradjuri.
  2. All Wiradjuri look like an Indigenous person.
  3. Therefore, Ms. Betterridge looks like an Indigenous person.1

Assertion 2 is semantically valid2, but it sounds odd to me. "Indigenous person" refers to what, exactly? I'd proffer that, in this case, its a composite category that referrs to an expected appearance (or range of appearances) for a person. What isn't immediately apparent, however, how we go about determining the truth of the statement "looks like an Indigenous person". Chally is on the right track when ey says

[T]hat's the crux of it: who gets to be the arbiter of whether someone is manifesting an identity "properly"?

That's the heart of the matter, no question there. But then ey goes on to say

Something that comes through pretty strongly in this narrative is that if someone does not look like they are of a particular background, according to the observer's perceptions, their claim to that background is not as legitimate as that of one who does fit the observer's criteria.

That, I think, mischaracterizes the issue. The actions of Epic Promotions/Let's Launch do not necessarily reflect a belief on anyone's part that Ms. Betterridge is not entitled to claim Wiradjuri/Indigenous identity on account of her appearance. Here's what the original article in the Sydney Morning Herald says regarding the job for which Ms. Betterridge applied:

Tarran Betterridge, 24, a Canberra university student, applied for the post through an ACT company, Epic Promotions, which had been asked to find five people of ''indigenous heritage'' to staff a stall at Westfield in Canberra handing out flyers for GenerationOne.

Epic Promotions/Let's Launch were hiring people to staff a booth at a mall advertising GenerationOne's Aboriginal employment initiative. In this context it seems that a more likely explanation for their behavior is that, rather than seeking to deny Ms. Betterridge's identity claim , they were instead trying to predict how a third party would categorize Ms. Betterridge's identity on casual observation. Put more bluntly, they were judging whether having Ms. Betterridge staff the booth would attract GenerationOne's target audience.

Based on the materials available on GenerationOne's website its highly likely that their intended audience, in this context at least, was Indigenous job seekers. Whether having Ms. Betterridge on staff would attract or repel this audience is an emprical question and, as I know bugger-all about Australian racial identify/politics, I'm not even going to hazard a guess as to the actual effect. But thinking about that sort of interaction leads to some interesting questions.

Chally is right in identifying this as fundamentally an issue about the manifestation of identity. There is no single, objective description of what an Indigenous person looks like to which we can refer; the category of people who "look like an Indigenous person" is socially constructed and thus varies with context. The $64k question is whose construction is going to be given the heaviest weight? Chally appears to believe that the category should be construed broadly:

Indigenous Australians, as determined by Indigenous Australians themselves, look all sorts of ways. To deny those identities based on skin colour or hair type or other physical features is an act of cultural imperialism.

Anyone can be of Indigenous descent, so the group of people for whom the predicate "looks like an Indigenous person" is true is essentially unbounded. I believe that Chally is technically correct in this regard; as Ms. Betterridge clearly demonstrates there are Indigenous people who fail to meet any of the common stereotypes regarding the appearance of Indigenous individuals. What is not clear, however, is whether Indigenous people as a group would universally agree with that scheme.

Pan-Aboriginal identity is a relatively recent phenomena arising from European colonization; there's little evidence to support the contention that Indigenous people regarded themselves as a homogenous group prior to that point3. Additionally, unfortunate as it may be, Indigenous heritage is still tightly coupled with notions of "blackness". Yolanda Walker, of the Secritariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, writes:

Racism is an external factor that has hit Aboriginal families hard. It has caused great disadvantage in employment, housing, health, education and training, and this in turn puts an incredible strain on Aboriginal family life. An example is employment; if a father cannot provide for his family because of the lack of job opportunities for Aboriginal people, there is a lot of stress and anger within the family which affects each family member.

Our families are proud people, and our children grow up knowing that 'Black is beautiful' and learning to be 'Black and proud'. The home, the nurturing place of learning, teaches us a lot about ourselves, but unfortunately does not always prepare our children for the roller-coaster ride ahead of them. Our kids face racial problems from day one at school, and have to cope with growing up at home with such strong cultural values and being so proud of who they are and then going out and mixing with the wider society to be confronted with bigots who have few clues about the sensitivities of our people.

Blackness is seen as a marker of Indigenous identity not only by whites, by but Indigenous people as well. Which means that, even in an urbane city like Canberra, people may very well evaluate group identity on the basis of skin tone.

This leaves Epic Promotions/Let's Launch in something of a bind. Ms. Betterridge has straight hair and pale skin, which means that there's a non-trivial possibility that she would not be recognized as an Indigenous person by GenerationOne's target audience. Do they do the socially-responsible thing and hire her anyway, knowing that they may alienate a part of their audience as a result, or do they make a safe choice and hire an Indigenous person who looks stereotypically "black"?

Honestly, I think this is largely the case of a bunch of low-level recruiters trying to do their job to the best of their ability. They're not getting paid to work for social justice, they're getting paid to effectively staff booths at malls. It's a little annoying to see someone like Tim Gartrell to come down off the mountain and condemn their methods when it's clear that they've been ensnared by a quirk of Australian identity politics.

1 I suspect that Chally had the following syllogism in mind when ey made that statement:

  1. Ms. Betterridge is a Wiradjuri.
  2. All Wiradjuri are Indigenous persons.
  3. Therefore, Ms. Betterridge is an Indigenous person.

This is unarguably correct; the problem is that "Indigenous person" means different things in both cases. In the case of the "is a" predicate "Indigenous person" refers to an unambiguous (for present purposes) legal definition whereas in the case of the "looks like a" predicate it refers to a much more nebulous category whose very definition is currently under discussion.

2 As opposed to being nonsensical e.g. "All Wiradjuri are banana".
3 Cultural Identity and Ethnicity in the Pacific, pp. 191 - 192.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you!

As an extended family member of Tarran I am appalled by her behavior. No one in her family has ever identified as aboriginal. This all started when they realized they could apply for Abstudy financial benefits.

She talks about her aboriginal mother. Total BS! She is my a cousin and we never hrew up acknowledging it or even really knowing our heritage.

Yes, accept the heritage and be proud of it. No to exploiting it for personal gain! Shame on you Tarran.

9:45 AM  

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