The Roles of Identity in Society

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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). 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...
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