Respect and relationships in forming identity



Promos suggest you can choose your identity. Join a tour to Kurdistan and you can become an adventurer. Buy a Don Bradman cricket bat and you can become a cricketer.

Colourful thumbprintBuy an Aussie flag, sing loudly about boundless plains, and you can become a dinky di Aussie. Write a few colourful Malawis, Russians, Andorrans and Afghanis into your novel, and you can become a best seller. Choose, buy and compete. The only questions are about rights and price.

Identity, however, is more subtle. It is formed by the significant relationships — to the human race, to body, to place of birth and of living, to language, to the significant adults of childhood, to possessions, to education and work, to hobbies, religions and political parties and to all the people met through these relationships.

These relationships and the people met through them form the layers of our identity. In each layer we are linked to other people who differ from us. The members of our netball team, for example, may differ from us in religion, political adherence, nation of birth, wealth and so on. But through them we are connected to people who share these layers of their identity.

Some of these layers are given, not chosen. We are human beings; we are born with distinctive bodies and temperaments; we grow up in a place and language, with parents or significant adults, and with early education that we did not choose.

Others layers, formed around religion, political persuasion, educational level, cultural interests, social position and nationality, for example, we can choose and change. But in changing them we do not lose previous layers of our identity. They continue to shape us.

What we can choose and change, though, is how we identify ourselves, indicating which layer of our identity that we believe central and that we allow to control the people we meet, the books we read and what will matter to us. It orders the layers of our identity.

When we identify ourselves as a Buddhist, a socialist, a doctor, an entrepreneur, we shall form relationships and develop interests that over time layer our identity in distinctive ways.


"Cultural appropriation is not best thought of as a market. It is about exploring and building relationships. The test of legitimacy will be whether the appropriation expresses and encourages respect."


But the ways in which we identify ourselves can also be shallow or passing. Adolescents might try on successively being a jock, a nerd and a leader, without shaping other layers of their identity. Such choices will leave their traces but will not become central to their identity.

Most controversial questions about identity have really to do with what layers of identity are given or open to choice, and so with how we can legitimately identify ourselves. They relate particularly to our relationships to our bodies and to nation or race, and almost by definition affect minorities. Questions about which relationships are unchangeable cover a relatively few cases, particular of gender identity, where distinctive bodily characteristics may conflict strongly with our sense of our gender.

If personal identity is shaped by layers of interlocking relationships it cannot be bought or sold. Nor can it strictly be said to be owned. It is more a gift. What can be bought and sold, however, are symbols of identity that allow momentary identification. Mexican hats, boomerangs, Australian flags, slouch hats, red and black beanies, university degrees, self-published books and so on allow us to identify ourselves with particular groups of people and their desirable qualities.

The trade in most of these symbols are harmless. It reflects our wish to expand layers of our identity to make connection with others. We see the connection as a gift. That we want to make it will normally also be seen as a gift by those with whom we make connection.

But sometimes the trade in symbols of identity is objectionable. Clearly so, when the symbol is considered demeaning by the group of people with whom it is associated — think black faces or monkey suits. Or when symbols central to the group's self-identification have been abusively acquired and retained — as, for example, the Elgin Marbles or surreptitious recordings of secret Indigenous rituals. To sell or profit by exhibiting such things would be acts of gross disrespect.

The cultural appropriation of symbols is more complex. In itself it encourages the broadening and deepening of the layers of identity that build a healthy society. To sing music that is influenced by Muslim or Indigenous styles may broaden the layers of relationships that form part of our own identity. Similarly, respectfully to incorporate elements of the worship of one religion into our own can also enrich our identity as persons and as a nation. To read novels where writers enter imaginatively and respectfully a culture that is not their own also strengthens connections.

Cultural appropriation is not best thought of as a market. It is about exploring and building relationships. The test of legitimacy will be whether the appropriation expresses and encourages respect.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, identity, cultural appropriation



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Existing comments

Thanks for this thoughtful exploration of identity. The multiple facets of our identity can bring competing demands and inner equilibrium can then be elusive. Our connections, chosen correctly, should bring stability and tranquility. My daughter has chosen to be coach of my eldest granddaughter's netball team - surely a true test of relationship!
Pam | 19 October 2016

Is cultural appropriation the myriad pronunciations of the name of the second person of the Trinity when, surely, all human throats can pronounce his name in the same way as did his Aramaic-speaking mother?
Roy Chen Yee | 19 October 2016

There are symbols which deeply move me and parts of my family history which feed into my identity which I'll never give up. It's me and no one can steal it. I don't talk about it. After the debacle of the Safe Schools program we really need a sensible debate about male identity. I would recommend John Eldredge's book 'Wild at Heart' as a starting point.
Edward Fido | 20 October 2016

A wonderful exploration of identity, Fr Andrew, encapsulating the multiple influences that mould the definitive person. Two aspects, often overlooked and ignored, which you have explored are the enormous influence of early childhood environmental influences on the development of "self" and the place of music in the formation of identity. The loss or absence music as a cultural identifier is to me a major contributor to the loss of identity that has plagued the Catholic church since the abandonment of its magnificent sacred music post Vatican II and its replacement with foreign cultural influences with loss of universal identity. Fortunately, the nature of the environmental layering you describe is capable of resurrecting things loss because of their absence. Hope, says the adage, springs eternal. We can only hope.
john frawley | 20 October 2016

Thanks Andrew for this piece of wisdom. May I add that we are 'spiritual beings' on a human journey, so the first thing to consider is relationship with one's 'self'. Develop a sense of this important connection in order to make meaningful relationships with culture and others. The Bible opens with two Creation accounts: Genesis 1 says we are first of all in relationship with God and nature, Genesis 2 says we are in relationship with other humans but God is central to all. We need a community of relationships in order to flourish and grow. Roy Chen Yee, I like your question.
Trish Martin | 20 October 2016

Identity should not be confused with the superficial fashions we may embrace at odd times. There are two aspects to identity. WHO we are, and WHAT we are. WHO we are is usually determined by our relationships with those closest to us. Our early bonding is very influential in this, and is usually accepted uncritically, unless some disruptive influence intrudes. WHAT we are is usually determined by our interpretation of the circumstances we find ourselves in, and our actions and reactions to it. Then there are 2 often very different points of view. 1. How we see ourselves, and 2. how others see us. We usually judge ourselves according to the ideals we embrace, even if we do not always live up to them. Others judge us according our actions and reactions:- what we say, and what we do.
Robert Liddy | 20 October 2016

Thoughtful - as is Andy's characteristic wont - but also bitingly critical of the commodification and commercialisation of identity, which has become a fragile, fashionable and superficial aspect of the cultural studies landscape, thereby cheapening it and robbing it of/off its relational potential. The result is often an unnecesary exoticisation as well as exagerrated claims made on behalf of the epistemic voice. Any wonder as to why this debasement then easily deconstructs into 'cultural misappropriation' when it is our uncommon and complex humanity that should be on show for all to celebrate and explore?
MLF | 20 October 2016


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