Title

The construction of identity through race and ethnicity : coloured South African women in Western Australia

Date of Award

1-1-2007

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Psychology and Social Science

Faculty

Faculty of Computing, Health and Science

Abstract

The formation of ethnic and racial identity is important psychologically. Mainstream psychological theory and research on identity has been criticised for its failure to adequately address the lived experiences of historically marginalised groups in society. The purpose of my research was to centre the experience of one such group, through an exploration of how coloured South African women living in Western Australia construct their identities focusing on the dimensions of race and ethnicity. There is a dearth of research in Australia with migrants of mixed racial backgrounds. This work was seen as an important contribution to expanding the diversity of research on processes of racial and ethnic identity construction. My interest was in examining not only the labels by which these women elected to identify, but also the socio-political, historical and cultural resources they drew on in constructing their identities in the context of emigration from a historically oppressive and disempowering context, to one with different socio-historical and political structures. Drawing on a feminist framework and with the aim of giving voice to the women and examining their processes of meaning-making, I utilised a qualitative research design. I conducted unstructured conversational interviews with 22 expatriate coloured South African women residing in Western Australia. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was the technique adopted to analyse the interviews and explore how the women made meaning of their subjective experiences. In relation to colouredness, there was diversity in the ways the women negotiated, managed and positioned their identities. The narratives showed that they drew on a range of historical, political and social resources in making meaning of and situating coloured in the process of constructing their identities. What the women knew and understood of our country of origin's history of slavery and colonialism, along with their awareness and life experiences under apartheid, were significant influences on their construction of ancestry. In turn, these understandings of our history and ancestral origins were important in how they made sense of culture as it related to our community of origin, with the narratives on culture illustrating multiplicity, ambivalence and contradictions. The narratives also showed that the women drew on multiple categories for identification aside from coloured, including black, mixed race, South African, South African born-Australian, woman and person. There are complex historical, sociopolitical and contextual dynamics around the negotiation and construction of these multiple identities. While the women have increased freedoms for identity construction in the Australian context, there are also external constraints on these freedoms, which impact on the identity choices they have available to them. These limitations on the women's freedoms for self-determination need to be viewed within the wider context of social relations of power and privilege, and notions of race as they operate in the Australian context. Despite these constraints however, the women evidence agency and resilience in managing and re-negotiating their multiple identities, and forging a sense of belongingness. I position my findings within the broader context of literature and frameworks on identity. I argue for the relevance and importance of a historically, political1y and contextually grounded conceptualisation of identity construction. To conclude, I draw implications from the findings for psychological theory and research on identity construction and outline my hopes for future research.

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