Have you ever thought about the way that language is used to frame our understanding of ourselves and other people? It wasn’t many years ago that public transport systems moved from calling people ‘passengers’ to ‘customers’ – a transition that reflects the privatisation of these services, and the now primarily economic nature of the relationship between the service user and provider.
On a global scale, we principally use the language of nation-states to frame self and other. These are not empty frames, but full of meaning, rights and responsibilities. Nation-states ascribe citizenship, enact power, arrange economies, provide healthcare and education (to varying degrees), determine freedom and influence (consider the power of a British passport over, say, an Iranian one), and control the movement of goods and people.
But what happens when people challenge this nation-focused way of divvying up the world? How do we see the nationally non-compliant, and how does that influence how we ourselves are then framed?
Korea has been said to be one of the most racially and culturally homogenous countries in the world. Although many critics claim that this is a 'myth', it is true that the country has not suffered from the racial and religious conflicts that have troubled so many countries. This alleged racial homogeneity may make a different race the primary indicator of 'the stranger' in Korea.
Thus, I was somewhat surprised by the descriptive statistics from a nationally representative survey of the permanent and naturalised immigrants in Korea conducted in 2013. According to the survey, the majority of immigrants who experienced perceived discrimination believed that they were discriminated against because of their national backgrounds, and not race, religion or economic status. From the respondents’ perspective, Koreans seem to be very proud of their nationality. If, as the immigrants claim, Koreans are so proud of being Korean, what is the source of that national pride? Further, could it be the way they justify discrimination against immigrants?
My Identities article, 'Constructing Chineseness as other in the evolution of national identity in South Korea', addresses these questions. Drawing on scholarly publications, newspapers, policy reports, surveys and films, I compared two different Chinese immigrant groups who came to Korea in different eras. I traced the narratives of Chineseness used to construct Chinese immigrants as strangers and examined how these narratives are related to Koreans’ evolving self-perceptions. The country’s national goals and sources of pride – in particular, historical eras – constitute the national subjectivity. As the most immediate strangers, Chinese immigrants have been easy targets for Koreans to demonstrate and confirm the new national identities they desire.
When migrants move abroad and start their life in a different location, they may keep their loyalties and links to their place of origin and combine them with newly built connections to their new location. Such transnationalism, though it is a well-known phenomenon, is perceived as problematic from the state point of view as it is difficult to predict the loyalty of such migrants (if they are loyal to their new state or the state of origin).
However, it also brings many dilemmas for individual migrants. One of these dilemmas is how to answer to question, 'who am I'. New identities developed in a new place need to be combined with existing ones. This is extremely difficult in the case of national identities which are built on an opposition of ‘us’ and ‘them’. If I define myself as a member of particular nation in opposition to other nations, how do I develop a new identity related to a foreign land where a foreign national lives? How do I solve a conflict of loyalties between my old and new national identity? My Identities article, 'Game of labels: identification of highly skilled migrants', calls the process of building new hybrid identities ‘a game of labels’.
Game of labels is a game played by migrants who try to avoid conflicting identifications. They can do it by playing with the scale of place. The place where we live can be understood as home, street, neighbourhood, city, country or even continent. Some scales are more important to us than others, and usually the national scale is the key for a person’s identification (Lewicka 2012). However, it is often not the case for ethnic, racial or religious minorities. It is also not the case of highly skilled migrants who live in Opole and Wrocław, two cities located in southwest Poland. Mahi, from India, who for several years has lived and worked in Wrocław, says about her Polish city:
This is where I found myself, where I developed myself, where I became a mature person. For me this is home. I know that even if I move to another country, another city in the future, Wroclaw will still be my home because I know everything there is to know here.
Mahi has developed a strong belonging to Wrocław and not to Poland. This may have happened because she needed to combine a new identity rooted in a new place with her former identity of being Indian. She explains:
For me saying that I’m Indian is not a complete truth. I know I am not just Indian… I’m also a Wroclawian [Wrocławianka].
My Identities article argues that migrants avoid combining two national identities and instead use a ‘game of labels’. The most important rule in the game is to not combine two different national identities. Therefore, instead of calling themselves Polish, they express their new identification through different scale labels: city level (they call themselves Wrocławianin – inhabitants of Wrocław) or supranational – European, human. Coming to a new country, migrants not only learn a new national habitus but also build belonging to a new neighbourhood, new city and sometimes a new continent. Interestingly, by obtaining these identities, they join the groups that include both migrants and members of the hosting society. Both Poles and migrants may be citizens of Wrocław. Both Poles and migrants can claim to be Europeans. Membership in cross-national groups, above national or local groups, lets migrants overcome their exclusion, which appears when national identity is discussed.
 Polish name for female inhabitant of Wrocław
Lewicka, M. 2012. Psychologia miejsca [Psychology of place]. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar.
Blog post by Agnieszka Bielewska, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poland
Read the full article: Bielewska, Agnieszka. Game of labels: identification of highly skilled migrants. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1522794
When you see images of French daily life or French people in magazines, films, or other media, what do you see?
Usually, it’s white people, with perhaps a few visibly non-white people depicted. But this is odd for multiple reasons.
One, France has a long history of immigration, primarily from its overseas territories and former colonies. Due to years of colonialism, colonial slavery, and subsequent migration, ethnic minorities, or 'visible minorities' in French academic parlance, have long been part of French society.
Secondly, France does not acknowledge or measure race as a separate identity category. So while France is a multicultural society, it does not, as a facet of law, distinguish between these different cultures. One is either French or not. This is France’s Republican model.
Yet representations in popular culture or government reveal how this ideology does not quite play out this way as representations of Frenchness, whether it’d be French people, French identity, or French culture, are usually white, in terms of positions in government or images in French cinema and television.
In my Identities article, 'Are French people white?: Towards an understanding of whiteness in Republican France', I discuss how middle-class adult children of North African immigrants – individuals who were born in France and are descendants of France’s colonial empire in the Maghreb – navigate a French society that is supposedly colorblind where whiteness is the default.
How do they wrestle with definitions of French identity as white and full belonging in French society as centered on whiteness?
One way to understand this is as part of a racial project (Omi & Winant 1994) in which distinctions among individuals are marked without explicit categories.
David Theo Goldberg (2006) argues that our ideas of Europeans and European identity more generally are also based on whiteness as default. Just as French Republicanism denies the existence of race and racism, I argue that it simultaneously denies the existence of whiteness and white supremacy.
Part of France’s racial project is the continued production and reproduction of white as normal or default.
This is one reason why France is a fascinating place to examine white supremacy and everyday racism.
Goldberg, D. T. 2006. Racial Europeanization. Ethnic and Racial Studies 29: 331–364.
Omi, M. & H. Winant. 1994. Racial formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.
Blog post by Jean Beaman, Purdue University, USA
Read the full article: Beaman, Jean. Are French people white?: Towards an understanding of whiteness in Republican France. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1543831