Savvy Saturday – Conference Insights on Identity

Academic conferences are great things: they give you free food (well, okay, REALLY EXPENSIVE food when you take into account the price of registration), unlimited coffee (whee!), and hours (and hours!) of exposure to cutting-edge knowledge. As an author as well as an academic, this last point is the really exciting part of conference. What’s most exciting is when the research that is presented has obvious and direct implications for story settings or character arcs. And today, for your reading pleasure, I’m going to share with you two of the latest insights from academia about racial identity and consumption that might affect the stories we tell as authors.

Identity changes due to physical moves

In the United States, much of our identity is based on skin color. White, African American, Hispanic, Asian – these things signal to people around us things about our stereotypical background, interests, and social class. Non-white individuals are “minorities” in the U.S., and tend to have minority status as part of their identity. What happens, then, when an individual moves to the United States from a country which has a very different ethnic/racial breakdown? If one is a member of the tribe in power in an African country, and is therefore used to being part of the majority, coming to the U.S. will be a big culture shock. Someone who, on the outside, looks like part of the majority culture (e.g. a white immigrant from Europe) will have a different cultural experience than someone who looks like part of a minority culture (e.g. a black immigrant from Africa) even if both of them grew up as part of their majority culture back home.

How might this play out in a novel? Consider having a hero who travels to a different culture and 1) is visibly different from the majority of individuals in that culture, 2) is not perceived as a rarity or high-status individual because of those visual differences, but 3) is attributed to have a different – and potentially problematic – cultural background than the character actually does because of those visible characteristics. What kinds of character developments or story problems might take place? That’s up for you to decide – but it could be fascinating!

The presence of scripts and rare identity signaling

Imagine that you are writing a fantasy story about two ethnic groups that are visibly distinguishable from each other. One (call it Group X) has historically had power and privilege, and the other (Group Y) has typically been subjugated. While there is a simple upper- and lower-class system based purely on race, it is unlikely that people from Group Y could ever escape from their structurally imposed status. However, if a middle class arises based on wealth, education, ability, etc. rather than ancestry, it might be possible for certain members of the historically low-status group to join it. If people from Group Y are still typically part of the lower class, however, and only certain elite members are able to join a middle class, it becomes important for those middle class members to outwardly signal their new group membership or risk being stereotyped as lower class based on their Group Y status.

The question is, how can the elite members of Group Y do this? The easiest way is to imitate Group X style – to identify a “script” of what middle or high-class people stereotypically do, and make sure to do it even more than members of Group X do. Following scripts means that conspicuous consumption becomes very important. Wearing the right types of clothing and accessories signals others that a person not only has the money to be able to afford higher-class material possessions, but that he or she also has the cultural capital (knowledge) to buy and enjoy the “right” types of possessions. Whereas people from Group X might be able to not follow their group’s script and still be ascribed high-class status, people from Group Y who don’t want to be perceived as low-class have to always follow the rules, always outperform, and to some extent, always consume more (and consume more “correctly”) to maintain their hard-earned status. Of course, this seeming obsession with outward appearance can lead people from Group X to disdainfully say that people from Group Y are shallow, materialistic, and that they try too hard – but if the alternative for members of a stereotypically lower-class racial group is to be perceived as an outsider, as poor and uneducated, or even as a potential criminal, it’s no wonder that signaling their true identity and achievements is a conscious part of their life.

In your stories, then, consider how the dynamics of history, class, and race/ethnicity intersect. The past impacts the present, sociological forces impact individuals’ stories, and consumption matters.

What stories have you read that have thoughtfully and carefully portrayed issues of identity and consumption? How might you incorporate these issues into your works?

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