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Race and Ethnicity: The Relationship to Identity

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2635 words Published: 19th Mar 2019

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‘Race’ and/or ethnicity both play an important role in defining who we are, how we see ourselves and how we are treated by others’. Discuss.

In order to critique the above statement, we need to explore what we mean by ‘defining who we are, how we see ourselves and how we are treated by others’ – Identity. The themes of ‘race’ and ethnicity will be discussed as they are central to the debate. These issues will be explored in reference to South Asian Muslims in Britain and how they see themselves, how they are treated by others and whether ‘race’ and ethnicity are the defining factors in shaping their identities.

Identity is ‘people’s concepts of who they are, of what sort of people they are, and how they relate to others’ (Hogg and Abrams 1988, p2).

Identity is a work in progress, a negotiated space between ourselves and others; constantly being reappraised and very much linked to the circulation of cultural meanings in society.’ (Taylor and Spencer 2004p.4)

 Identity is a much debated subject where sociologists differ on what influences the formation of identities. However a recurring theme of structure and/or agency influencing how identities are formed can be observed. Functionalist and traditional Marxist ideology is constructed on the basis that identity is a product of socialization; an acceptance of the culture of society and class that one is born into. Postmodernists on the other hand argue that identities are fluid and multiple, therefore not constrained to an acceptance of a position into which a person is born in society (Haralambos and Holborn, 2008p.709).

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Equally important to the concept of identity is ‘social identity’.  According to the social identity theorists Tajfel &Turner(1979) social identity was a definition of a person’s self-concept according to social group membership and personal identity is ‘that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his (or her) knowledge of his(or her) membership of a social group’ (Tajfel, 1978p.63). Jenkins(1996), argues that social identity is negotiable- it is a process of establishing similarities and differences between self and others and in turn those that are similar share an ‘identity’. Jenkins believes that by establishing different identity groups creates an awareness of a groups traits and equips you with knowledge on how to interact with them, regardless of whether the knowledge and understanding of these groups maybe limited or even wrong.

There is a general consensus that a person’s identity is multifarious and fluid, a person’s alignment with different social groups is constructed of many factors which include, national origin, class, gender, race, ethnicity, and so on. Bradley(1997) argues that in the postmodern approach to identity, class is becoming less important as a source of identity and that ‘race’, ethnicity, nationality, culture and religion are being stressed upon more as markers of identity. Bradley goes further to say factors of identities are grounded in inequality, social division and differences. For the purpose of this assignment I will be focusing on whether ‘race’ and ethnicity are defining factors in shaping peoples identities concentrating on the lives of South Asian British Muslims.

‘Race’ is a complex and contested issue. The term ‘race’ is used to categorise people into groups according to biological attributes; mainly the colour of one’s skin. However the concept of ‘race has been manipulated to breed ideas of superiority and inferiority, which can be illustrated throughout history; colonization, British imperialism and apartheid in South Africa are to mention just a few, resulting in exploitation around the world being justified because of the colour of a person’s skin. Social scientists are divided on the use of the term ‘race’, some believing that it is ‘nothing more than an ideological construct’, while others disagree believing that ‘race’ is still held as a defining factor for some groups, resulting in the term ‘race’ being used in inverted commas by some sociologists (Giddens, 2008p.632).

Ethnicity is interconnected with the term ‘race’, both using the process of racialization to define groups; however ethnicity has been embraced by some sociologists believing it to be a positive construct relying on individuals ascribing membership to a group where they see themselves as culturally distinct from others. Giddens states that ‘ethnicity is central to individual and group identity, but its significance does vary amongst individuals’ (Giddens, 2008p.633).

In multicultural Britain today, cultural hybridity adds to the confusion of a person’s identity. A multicultural society with a cultural diversity is the product of immigration, creating rise to issues of discrimination, adjustment and assimilation for not only those who immigrate to a new land but also for the generations to come. South Asian British Muslims are a group that is constantly in a state of flux, adapting and adopting cultures to form a hybrid identity which consists of elements of a nation which has been left behind and a new nation whose culture is in conflict of that of their forefathers. Although a shared groundwork of religion, culture and migrant status are the foundations to help British South Asian Muslims construct their identities, there is vast disparity in factors of economic circumstances, nation of origin and education.

Unfortunately ethnicity along with race have become markers of inequality for South Asian British Muslims in British society today, affecting all component of their social life i.e. education, employment, class etc. In addition to this, the Muslim identity of this group is also seen as incompatible with British society and the loyalty and affiliation of British Muslims coming under scrutiny.  This is further exasperated by British Muslims being portrayed as ‘disconnected from and even antagonistic to British identity’ (Thomas, 2009p.1). It is largely portrayed that events of 9/11 and more so 7/7 have produced a group in British society that is viewed with suspicion and animosity.  However, British Muslims were in fact becoming the targets for social unrest before these events.  The nights of summer 2001 were disturbed by violent unrest in the North of England.  The British National Party (BNP) had successfully fuelled a fire of suspicion, animosity and distrust between Muslim and White communities of Bradford, Oldham and Burnley. A clash between Muslims of mainly South Asian descent, white extremists and the police resulted in some of the worst race riots in Britain. 

If anything, the ’riots’ and events of 7/7 highlight the need to look at faith and religion as well as race as constructs of ethnicity. The example of the South Asian Muslim community in the North of England cannot be seen as purely based on faith and religion, as Muslim from other regions (such as Europe and the Middle East) do not share the same ‘identity’.  Similarly purely race cannot be seen as markers of identity and ethnicity, as others of the same race, the Punjabi Sikhs or the Indian Hindus, are ethnically similar, yet were not part of this phenomenon. If anything, at least for the south Asian Muslim community, religion plays an important part in defining their ethnicity. This perception however may not be universally applicable to other groups of Muslims or indeed south Asians, or at least may not have as much of an impact in defining other group identities.

Accepting religion is embodied in ethnicity; the rise of ‘Islamophobia’ resulted in many British Muslims questioning their identities. Many have been on the ‘brunt of suspicion accompanied by hostility, and have had doubts cast on them regarding their loyalty as British citizens’ (Abbas, 2005). Furthermore ‘Islamophobia’ has become recognised as the leading force of racial intolerance in recent years (Marsh & Keating, 2006), in spite of this young British South Asian Muslims still regard as the most important factor of their identity, however they believe that this ‘Islamic identity is not incompatible with British national identity’ (Thomas, 2009p.5). British Muslims are torn between loyalties to their religion and culture and into adopting and assimilating into ‘British’ culture, which arises in conflict and identity crisis. Young British Muslims are, more and more, encompassing a cultural hybridity of identity, picking and choosing between values of their forefathers and the norms of British society (Akhtar , 2011).

As part of maintaining the cultural norms and values of the previous generations, the institution of marriage and the role of family are seen as an essential part of their identity.  As such the practice of arranged marriage, partly to ensure that these values are maintained in a ‘controlled’ sense is common.  In some South Asian families, cousin-marriages are also the norm.  Young British South Asian Muslims are finding themselves torn between traditional values of arranged marriage and western concepts of relationships resulting in intergenerational conflict and re-evaluation of certain aspects of their cultural identity, these conflicting ideologies were to give rise to the phenomenon of ‘forced marriages’, where parents would manipulate their offspring with emotional and physical coercion to achieve their desired outcome of a culturally befitting union, it must be stressed however that ‘forced marriage is not a religious issue but a cultural one..

Samad (2004p.20-21) looks at how South Asian British Muslim females have adopted textual Islam to contest traditional cultural approaches to arranged marriages, a minority rejected the practice however most manipulated it to suit their now more western values of choice but with their parents cultural approval. Samad also looked at how The South Asian Muslim women contested their parent’s pressure of wearing traditional ‘Shalwar Kameez’ in favour of western modest clothing, again aligning themselves with British values and customs. Ansari’s(2002p.15-16.) report supports these finding but further adds to it the adoption of the ‘hijab’ by Muslim women to empower them and ‘symbolized this assertion of female Muslim identity’. However the western view of ‘hijabs’ as being a form of oppression and ignorance contradict the notion of empowerment and a positive identity, creating a further rift in the process of assimilation of Muslims in Britain.

 In South Asian communities premarital relationships and especially premarital sex is frowned upon and discouraged. Young Muslims are finding themselves caught between a secular society that has a liberal view on sexual relationships and a traditional community which views sex as taboo, both failing to provide appropriate support therefore impacting negatively on their identity. Alyas karmani (2012) provides a detailed analysis of how cultural constraints on sex and relationships affect south Asian males which in turn lead to deviant sexual behaviour which cannot be attributed to either culture. Inappropriate sexual ‘relationships’ with young white girls who are often vulnerable, termed as ‘grooming’ is the new moral panic of British society. Medias over amplification of South Asian men involvement in these phenomena has further alienated booth cultures and created a wedge of distrust between them. While karmani acknowledges that this phenomenon exists in the south Asian community he stresses that it is a very small minority. However he goes on to say that the younger generation need to be better educated in attitudes toward women.

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In conclusion research suggests that British South Asian Muslims are at a crossroads with their identities, negotiating between an ethnic culture encompassing values and beliefs which contradict with ‘Britishness’.  On the surface this may paint a gloomy picture however questioning of archaic cultural beliefs has enabled the new generation of South Asian Muslims to acquire an identity constructed from agency, assimilating into certain aspects of the host countries culture but retaining markers of their cultural ethnicity which they deem as pivotal in defining who they are and where they come from.

Although South Asian Muslims have come a long way in carving out an identity for themselves, it is apparent that their ‘ethnicity’ is significant in laying the foundations to construct these identities. Young south Asian Muslims have not completely abandoned their cultural roots, but rather have chosen to manipulate and mould the values of their ancestors to manufacture an identity which encompass British norms while being specifically unique to them. It is needless to say factors like education, social class, gender are also significant in defining who they are, but ethnicity is by far the most important in asserting their identity.


Abbas, T. (2005). Muslim Britain: Communities under Pressure. Great Britain:  Biddles  Ltd

Akhtar, R. (2011) Islamophobia and its effects on British South Asian Muslims post 9/11.Manchester Metropolitan University, Available: http://www.did.stu.mmu.ac.uk/MMU_Psychology_Dissertations/2011dissertations/AtoF/Akhtar%20%28Rumana%29%202011%20%28MMU.pdf/file_viewAccessed 05 December 2012

Ansari, H. (2002) Muslims in Britain(online) MRG Minority Rights Group International, Available: http://www.wnss.agh.edu.pl/other/materialy/90_2011_03_31_10_03_41_MRG%20muslimsinbritain.pdf,Accessed 05 December 2012

Hogg, M. and Abrams, D. (1988) Social Identifications: A Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations and Group Processes. London: Routledge.

Kharmani, A (2012) ‘Asian grooming: why we need to talk about sex’(online) Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/asian-grooming-why-we-need-to-talk-about-sex-7734712.htmlAccessed 05 December 2012

Marsh, I. Keating, M. (2006). Sociology making sense of society (3rd edn) Essex: Pearson education ltd

Samad, Y. (2004) MUSLIM YOUTH IN BRITAIN: ETHNIC TO RELIGIOUS IDENTITY (online) University of Bradford, Great Britain, Available: http://www.cestim.it/argomenti/02islam/02islam_uk_sanad.pdfAccessed 05 December 2012

Tajfel, H. (1978) Differentiation between social groupsLondon: Academic Press

Taylor, G. and Spencer, S. (2004) Social Identities: Multidisciplinary Approaches Oxon: Routledge

Thomas, P. The Last Britons? Young Muslims and national identity. School of Education and Professional Development, University of Huddersfield Available: http://www.psa.ac.uk/2009/pps/Thomas.pdfAccessed 05 December 2012


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