Negotiating identity

Negotiating identity: The role of everyday violence in shaping social identity among Muslim Americans


With the emergence of transculturalism, the understanding of culture has broadened its spectrum from the static notions of culture to the more dynamic views of culture. Despite the change of perspective in different cultures, however, negative affiliation towards a certain group of population, namely Muslim Americans, still remains to be dominant with the help of popular political narratives and media coverages on the on-going war on terror in America. Whilst individual Muslim Americans should not be expected to represent their culture, if at all culture can be homogeneous, the view that they are, as an individual and a group, the threat to the nation is still omnipresent as the definition of Americanness contracts its circle of boundary. Muslim Americans are faced with discriminations based on what they are seen to represent and it shapes their social experiences. These particular social experiences coloured with negative cultural affiliation to Muslim community can be recognised as what Kleinman calls suffering from everyday violence. This paper intends to analyse identity negotiation among Muslim Americans in relation with social violence in transcultural environment. It first examines identity formation with the emphasis on ethnic identity, then analyses the negotiation of identity in the context of Kleinman’s everyday violence. People who are exposed to the everyday violence show that they cope with the social experiences by negotiating their identity and adjusting self-presentation in the way that is more easily acceptable in the society, in terms of safety and compatibility.


With the emergence of transculturalism, the understanding of culture has broadened its spectrum from the static notions of culture to the more dynamic view of culture. In the static view of culture, culture is defined as group-based dynamics allowing homogenous, fixed interpretation. Individuals are seen to represent their culture, and the borders between “different” cultures are delineated. The dynamic view of culture, on the contrary, recognises the situational impact of culture on behaviours. Individuals are seen to participate and produce culture as well as reproduce and transform it, as opposed to the non-mutable nature of static view of culture. Transculturalism allows us to understand the complex nature of culture formation and adaptation. At the same time, it raises questions of how individuals who are living in, what Homi Bhabha (1994) calls a space of “in-between,” form and transform identities especially when their “original” identities are considered negative by majority others. Bhabha elaborates in his book The location of Culture (1994);

These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—singular or communal—that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself. (pp.1-2)

Albeit with contradictions and ambiguities, the spaces provide the articulation of cultural differences of which the society is in need. In this regard, the paper intends to analyse identity negotiation among Muslim Americans in relation with social violence in transcultural environment.

The discrimination and stereotyping towards Muslim communities in America, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001 and the war against terrorism that followed, not only bears significant meaning in academic researches but also became an important issue in politics as a target to attack in order to accommodate harmonious multicultural and multiethnic society. Muslims in America, for an instance, were one of the visible communities which experienced the war on terror directly (Mir, 2011). The number of hate crimes committed towards Muslims increased dramatically in 2001 and it continued increasing in coming years (Read, 2008). Considering the fact that the number of reported crimes only show the measurable cases, it should be noted that there are non-measurable discriminations in daily experiences. For one, what Foucault calls the inspecting “gaze” is not a violent physical action, yet it is powerful enough to influence on individuals’ way of perceiving their identity in the society, especially if the gaze is repeated on a daily basis.

These discriminatory experiences gradually evoke changes how they view themselves in a social context. How people perceive the way they are viewed in social context, be it school, community, workplace, or country, is crucial in that it may influence on their socialising and even their performance. More importantly, the perception of self or their group, coupled with unpleasant social experiences which were strongly tied to a certain identity such as religion, can prompt changes in self-representational behaviours and identity.

Identity and social violence

Identity formation is a multidimensional developmental process that involves multiple personal and social aspects such as sex, occupation, education, cultural background, family structure, and race in the course of interactions with societies and selves (Britto 2008; Erikson 1950). For ethnic identity formation, it is a process of understanding one’s origin and it is influenced with the great amount by social, political, and cultural environments (Verkuyten, 2004). According to the view of Barth (1969), ethnicity is mutable rather than fixed with biological traits such as colour, and is the product of social ascriptions where the views of others and oneself are combined. According to this view, ethnicity changes through daily experiences influenced by others and oneself. Ethnic identity, as a result, is determined by how one identifies oneself and how others think one’s ethnicity is (Nagel, 1994). However, with the change of audiences as it happens when people move to different regions, the social ascriptions also change. That is, some may identify themselves as their gender or age in their own country, but they may identify or be identified as their nationality or ethnicity in other countries. Nagel also notes that the choice of available identity in a country can be restricting and constrained depending on ethnicity. It is problematic if the available choices are attached to stigma or disadvantages. In addition, if the country has a strong tendency to categorise ethnicity and impose representations to it, the awareness of the ethnicity and its boundary can also increase. The social context where one’s ethnicity is a constant reminder of difference in reflection of others, and a subject of complex socio-political hostility, can further complicate the consequence of identity formation and lead to the clash between identities and between society and self.

In this regard, social violence can be linked with identity negotiation in light of social ascription aspect explained above. Here, the violence does not only refer to physical or verbal violence. In fact, social violence takes multiple forms and dynamics. Arthur Kleinman (2000) postulates that social violence causes sufferings of people through local, national, and global social orders. He adds that social and cultural violence which people experience in their daily live, such as the gaze or exclusion, shapes the way they view, interpret, and transform their social experiences. Kleinman (2000) suggests that “through violence in social experience, as mediated by cultural representations, social formations are not just replicated, but the ordinary lives of individuals are also shaped, and all-too-often twisted, bent, even broken(p. 238).

How identities are negotiated through these social experiences, however, vary with different factors. In Mir’s (2011) research on female Muslim American college students’ performance, for instance, individuals perform and respond with varying degrees, as a reaction to how Muslims are viewed in American society. According to her research, some changed their behaviour in the way they can express who they are by, for instance, changing her response to where-are-you-from questions with a stress that she was born in the US. Others try to pass as non-Muslim by avoiding making their religious affiliation visible or, sometimes, offensive in the view of Others.

It should not be confused, however, that self-presentational activities those women perform in front of others are themselves identity negotiation, despite that they are negotiating their identities. Self-presentational activity is, according to Swann & Bosson (2008), “a collection of behavioral tactics designed to achieve various interaction goals (448),” whereby identity negotiation is a much broader process that seeks balance between interaction goals and identity-related goals including the need of agency and psychological coherence. People, they continue, tend to conform to identities that facilitate easier interpersonal interactions and intrapersonal harmony. The examples of Muslim women in the Mir’s research show not only the change of the way Muslim population present themselves in public, but also the clashing realities between how they think and the society thinks. Their transnational identity, which means holding on to native cultures and networks in a new country while maintaining complex identities (Rios, 1992), makes it difficult for them to maintain unchanged if interpersonal interactions and intrapersonal harmony are to be achieved, especially in the time of the war on terror which, as a result, invoked the exclusive memberships in the American society (Theodorou, 2011). What Mir’s research shows is that, as a consequence of widespread negative perception towards Muslim, some people construct personas that are more appropriate in public spaces and social settings to find safety for themselves. Swann & Bosson (2008) notes on selection of personas in the relation to social interactions;

In particular, identities systematically influence the personas people assume in specific contexts, as well as the conditions under which they assume them. Generally speaking, people avoid personas that are disjunctive with important identities, preferring instead personas that exemplify their enduring conceptions of who they are (p. 448).

The circumstance for negotiating identities in places where the “original” identities are perceived as negative or threatening to self or others, can be further explained by the concept of group categorisation and stereotyping. Studies have shown that group categorisation and the stereotypes that adhere the group can, depending on circumstances, be perceived as a threat by the subjects who are being categorised (Branscombe et al, 1999). In the case of Muslim Americans, regardless of their occupation, wealth, education level, or choice, they are often categorised as Muslims or immigrants rather than grouped as Americans as the similar case was illustrated in Feagin’s (1992, 1992) research on black Americans. When people belong to a group pertaining to stigma or negative attribution, people might choose not to disclose their group membership. However, it is difficult to do the same for those whose physical appearance, such as ethnicity, gender, and religious symbol, is evidently different from the rest of the groups (Branscombe et al, 1999), and more so for those who have little choices of available ethnic identity. They are left with no option but to expose part of their identity with or without their own meaning attributions to what it represents. Veiling, for instance, has long been considered as the emblematic representation of Muslim women, whereas un-veiling has been considered as a sign of integration to the “non-Muslim” society but rarely as a bodily practice (Fadil, 2011). It indicates that activities such as veiling or un-veiling will only show what it represents in that particular society rather than what it means to individuals and to the community.

With the growing discrepancy between the perceptions of who they are and how the world sees them in the time of war on terror, individuals try to adopt personas which will effectively narrow the gap of conflict and contestation between them and others in search for compatibility. The searching for compatibility is not due to the lessened self, rather it is the nature of what constitutes identity formation that individuals seek to define who they are in reflection of and in relation with others (Breckler & Greenwald, 1986). The process of the search is the identity negotiation. Identity negotiation process consists of activities which people perform in order to establish, maintain, and change their identities (Swann & Bosson, 2008). It can occur when people accommodate new social realities by adjusting to the certain self-views which are more compatible with the community. Swann and Bosson (2008) write;

Identity negotiation processes play a critically important role in peoples’ relationships by making them predictable and manageable, which in turn allows people to meet their needs and accomplish their goals. Simply put, just as identities define people and make them viable as human beings, the identity negotiation process defines relationships and makes them viable as a foundation for organized social activity (p. 466).

As shown in Mir’s research mentioned above, some women adopt new ways of practising their belief in American society, by not wearing hijab, signing a petition for allowing alcohol in the campus, and refusing to drink alcohol in a more “acceptable” way. These are the conscious changes they made in relations with others. However, it is important to note that those choices were made in the context of social violence. Some of the choices were labelled as a measure of protection of themselves of their family. As members of the visible minority group, they negotiate their identity which is more easily accepted by the majority, which in itself is a form of social violence. In this regard, the choices of those who are the target of social stereotypes and discriminations are shaped by social violence and, at the same time, shape another cycle of social violence.


The paper examined the concept of identity formation, with the emphasis on ethnic identity, and the environment which invokes identity negotiation. There has been a noticeable change in perception towards how Muslim Americans are represented after the 9/11 in the US. Together with the change, the way Muslim Americans define themselves in the context of negative attribution to their identity has also shifted. Daily experiences of discrimination and other forms of social violence have shaped their view of their identity as Americans in a sense that they were not American enough. Studies showed that Muslim Americans cope with social violence by negotiating their identity. In cases mentioned in the paper, the selection and adjustment of personas were motivated by circumstances in which the ethnic identity is negatively considered with varying purposes such as safety, compatibility, and smooth socialising environment. Identity negotiation occurs to accommodate the social environment in which people live. When the environment provides negative affiliations towards their representative identity, people choose to change or adjust their identity. The process of identity negotiation may appear as individual or collective choices. However, the choices made by people who are the target of social stereotypes and discriminations are shaped by social violence and, at the same time, inadvertently extend the violence.



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Originally submitted for Issues in global and intercultural education, KU Leuven.

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