Reference and identity in narratives of racial discrimination

Flannery, Mercia Santana

University of Pennsylvania, United States of America


This paper examines the role of references – pronouns, metaphors, skin color and racial designations – to the process of identity construction in narratives of racial discrimination. These oral narratives, collected in Brazil through sociolinguistic interviews, comprise instances in which individuals recount being mistreated – overtly insulted or denied service – due to racial prejudice.

Narrative discourse favors the study of how identity is linguistically constructed both because it allows the narrators to portray characters in their relationship with others (Schiffrin, 1996), and because of the interactional context in which they originate. Specifically, some facets of one’s identity emergent in narrative are a function of the interactional positioning created in the context of the sociolinguistic interview (Wortham, 2001; Schiffrin, 2006), relating to how an individual wants to be perceived by others and to the images of self that she conveys (Goffman, 1959); others, as perceived through the representation of relationships in the narrative, evoke broader social categories, such as gender, class and ethnicity. Both facets of one’s identity are latent, and can be uncovered, in one’s linguistic uses (De Fina, 2006).

The references made to identify self and other in a narrative of discrimination have significant functions on two levels: 1) in connection with the performance of the verbal actions of insult and denial of a request, these references mark the roles of victim and perpetrator of discrimination, and thereby, 2) broach the nature of racial prejudice in the tellers’ society for, by relying on these references, narrators reveal who is likely to discriminate against whom, in which circumstances and why. This is accomplished as the social actors (van Leeuwen, 1996) are portrayed as blacks and whites; as authors, figures and animators (Goffman, 1981); as more or less agentive or passive; through first or second singular and plural pronouns.

Stories of racial discrimination also allude to widespread discourses on race and racism in their authors’ communities. The categories that the narrators of such stories employ to assign roles and positions to themselves and to the characters peopling their accounts provide a rich milieu through which to understand the role of language for the construction of identity. This paper adds to the body of studies pertaining to narrative and identity, contributing with an analysis of stories told in Brazilian Portuguese, and to the understanding of the interrelationship of language, race and identity.

Session: Paper session
Narratives 3
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 13