This thesis examines the identity politics engaged by young people from refugee backgrounds in the pursuit of social belonging in Brisbane, Queensland. In the national policy and wider moral frameworks of Australian multiculturalism, young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds experience conflicting expectations and pressures; on the one hand, they are asked to rapidly absorb into Australian society, and on the other hand, they are singled out through the celebration and sometimes overt racialization of their ethnicity. I argue that such complex messages are perceived by young people as they emerge through the key discourses of integration and tolerance at the school and community levels. The thesis takes up a critical analysis of the underpinning contradictions of the aims of inclusion inherent in multicultural discourse through an ethnographic study of the practices of identification among young people from refugee backgrounds. I begin by drawing on theories that conceptualise identity as a continual process of becoming in relation to powerful social forces, and examining the emergence of Australian multiculturalism through the lens of national belonging.
Based on extensive ethnographic research among primarily Sudanese and Karen young people, I interpret their engagement with the social discourses that frame their lives as a form of participation. In particular, I observed young people reflecting hybridised and essentialised representations of their interactive selves in terms of their oscillating affirmation and denial of identification with race and ethnicity. An ethnographic study of everyday articulations of belonging—the practice of making friends, claiming space in which to socialise and engaging in conflict with those friends, and of special events such as African parties and cultural performances—demonstrates a multiplicity of identifications and symbolic cultural resources upon which young people may draw. This multiplicity enables a subtle positioning and repositioning of selves and assertions of social belonging, through which young people from refugee backgrounds may speak back to the structural categories and expectations that frame their lives in the context of the social and moral implications of multicultural discourse.