Lesson 1: Social Identity

Reflecting on Social Justice Foundational Concepts

1. Social Identity

Social identity is a nuanced concept that is important for not only understanding ourselves but also how we navigate the world around us. At its simplest, we can understand social identities as the answer to the question:

Who are you?

image of person with a question mark over their face with their face hidden

Social identities can be defined as groups that are based on the physical, social, and mental characteristics of individuals. They are sometimes obvious and clear– sometimes not–often self-claimed, and frequently ascribed by others. In other words, our social identity groups may sometimes be visible and obvious to others, and it may sometimes be less obvious or visible to others. They are also something that we create together as a society. I may claim specific language around my identities, and others may look at me and ascribe their own language on to me. When that language aligns, it can feel really validating, but when that language doesn’t align, it can feel invalidating.

My group membership isn’t something anyone can deny me, but it is certainly something we navigate with others both inside and outside of our social identity groups. In navigating our social identities, we are also navigating the historical and contemporary relationships of power and privilege between groups. When thinking of social identities, we also want to consider how that group relates to societal power. Examples of social identity groups might include: race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, class/socioeconomic status, religious or spiritual affiliation, ability, citizenship, nation of origin, tribal affiliation, and age.

Personal Identity

Social identity is different from personal identity because of the emphasis on the individual rather than a collective group. Personal identity is what differentiates us from others within a social identity group, whereas social identity is how we categorize both ourselves and others. Things like my Myers-Briggs type, astrological sign, career choice, hobbies, extroversion, and position within my family are all very important ways I have of understanding myself as well as differentiating myself from others within my social identity groups, and we would likely think of these as personal identities.

Some of the common identity categories are explored below. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and there are many additional social identity categories that are not listed here.

Identity Definition
Gender The socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and characteristics that a given society categorizes as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’; not defined by one’s biological sex.
Sex Sometimes referred to as sex assigned at birth or natal sex. Physical and biological traits typically categorized as male, female, or intersex.
Race Group membership based on physical characteristics, usually a result of genetic ancestry. These can include attributes like skin pigmentation, hair texture, eye shape, etc.
Ethnicity A group whose members identify with each other on the basis of common nationality or shared cultural traditions.
Sexual orientation/attractionality A person’s sexual and emotional attraction to another person, and the behavior and/or social affiliation that may result from this attraction.
Religion/spirituality Self–identified association of a person with a religion or spirituality.
Social class/socioeconomic status Social standing or class of an individual or group. It is often measured as a combination of education, income, and occupation.
Age Years since birth or current life stage.
(Dis)Ability Being differently abled (physically, mentally, emotionally) from that which society has structured to be the norm in such a way so that the person is unable to move, or has difficulty moving—physically, socially, economically—through life.
Nation of origin and Citizenship The position or status of being a citizen of a particular country, place, or space, belonging or membership).
Tribal or indigenous affiliation Tribal or indigenous affiliation
Body size/type Physical characteristics that can be perceived as either fitting society’s image of attractive or unattractive, e.g. too large, athletic, beautiful.

2. Power and Privilege

One of the defining characteristics between personal and social identities is the relationships of power, privilege, and oppression that exist within and between social identities groups.

Power can be formal, like the kind of power a position, occupation, or role lends you. A professor has greater positional power their students, students on an committee may have greater access to power than those not on committees.

Power can also be informal and more subtle, however. A dominant identity group can influence the behavior of others through oppression or colluding with oppressive systems.

This can look like the direct or indirect threat of violence or harm or a lack of repercussions in the face of violence or harm. It can also look like social pressure such as casting non-dominant identities as other, exotic, abnormal, or inferior. For example, Black, Indegenous, and people of color (BIPOC) on a predominantly white campus may feel more noticeable, and therefore more watched, and as a result, they may change their behavior in small ways–a phenomenon known as hyper-visibility. It is important to note that feeling watched is not the same as feeling seen. A person who feels watched is more likely to feel othered or outside of the community; when someone feels seen, it is more likely to communicate a feeling of deep belonging to a community.

Some social identity groups have access to more power than others granting their members privileges others may not have.

Privileges and dominant group membership isn’t a choice, and it’s easy to be unaware of privileges we have access to that another person might not. Another way to think of it is that dominant groups are generally thought of as the default or the norm, framing anything outside of that ase abnormal.

Sometimes You're a Caterpillar

Privileges take many forms, and we are all in possession of identities with varying levels of privilege. In her well known piece, White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack, Peggy McIntosh outlines some of the privileges she has identified for herself as a result of her racial identity. Some of these privileges include:

  • I can be sure my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  • I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race [or otherwise exemplary or exceptional],
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

Privileges are something that all of us have. We are all composed of some identities that have greater access to power than others and some identities that have less access. Privilege isn’t something that we should feel shame or guilt over, but it is important that we’re able to acknowledge the places in which we have greater privilege as well as the places were we lack privileges.


3. Intersectionality

While it can be tempting to tease our identities apart and treat them as isolated aspects of our experience, social identity is far more complicated than that. The purpose of naming and reflecting on identity is not to seperate them out from each other so much as to apply a framework of thought. It is also important to consider the ways in which our identities impact each other.

Intersectionality is a way of understanding the various social identities covered above. This term was first introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar, to describe the ways that individuals experience dimensions of empowerment or oppression as a result of their many social identities. Coined in response to feminist theory and movements that centered the female identity to the exclusion of other categories of identity, intersectionality was intended to include other experiences as well like women of color, women who are poor, women with disabilites, and women who are immigrants.

image showing how identities overlap
In the video below, Kimberlé Crenshaw goes into further detail on what intersectionality is and why it’s important to us

The Urgency of Intersectionality


Reflective Question:

To align with the iterative nature of learning on this topic, below is a reflective question.

  • What language would you attach to your own social identities?
  • What are some of the privileges that are afforded to your identities?