The multiple roles we play in life — student, sibling, employee, roommate, for example — are only a partial glimpse into our true identity. Right now you may think, “I really don’t know what I want to be,” meaning you don’t know what you want to do for a living, but have you ever tried to define yourself in terms of the sum of your parts?
Social roles are the identities we assume in relationship to others. Our social roles tend to shift based on where we are and who we are with. When you think about your social roles as well as your nationality, ethnicity, race, friends, gender, sexuality, beliefs, abilities, or geography, how do you identify? To better understand identity, consider how social psychologists describe it. Social psychologists, those who study how social interactions take place, often categorize identity into four types: personal identity, role identity, social identity, and collective identity.
- Personal identity captures what distinguishes one person from another based on their life experiences. No two people, even identical twins, live the same life.
- Role identity defines how we interact in certain situations. Our roles change from setting to setting, and so do our identities. At work you may be a supervisor; in the classroom you may be a peer working collaboratively; at home, you may be a parent. In each setting, your personality may be the same, but how your coworkers, classmates, and family see you is different.
- Social identity shapes our public lives by our awareness of how we relate to certain groups. For example, an individual might relate to or identify with Korean Canadians, Winnipeggers, Methodists, and Leafs fans. These identities influence our interactions with others. Upon meeting someone, for example, we look for connections as to how we are the same or different. Our awareness of who we are makes us behave a certain way in relation to others. If you identify as a hockey fan, you may feel an affinity for someone else who also loves the game.
- Collective identity refers to how groups form around a common cause or belief. For example, individuals may bond over similar political ideologies, social movements, sports fandoms, occupational groupings, or ethnic groups. For example, many football fans in Saskatchewan consider themselves part of “Rider Nation”. Others may identify as fans of a specific type of entertainment such as Swifties, fans of Taylor Swift. Finally, individuals who work in the trades often view themselves as part of a community of ‘tradespeople’.
In his epic poem Song of Myself, Walt Whitman (1892) writes, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large. I contain multitudes.).” Whitman was asserting and defending his shifting sense of self and identity. Those lines importantly point out that our identities may evolve over time. What we do and believe today may not be the same tomorrow. Further, at any one moment, the identities we claim may seem at odds with each other. Shifting identities are a part of personal growth. While we are figuring out who we truly are and what we believe, our sense of self and the image that others have of us may be unclear or ambiguous. Many people are uncomfortable with identities that do not fit squarely into one category. How do you respond when someone’s identity or social role is unclear? Such ambiguity may challenge your sense of certainty about the roles that we all play in relationship to one another. Racial, ethnic, and gender ambiguity, in particular, can challenge some people’s sense of social order and social identity.
The actor Keanu Reeves has a complex background. He was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a white English mother and a father with Chinese-Hawaiian ancestry. His childhood was spent in Hawaii, Australia, New York, and Toronto. Reeves considers himself Canadian and has publicly acknowledged influences from all aspects of his heritage. Would you feel comfortable telling Keanu Reeves how he must identify racially and ethnically? There is a question many people ask when they meet someone whom they cannot clearly identify by checking a specific identity box. Inappropriate or not, you have probably heard people ask, “What are you?” Would it surprise you if someone like Keanu Reeves shrugged and answered, “I’m just me”?
Malcom Gladwell is an author of five New York Times best-selling books and is hailed as one of Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers. He has spoken on his experience with identity as well. Gladwell has a Black Jamaican mother and a white Irish father. He often tells the story of how the perception of his hair has allowed him to straddle racial groups. As long as he kept his hair cut very short, his fair skin obscured his black ancestry, and he was most often perceived as white. However, once he let his hair grow long into a curly Afro style, Gladwell says he began being pulled over for speeding tickets and stopped at airport check-ins. His racial expression carried serious consequences.
It is important to consider that while we all have the ability to reconsider and change what we think, enjoy, or do, there is much about our identity that is outside of our control. For example, nobody chooses where they are born, the gender they are assigned at birth, or the colour of their skin. These are all integral to people’s lived experiences and to not recognize that diversity means not recognizing a person’s lived experience.
Take a moment to ground yourself by planting your feet comfortably on the floor. You may be sitting or standing. Close your eyes and find the natural rhythm of your breath. Once you are focused on the rhythm, open your eyes and identify five things that you can see. This may be a favourite pen, sunlight reflecting on a surface, a spec of dirt on the floor. For the rest of the senses you may close your eyes if you prefer. Listen for four sounds in your surroundings. Maybe you can hear a wall clock ticking or a bird singing outside. Now pay attention and notice three things that you can feel. This may be the cuff of your sweater tight on your wrist or a warm draft from a heating duct. Now shift focus to two things that you can smell. This may be the strong aroma of coffee or a scented candle. Finally identify one thing that you can taste. Take a few final conscious breaths and return to your previous focus.
Throughout the course you will see wellness breaks. These remind you to take a pause and reset your mind. Participate in these activities throughout the course and come back to the ones that work for you as you do other course work or even in your career.
Race, Including Colour
Racial inequities exist in Canada and around the globe. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) have historically been subjected to unfair and unequal treatment. In 2020, the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests around the globe created awareness of the racial inequities that continue to exist today. Discussions about inequities and discrimination and can be challenging; however, these are conversations that should not be avoided. They are necessary in order to raise awareness, educate, and actively work to dismantle oppressive systems. Cultural competency increases people’s capacity for these conversations to be engaged effectively. Cultural competency can help those who do not have the lived experience of being BIPOC to develop skills so that they can listen to and begin to understand the lived truth of other people’s experiences, which may be uncomfortable. It’s okay to be uncomfortable, especially if this understanding helps people learn how they can help remove barriers and to create environments that are inclusive and diverse.
Gender and Gender Identity
Some people identify themselves as gender fluid or nonbinary. Binary refers to the idea that gender is only one of two possibilities, male or female. Fluidity suggests that there is a range or continuum of expression. Gender fluidity acknowledges that a person may flow between stereotypical male and female identity. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary includes a definition of “they” that denotes a nonbinary identity. Transgender men and women were assigned a gender identity at birth that does not fit their true identity. Even though our culture is increasingly giving space to queer and trans people to speak out and live openly, they do so at a risk. Violence against gay, nonbinary, and transgender people occurs at more frequent rates than for other groups. At ACC, sexual violence is defined in policy M14. Sexual violence includes any act, sexual or otherwise, targeting a person’s sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression, whether the act is physical or psychological in nature. This means that any homophobic or transphobic language is a form of sexual violence. Cultural competency includes respectfully addressing individuals as they ask to be addressed, which includes both their names and pronouns.
The many layers of our multiple identities do not fit together like puzzle pieces with clear boundaries between one piece and another. Our identities overlap, creating a combined identity in which one aspect is inseparable from the next. The term intersectionality was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe how the experience of Black women was a unique combination of gender and race that could not be divided into two separate identities. In other words, this group could not be seen solely as women or solely as Black; where their identities overlapped is considered the “intersection,” or crossroads, where identities combine in specific and inseparable ways.
Intersectionality and awareness of intersectionality can drive societal change, both in how people see themselves and how they interact with others. That experience can be very inward-facing, or can be more external. It can also lead to debate and challenges. For example, the term “Latinx” is growing in use because it is seen as more inclusive than “Latino/Latina,” but some people — including scholars and advocates — lay out arguments against its use. While the debate continues, it serves as an important reminder of a key element of intersectionality: Never assume that all people in a certain group or population feel the same way. Why not? Because people are more than any one element of their identity; they are defined by more than their race, colour, geographic origin, gender, or socioeconomic status.