Our identities make up an important part of our self-concept and as we learned earlier can be separated into three main categories: personal, social, and cultural identities (See Chapter 8). Our identities are not constant but are formed through processes that started before we were born and will continue after we are dead. In this way our identities cannot be something that we achieve and are our identities are never complete.
You might remember that personal identities include the components of self that are primarily intrapersonal and connected to our life experiences. For example, you may be outgoing, love puzzles, hip-hop music or have a beautiful singing voice. Our social identities are the components of self that are derived from involvement in social groups with which we are interpersonally committed. For example, we derive aspects of our social identity from our family, from a community of fans for a sports team or membership in a choir. While our personal identity choices express who we are, our social identities align us with particular groups. Through our social identities, we make statements about who we are and who we are not (Spreckels, & Kotthoff, 2009).
Cultural identities and multicultural identities are based on socially constructed categories that teach us a way of being and include expectations for social behavior or ways of acting (Yep, 2002). The ways of being and the social expectations for behavior within cultural identities can change over time, but what separates them from most social identities is their historical roots (Collier, 1996). For example, think of how ways of being and acting have changed for African Americans since the civil rights movement or for persons with disabilities since the independent living movement and the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in the United States.
Although some identities are essentially permanent, the degree to which we are aware of them, known as salience, can change. We learned earlier that identity is fluid and changes based on context. This means that the intensity with which we identify with an identity can be different depending on the situation. For example, an African American female may not have difficulty deciding which box to check on the demographic section of a survey but she may more intensely related to her African American identity if she becomes the president of her college’s Black Student Union. In the second context, being African American has become more salient. If she studies abroad in Africa her junior year, she may be ascribed an identity of American by African students rather than African American. For the Africans, the visitor’s identity as American is probably more salient than her identity as someone of African descent.
Someone who identifies as biracial or multiracial may change their racial identification as they engage in their identity search. One intercultural communication scholar writes of his experiences as an “Asianlatinoamerican” (Yep, 2002). He notes repressing his Chinese identity as an adolescent living in Peru and then later embracing his Chinese identity and learning about his family history while in college in the United States.
Dominant cultural identities historically and currently have more resources and influence, while non-dominant identities historically and currently have fewer resources and influence. It’s important to remember that these distinctions are being made at the societal level, not the individual level. There are obviously exceptions, with people from non-dominant groups obtaining more resources and power than a person in a dominant group; however, the overall trend is that differences based on cultural group membership has been institutionalized, and exceptions do not change this fact.
As a result of this uneven distribution of resources and power, members of dominant groups are granted privileges while non-dominant groups which are at a disadvantage encounter institutionalized discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism (Chapter 11), limited access to resources, support, and social capital. As you read, think about how circumstances may be different for an individual with multiple non-dominant and/or dominant identities. Individuals with dominant identities may not validate the experiences of those in non-dominant groups because they do not experience the oppression directed at those with non-dominant identities. Further, they may find it difficult to acknowledge that not being aware of this oppression is due to privilege associated with their dominant identities. For example, a white person in the United States may notice that a person of color was elected to a prominent political office; however, he may not see the underlying reason that it is noticeable. The reason it is noticeable is because the overwhelming majority of political leaders are white in the United States.
Because the experiences of non-dominant groups often goes unexamined by members of the dominant group, there is often a lack of recognition of oppression and privilege which can manifest in culturally biased language. For example, culturally biased language can reference one or more multicultural identities, including race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and ability. Use of offensive or culturally biased language is usually not intended to hurt or to harm others but is often unintentional and the product of ignorance. Showing an awareness of and addressing cultural bias in language is not the same thing as engaging in political correctness, which takes awareness to the extreme but does not do much to address the bias aside from make people feel awkward or resentful. Using inclusive language reflects an understanding of an individual’s unique circumstances, as well as acknowledges and validates the experiences of others.
Members of dominant groups may minimize, dismiss, or question the experiences of non-dominant groups and view them as “complainers” or “whiners.” People with dominant cultural identities who fail to examine privilege may find it difficult to value cultural or social differences. Recognizing the existence of multiple cultural identities within national and regional boundaries, and adopting actions and policies to address them, are necessary to eliminate prejudice, stereotypes and conflicts, in order to ensure a healthy, inclusive community.