Group Identities

Group Identities

As this example shows, race and ethnicity interact in complex ways with language and citizenship. For those new to the study of critical social justice, mastering these complexities is of secondary importance. Of primary importance is the ability to understand these categories as socially constructed and reflective of a particular political and cultural context. This does not mean that we dismiss categories of race and ethnicity because they are unstable; rather we must understand the larger dynamics that their instability is related to and the impact of those larger dynamics on our lives (this will be discussed in more depth in Chapter 7).


There are also important interactions between race and ethnicity, and internal and external dynamics of identity; how one personally identifies versus how one is identified by others. In other words, how I see myself versus how others perceive me. While how we see ourselves and how others see us may not be the same, they are in fact, inseparable, because how our identities develop is shaped by how others see and respond to us. Sociologist Charles Cooley (1922) called this interconnection the “looking glass self” to capture the idea that we come to know who we are in large part through the process of what others reflect back to us. The looking glass self includes the concept that the process of learning to know who we are is shaped by learning who we are not.

We now return to the analogy of the “frame of reference” glasses. As we said previously, the lenses constitute the individual (micro) perspective. These are our unique experiences that make us “one of a kind”—our birth order, our family, our personality—the “prescription” lens that fits in the frame. Yet no one is simply an individual. We are all members of multiple social groupings and widely circulating social messages about those groupings. To understand your personal cultural glasses, you have to explore the interplay or relationship between your frames and your lenses. A primary challenge in developing critical social justice literacy is to understand the relationship between you as an individual and the social groups you belong to; the interplay of positionality. From a critical social justice framework, when we say the words “men,” “women,” “heterosexuals,” “middle class,” and so on, we are speaking about specific social group positions and histories.

If we are resisting the very notion of having to identify ourselves in terms of social groups, such as our race or gender, this too provides insight into our collective socialization. In Western society we are socialized to prioritize our individuality. Yet, although we are individuals, we are also —and perhaps fundamentally—members of social groups. These group memberships shape us as profoundly, if not more so, than any unique characteristic we may claim to possess.

Consider how one of the key aspects of individuality is one’s preference for certain food, music, and dress styles. However, these preferences are never simply one’s internally-driven likes or dislikes. It is no coincidence that popular shows of the day (whether it be the Twilight movie franchise or the Netflix series Stranger Things) influence which names rise to the top of “most popular name” lists. Think back to when other iconic figures from popular culture influenced hairstyles of the time (Pam Grier, Farrah Fawcett, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Bieber). Conversely, seeking names that are “different” is also a function of culture—you are


still reacting to the culture at large. Without the popular names, your different name (different from what?) would not have the same meaning.

Dominant Group(s): The group(s) at the top of the social hierarchy. In any relationship between groups that define one another (men/women, able-bodied/disabled, young/old, White/Black), the dominant group is the group that is valued more highly. Dominant groups set the norms by which the minoritized group is judged. Dominant groups have greater access to the resources of society and benefit from the existence of the inequality.

The point is, while parents may have preferences for particular names, and any individual may have a preference for a particular hairstyle, it is not simply a matter of preference. There are predictable patterns of group behavior we can observe and study. And we can make predictions about your preferences based on your class, race, gender, and so on.

Returning to our opening vignette, hopefully you now have a better idea of what was meant by the instructor’s statements when she said for example that, “Members of the middle and upper classes have an easier time getting into universities and getting jobs.” The instructor was not making claims about each individual person in these groups, but about patterns among social groups. These patterns are longstanding, measurable, and well documented. The fact that these kinds of statements often cause defensiveness speaks to the way they challenge Western elevation of the individual over the group. We have been taught that social group memberships such as race, class, and gender do not and should not matter, and thus must be minimized and denied.

Specifically, the instructor is challenging a societal norm by moving past individual difference and instead focusing on shared dynamics between members of social groups. She is also challenging a norm connected to our elevation of the individual—the idea that people should be seen as unique, and thus it is inappropriate to generalize. And finally, she is naming the dominant group in each of these examples, which violates assumptions that dominant groups are neutral and that difference lies with the “other.”

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Group Identities
Group Identities

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