Lesson 1: Social Identity

1.1 Social Identity

Person holding a question mark in front of their face

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?

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.

GenderThe socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and characteristics that a given society categorizes as “masculine” and “feminine”; not defined by one’s biological sex.
SexSometimes referred to as sex assigned at birth or natal sex. Physical and biological traits typically categorized as male, female, or intersex.
RaceGroup membership based on physical characteristics, usually a result of genetic ancestry. These can include attributes like skin pigmentation, hair texture, eye shape, etc.
EthnicityA group whose members identify with each other on the basis of common nationality or shared cultural traditions.
Sexual orientation/attractionalityA person’s sexual and emotional attraction to another person, and the behavior and/or social affiliation that may result from this attraction.
Religion/spiritualitySelf–identified association of a person with a religion or spirituality.
Social class/socioeconomic statusSocial standing or class of an individual or group. It is often measured as a combination of education, income, and occupation.
AgeYears since birth or current life stage.
(Dis)AbilityBeing 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 CitizenshipThe position or status of being a citizen of a particular country, place, or space, belonging or membership.
Tribal or indigenous affiliationTribal or indigenous affiliation.
Body size/typePhysical characteristics that can be perceived as either fitting society’s image of attractive or unattractive, e.g. too large, athletic, beautiful.

1.2 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 understood as the ability to decide who will have access to resources; the capacity to direct or influence the behavior of others, oneself, and/or the course of events.

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 a 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.


Oppression is the unequal and/or unjust treatment of a person and/or group of people through societal laws, policies, rules, norms, customs, practices, and institutions. These institutions can include government, education, religion, the media, and health care 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, Indigenous, 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.


Privilege is unearned or earned advantages, rights, freedoms, or benefits given to a group of people based on group membership.

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 as abnormal.

Sometimes You’re a Caterpillar

In the garden, there’s a caterpillar and a snail, and they’re basically best friends. They hang out 24/7, they do dinner, movie nights, crafts. Oh, and they’re like, really into cosplay, on top of like, whatever else caterpillars and snails do, like eat leaves or something. Anyways, one day they’re on their way to a party that’s right outside the garden, and they have to go through the fence to get there. So the caterpillar goes right through, but the snail is stuck. Her shell is just too big and it won’t fit under the wire. So she’s like, “Crap! I can’t get through. Maybe like, can you lift up the wire, or maybe we can build a little bridge or something?” And the caterpillar’s like, “Dude, just go under.” But she can’t. There’s just no way that the shell is going to fit. The caterpillar is like, “Go under, come on! We’re going to be late and I’m trying to hook up with that super cute ladybug.” But it’s not happening. The shell will not fit under the wire, and at this point, Snail’s getting kind of frustrated, because it’s not like she doesn’t want to go to the party, but for some reason Caterpillar just isn’t getting it. “Yeah, it’s not that easy for me. I just can’t crawl under the fence like you can, so I would really appreciate your help here. Maybe we can like, go a different way, or the—” And this just, like, sets the caterpillar off. “What the heck. Just because I can crawl under stuff doesn’t mean that I have it easy. Do you even know what it’s like to have sixteen feet? You don’t. Because finding shoes is a complete nightmare.” “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m not saying you have it easy, I’m just saying I can’t go under the fence because of my shell, that’s it. I have a shell and you don’t, and there’s some stuff that’s easier for you that’s harder for me, just like I don’t know jack about finding shoes cause I don’t have feet.” Caterpillar thinks about this for a second and realizes the snail is right, and he’s never had to think about shells or slimy trails, and that’s a privilege that the snail has never had, because she has to think about that stuff all the time. That’s part of being a snail. And it’s kind of like that for everyone, right? I mean, we all have our own struggles and challenges, and some of them are small, and some of them are huge and really unfair and beyond our control. And a lot of the time it can be hard to see what someone else deals with because you’ve never been in their shoes — or shell. Maybe you’re gay, or trans, have a disability or different religion. Or of course, the obvious one, you’re a member of a different race. I don’t know what it’s like to be you, and you don’t know what it’s like to be me. So it’s really important to stop and try and see the other side so we can help each other overcome those obstacles. Together. It’s like, sometimes you’re the snail, and sometimes you’re the caterpillar. Oh yeah, then the snail and the caterpillar figure it out. They went to the other side of the garden. They could get through a little break in the fence. And while it took a little longer to get to the party, they did the trip together, which is what made it so great. So they got to the party, the caterpillar hooked up with the ladybug, Snail taught everyone how to do the Wobble, and the party was everything. The end. This video was illustrated by the very talented and lovely Kat Blaque, and written and narrated by yours truly, Chesacaleigh. Please check out Kat’s channel, and don’t forget to subscribe. Bye!

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.


Five intersecting circles labeled Racial Identity, Gender, Nationality, Disability, and Sexuality that form a Venn diagram.

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.

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

I’d like to try something new. Those of you who are able, please stand up. OK, so I’m going to name some names. When you hear a name that you don’t recognize, you can’t tell me anything about them, I’d like you to take a seat and stay seated. The last person standing, we’re going to see what they know. OK? (Laughter) All right. Eric Garner. Mike Brown. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. So those of you who are still standing, I’d like you to turn around and take a look. I’d say half to most of the people are still standing. So let’s continue. Michelle Cusseaux. Tanisha Anderson. Aura Rosser. Meagan Hockaday. So if we look around again, there are about four people still standing, and actually I’m not going to put you on the spot. I just say that to encourage transparency, so you can be seated. (Laughter) So those of you who recognized the first group of names know that these were African-Americans who have been killed by the police over the last two and a half years. What you may not know is that the other list is also African-Americans who have been killed within the last two years. Only one thing distinguishes the names that you know from the names that you don’t know: gender. So let me first let you know that there’s nothing at all distinct about this audience that explains the pattern of recognition that we’ve just seen. I’ve done this exercise dozens of times around the country. I’ve done it to women’s rights organizations. I’ve done it with civil rights groups. I’ve done it with professors. I’ve done it with students. I’ve done it with psychologists. I’ve done it with sociologists. I’ve done it even with progressive members of Congress. And everywhere, the awareness of the level of police violence that black women experience is exceedingly low. Now, it is surprising, isn’t it, that this would be the case. I mean, there are two issues involved here. There’s police violence against African-Americans, and there’s violence against women, two issues that have been talked about a lot lately. But when we think about who is implicated by these problems, when we think about who is victimized by these problems, the names of these black women never come to mind. Now, communications experts tell us that when facts do not fit with the available frames, people have a difficult time incorporating new facts into their way of thinking about a problem. These women’s names have slipped through our consciousness because there are no frames for us to see them, no frames for us to remember them, no frames for us to hold them. As a consequence, reporters don’t lead with them, policymakers don’t think about them, and politicians aren’t encouraged or demanded that they speak to them. Now, you might ask, why does a frame matter? I mean, after all, an issue that affects black people and an issue that affects women, wouldn’t that necessarily include black people who are women and women who are black people? Well, the simple answer is that this is a trickle-down approach to social justice, and many times it just doesn’t work. Without frames that allow us to see how social problems impact all the members of a targeted group, many will fall through the cracks of our movements, left to suffer in virtual isolation. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Many years ago, I began to use the term “intersectionality” to deal with the fact that many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice. Now, the experience that gave rise to intersectionality was my chance encounter with a woman named Emma DeGraffenreid. Emma DeGraffenreid was an African-American woman, a working wife and a mother. I actually read about Emma’s story from the pages of a legal opinion written by a judge who had dismissed Emma’s claim of race and gender discrimination against a local car manufacturing plant. Emma, like so many African-American women, sought better employment for her family and for others. She wanted to create a better life for her children and for her family. But she applied for a job, and she was not hired, and she believed that she was not hired because she was a black woman. Now, the judge in question dismissed Emma’s suit, and the argument for dismissing the suit was that the employer did hire African-Americans and the employer hired women. The real problem, though, that the judge was not willing to acknowledge was what Emma was actually trying to say, that the African-Americans that were hired, usually for industrial jobs, maintenance jobs, were all men. And the women that were hired, usually for secretarial or front-office work, were all white. Only if the court was able to see how these policies came together would he be able to see the double discrimination that Emma DeGraffenreid was facing. But the court refused to allow Emma to put two causes of action together to tell her story because he believed that, by allowing her to do that, she would be able to have preferential treatment. She would have an advantage by having two swings at the bat, when African-American men and white women only had one swing at the bat. But of course, neither African-American men or white women needed to combine a race and gender discrimination claim to tell the story of the discrimination they were experiencing. Why wasn’t the real unfairness law’s refusal to protect African-American women simply because their experiences weren’t exactly the same as white women and African-American men? Rather than broadening the frame to include African-American women, the court simply tossed their case completely out of court. Now, as a student of antidiscrimination law, as a feminist, as an antiracist, I was struck by this case. It felt to me like injustice squared. So first of all, black women weren’t allowed to work at the plant. Second of all, the court doubled down on this exclusion by making it legally inconsequential. And to boot, there was no name for this problem. And we all know that, where there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem, and when you can’t see a problem, you pretty much can’t solve it. Many years later, I had come to recognize that the problem that Emma was facing was a framing problem. The frame that the court was using to see gender discrimination or to see race discrimination was partial, and it was distorting. For me, the challenge that I faced was trying to figure out whether there was an alternative narrative, a prism that would allow us to see Emma’s dilemma, a prism that would allow us to rescue her from the cracks in the law, that would allow judges to see her story. So it occurred to me, maybe a simple analogy to an intersection might allow judges to better see Emma’s dilemma. So if we think about this intersection, the roads to the intersection would be the way that the workforce was structured by race and by gender. And then the traffic in those roads would be the hiring policies and the other practices that ran through those roads. Now, because Emma was both black and female, she was positioned precisely where those roads overlapped, experiencing the simultaneous impact of the company’s gender and race traffic.The law — the law is like that ambulance that shows up and is ready to treat Emma only if it can be shown that she was harmed on the race road or on the gender road but not where those roads intersected. So what do you call being impacted by multiple forces and then abandoned to fend for yourself? Intersectionality seemed to do it for me. I would go on to learn that African-American women, like other women of color, like other socially marginalized people all over the world, were facing all kinds of dilemmas and challenges as a consequence of intersectionality, intersections of race and gender, of heterosexism, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, all of these social dynamics come together and create challenges that are sometimes quite unique. But in the same way that intersectionality raised our awareness to the way that black women live their lives, it also exposes the tragic circumstances under which African-American women die. Police violence against black women is very real. The level of violence that black women face is such that it’s not surprising that some of them do not survive their encounters with police. Black girls as young as seven, great grandmothers as old as 95 have been killed by the police. They’ve been killed in their living rooms, in their bedrooms. They’ve been killed in their cars. They’ve been killed on the street. They’ve been killed in front of their parents and they’ve been killed in front of their children. They have been shot to death. They have been stomped to death. They have been suffocated to death. They have been manhandled to death. They have been tasered to death. They’ve been killed when they’ve called for help. They’ve been killed when they were alone, and they’ve been killed when they were with others. They’ve been killed shopping while black, driving while black, having a mental disability while black, having a domestic disturbance while black. They’ve even been killed being homeless while black. They’ve been killed talking on the cell phone, laughing with friends, sitting in a car reported as stolen and making a U-turn in front of the White House with an infant strapped in the backseat of the car. Why don’t we know these stories? Why is it that their lost lives don’t generate the same amount of media attention and communal outcry as the lost lives of their fallen brothers? It’s time for a change. So what can we do? In 2014, the African-American Policy Forum began to demand that we “say her name” at rallies, at protests, at conferences, at meetings, anywhere and everywhere that state violence against black bodies is being discussed. But saying her name is not enough. We have to be willing to do more. We have to be willing to bear witness, to bear witness to the often painful realities that we would just rather not confront, the everyday violence and humiliation that many black women have had to face, black women across color, age, gender expression, sexuality and ability. So we have the opportunity right now — bearing in mind that some of the images that I’m about to share with you may be triggering for some — to collectively bear witness to some of this violence. We’re going to hear the voice of the phenomenal Abby Dobson. And as we sit with these women, some who have experienced violence and some who have not survived them, we have an opportunity to reverse what happened at the beginning of this talk, when we could not stand for these women because we did not know their names. So at the end of this clip, there’s going to be a roll call. Several black women’s names will come up. I’d like those of you who are able to join us in saying these names as loud as you can, randomly, disorderly. Let’s create a cacophony of sound to represent our intention to hold these women up, to sit with them, to bear witness to them, to bring them into the light. (Singing) Abby Dobson: Say, say her name. Say, say her name. (Audience) Shelly! (Audience) Kayla! AD: Oh, say her name. (Audience shouting names) Say, say, say her name. Say her name. For all the names I’ll never know, say her name. KC: Aiyanna Stanley Jones, Janisha Fonville, Kathryn Johnston, Kayla Moore, Michelle Cusseaux, Rekia Boyd, Shelly Frey, Tarika, Yvette Smith. AD: Say her name. KC: So I said at the beginning, if we can’t see a problem, we can’t fix a problem. Together, we’ve come together to bear witness to these women’s lost lives. But the time now is to move from mourning and grief to action and transformation. This is something that we can do. It’s up to us. Thank you for joining us. Thank you. (Applause)

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?