The subject of identity is complex. Identities are situational and relational. Identity is at once fixed, fluid and dynamic. They are created through a process of socialization. They are self-determined, and sometimes they are not. Identities are, many times, used to label and classify people who are seen as having binary or oppositional difference. Identities are also constructs that are used to create social hierarchies of domination and oppression, and where some groups realize advantage of power and privilege while at the same time others realize situations of disadvantage. These hierarchies of domination and oppression and power and privilege in my own life and circumstance are becoming progressively more apparent to me, and I also increasingly recognize this social phenomenon in the lives of others, too.
Identity is the conception of one’s individuality expressed through group affiliation. For example, one’s nationality, ethnicity, race, class, sex, gender, and sexuality are common expressions that make up one’s thoughts concerning one’s self. The many groups to which one belongs determine ideas of individual expression, and they collectively form one’s individual identity.
Additionally, identities are a mixture of inner and outer qualities and characteristics that are both fixed and dynamic. One might think of one’s self as having qualities or characteristics such as those of being outgoing or shy and tall or short. Yet certainly one could not have always thought of one’s self as outgoing or shy, tall or short. One develops and grows into thinking of one’s self as outgoing or shy and tall or short, in comparison or relation to others. Even if one’s personality does not change, or if one’s height stabilizes at adulthood, one’s perception of one’s self may change in relation to how one compares one’s self with others. Perhaps one who considers one’s self shy meets someone considerably more shy, or perhaps one considers one’s self tall, until meeting someone taller. This may force one to re-evaluate how one thinks of one’s self. Perception of one’s self is situational and relational. Therefore one’s ideas concerning one’s identity may shift as a consequence.
Similarly, identities also change according to what one learns. Perhaps one’s identity is as having a ‘green thumb’ or as an airline pilot, for example. One cannot have always had a green thumb, neither is it possible for one to have always been an airline pilot. One first has to learn how to grow plants or how to fly an airplane before one can assume the identity of having a green thumb or as being an airline pilot. Therefore, one’s identity and how one may think of one’s self, is dependent upon what one has learned and what one does. Once again, identities can change over time. Identities are dynamic.
Shifting identities occur as one grows and physical/mental characteristics change, too. As people grow, mature and get older, their identities change according to age, health or wellness, and physical/mental ability and disability, for example. A young girl becomes a teen, then a wife and mother, and later a grandmother, a widow, and perhaps even later an Alzheimer’s patient might be one example of the progression of identity changes related to growth and aging. One’s identity evolves.
Identity is also created through a process of socialization. Our families teach us about our familial, gender, racial, religious, ethnic and national identities and roles, for example. Our peers reinforce group social norms. Our primary and secondary education reinforces the dominant social identity ideals and roles while our higher education teaches us our work and professional identities and roles. The media reinforces dominant social ideals (such as gender role norms) and constructs new realities based on historical myths (such as a ‘traditional nuclear family’ or ‘patriotic rugged individualism’) while at the same time it creates new social ideals such as ‘consumerism’. The socializing affects of our families, our peers, our education and the media work together to influence how we think about ourselves and others, even when we do not realize this process is taking place.
Yet, identity is not only what one thinks of one’s self, it also consists of how one may classify people who are different from one’s self. For example statements such as, ‘they are criminals’, ‘they are illegal aliens’, and ‘they are terrorists’ indicate groups of people who do not have the same social values or social standing that one holds. Perhaps those thought of as criminals, illegal aliens, and terrorists are classified differently within their own social groups, perhaps even in a positive manner. Labeling others is one means of creating identity. How one thinks of one’s self can be defined by how one classifies and labels others.
Many times we use labels to describe and classify binary or oppositional qualities and characteristics of identity difference that develop harmful social consequences. As previously stated, some very common classification labels are those of race, class, sex, gender, sexuality, and nationality. Many times we think in terms of either/or, binary or oppositional labeling. We may be either white-skinned or not. We may be male or female, masculine or feminine, heterosexual or not, or a U.S. citizen or not, and we may be rich, middle class, or poor, for example. These types of either/or binary or oppositional labels work to create ideas of binary or oppositional separateness that do not easily allow for individual identity and expression outside of these dominating social ideals. This way of thinking has created a dominating hegemonic force that stigmatizes (and penalizes) folks who do not fit into the dominating social categories.
Identity concepts are used to sort and classify people into groups who realize differing degrees of power and privilege. Notions concerning one’s race and gender, for example, are not biologically based, as is commonly believed, but rather ideas concerning race and gender change over time and place. Yet one’s race and gender are important symbols and features of one’s identity. People use the concepts of race and gender to classify and sort: Who are the most intelligent, who are the most empathic, which is strongest, and who are weak, for example. The ideas of race and gender, people’s opinions, perspectives and viewpoints, are cultural and social constructs that folks use to define themselves and others. Dominant groups have historically used notions of race and gender to label others and to construct and maintain oppressive class and power structures at both individual and systemic levels. Identities are social constructs that may communicate one’s position in a hierarchical social order.
Therefore, one’s identity, who one is and what makes each one of us an individual and distinct from one another, is the complex and cumulative sum of one’s affiliation to the many groups to which one identifies. Additionally, it is also the characteristics and group affiliations which others attribute to us. Identity formation takes shape through a process of socialization, and as a process it is fluid in nature and changes over time. It happens consciously and subconsciously as we make judgments and compare our similarities and differences to one another and this has resulted in a condition of social hierarchy in which differing degrees of power and privilege and advantage and disadvantage exist. Each individual has a position within a complex set of interconnected hierarchical strata and we each realize differing degrees of power and privilege in some areas of our lives and disadvantages in others.
As an example of this phenomenon I will consider my own identity and that of my partner. I am a U.S. citizen. I am also a white-skinned, married female who is the biological mother of my two children, and who (at almost 50 years of age) is attending her second year of college, long overdue. I am married to a white-skinned, male. He is the father of our two biological children, who is also currently a student, working toward his second degree (a PhD), so that (hopefully) he will once again be gainfully employed.
There is an interesting paradox in describing my and my husband’s individual identities. I have used labels to indicate a few of the most dominant groups to which we individually and collectively belong. We both are U.S. citizens. We are both members of the white-skinned race. I am female and he is male. We both are heterosexual. We are married and are members of the ‘middle class’, and we are the heads of a ‘traditional’ ‘nuclear family’. I am a ‘baby boomer’, while he is not. I am a high school graduate and now I am an adult learner and a first-time college student. He is a high school graduate, a college graduate, and now once again he also is a college student, but this time as an adult learner. The paradox is that the many groups with which we each identify determines our unique individuality.
Yet even more interesting than this paradox is the degree of power and privilege offered and assigned to the group affiliations with which we identify. Below is a list of what I consider the most defining group affiliations (determined by degree of social privilege and power) to which we belong and a brief explanation concerning the embedded power that is offered through that group membership.
- We are both U.S. citizens, and therefore we are not European, or Irish, although we both are of European and Irish descent and maintain a cultural affiliation to these locales and ethnicities. Yet, we are not from an African country, nor are we from Asia or Central America. Instead, we are members of one of the most privileged ‘first world’ countries and one that dominates in world affairs.
- We both are white-skinned. We are members of the most privileged race (especially in the U.S.) and one that frequently dominates members of other races.
- I am female, and therefore I am a member of the less-privileged and generally more submissive sex. My husband is a member of the most privileged and primarily dominating sex, because he is biologically male. Neither of us are a member of the socially stigmatized group of individuals who do not easily classify as either biologically male or female but rather somewhere in between.
- We are heterosexual and part of the group considered ‘the norm’. Our society offers us many social sanctions for the lifestyle we live, while folks who identify differently are many times stigmatized, criticized, ostracized, bullied, beaten and even murdered for their difference.
- We each easily ascribe the ‘appropriate’ gender norms that are assigned to our sex, that is, a masculine (dominating) male, and a feminine (submissive) female. We have been socialized to do so. This, perhaps, allows us to function comfortably within larger social groups who expect certain characteristics and behaviors from males than it does from females. We realize a greater degree of acceptance and social sanctification than those whose gender identity does not fit what is viewed as a ‘traditional’ social ‘norm’.
- We are the heads of a ‘middle class’ and ‘traditional nuclear’ family, the idealized type of family in the U.S. We receive many benefits from this situation such as tax savings, insurance benefits, and survivor benefits (to name only a few) that other family types do not receive.
- I am a ‘baby-boomer’ and realize privilege of being a member of the hegemonic force that this group maintains, although my husband is a few years younger and is not a ‘baby-boomer’. We both still realize a great deal of privilege and benefits that this dominating group has designed and implemented in society. One example is that industry and retail markets cater to the large ‘baby-boomer’ demographic, so we have many consumer goods and services that are designed to appeal to our age group from which to choose.
- I am a high school graduate, a status and privilege that many of my sisters in other less privileged nations are not able to realize. I am a college student, and therefore even more privileged, although I am realizing this privilege at a late point in my life, I still recognize it as a privilege, especially considering worldwide circumstances where many girls are not allowed to obtain a formal education. In relation to my husband, though, my status is lower than his. He already has two college degrees (and his income reflects this) and now he is working toward his first graduate degree. This situation of privilege and power is most interesting, because my husband’s educational ‘stipend’ is greater than my income from employment. This circumstance is a reflection of the power and privilege of both being male and of being educated.
The judgments we make as we compare our similarities and differences to one another has resulted in a condition of social hierarchy in which differing degrees of power and privilege and advantage and disadvantage exist within and between societies. Each individual has a position within a complex set of interconnected social hierarchies and we each realize different degrees of power and privilege. In some areas we realize relative advantage while in others we realize relative disadvantage.
I will use my personal circumstances to demonstrate this point in a different way, by attempting to rank my position of privilege and power on a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being the least and 10 being the most) in various areas of my life. I will consider my relation specifically to other U.S. citizens because I know that in worldwide relations, my reflection on my own ranking would be a great deal different. I would rank my status, as a citizen of the most powerful first world nation, in the uppermost position in all categories. Therefore, for the purpose of determining a social ranking for myself, I will focus only on my relationship to other U.S. citizens.
Financial wellbeing may be one way to think of the degree of privilege one has, because financial wellbeing allows one to access the goods and services that they need to live well. Financial wellbeing may be understood in different ways and their sum adds up to represent one’s socioeconomic status.
- In terms of personal wealth, and in relation to others in the U.S., I would rank my privilege status at a 4, because I have a small positive net worth in the form of home equity, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, at my level of net worth, more than half of the U.S. population has a larger family net worth than my own, and almost one third has less (Wealth and Asset Ownership, n.d.).
- In terms of income, and in relation to others in the U.S., I would rank my privilege status at a 2. This is because my family’s income is just above the 2013 poverty guidelines of $23,550 for a family of four. The U.S. “poverty guidelines are updated periodically in the Federal Register by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the authority of 42 U.S.C. 9902(2)” (Poverty Guidelines, n.d.).
Yet financial wellbeing is not the only indicator of privilege. Privilege might be thought of in terms of opportunity.
- In terms of the opportunity for earnings potential, I would rank my privilege status, in relation to others in the U.S., at an 8 because both my husband and I are currently enrolled in college full-time. We both are working toward a degree that (hopefully) will be marketable in the near future. With my husband’s Multidisciplinary Science PhD specializing in Computer Science, a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mathematics, Computer Science, and Finance plus my Bachelor of Art Degree in Social Theory Social Structure and Change, (if we successfully complete our programs) we should be able to realize a secure old age, even if we are not able to fully ‘retire’ (Educational Attainment, n.d.). Perhaps we will never be in the top “1%”, but to my way of thinking, this is not a detriment. I would be ashamed to have amassed such great wealth when I know that others’ needs are not being met.
- In terms of racial opportunity, I have drawn the lucky card, so to speak. I would rank my privilege status, in relation to others in the U.S., at a 10. This is because I carry an ‘invisible knapsack’ of privileges and opportunities that I may tend to take for granted as a white-skinned person. I have privileges that others do not have the same opportunity to enjoy. The ‘invisible knapsack’ is the way in which Peggy McIntosh described in her essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, the “special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” for example, which white-skinned folks enjoy that are neither in broad public view or even intended to be seen (1988). These unearned resources (that provide special opportunities) are not distributed equally or shared by individuals of other races.
- In terms of gender opportunity, I rank my privilege status, in relation to others in the U.S., at an 8. This ranking is not without problems. I have grouped biological sex, gender and sexual orientation all together (as is the ‘norm’) even though they are very separate elements of one’s identity. I am considering the fact that I am biologically female (the lesser socially esteemed sex), but not as low as those folks who do not fit into binary sex categories. I am also considering the fact that I am heterosexual – the sexual orientation that is considered socially ‘normal’. Finally, I am considering gender, which is many times thought to be personality characteristics naturally inherent to specific male or female body types, which is to say, masculine men and feminine women. I classify as a feminine female, which is the social ‘norm’. Because I fit into the social norm categories, I am a more privileged person than those who do not. I move comfortably in social groups because my identity is a representation of the social norm. Others may not have this privilege. For example, feminine men or lesbians are many times stigmatized, ostracized, bullied, beaten, and sometimes even murdered because others disapprove of their identity differences. Additionally, although I am a member of the less-privileged sex, I am the wife of a white, college-educated male. By this affiliation I realize a portion of the many benefits that society affords to him and his privileged class. This circumstance would place me (statistically) at a higher social standing than a female not married to a college-educated white male.
- In terms of ability opportunity, I rank my privilege status, in comparison to others in the U.S., at a 9. This is because a person’s mental and physical ability/disability correlates to a family’s financial wellbeing. The ‘Disability and American Families’ report stated that the 2000 Census “counted a total of 72.3 million families and found that nearly 28.9 percent of them (about 2 in every 7 families) reported having at least one member with a disability” (Disability and American Families, n.d.). The report also stated that families that have members with a disability had lower median incomes, they had lower levels of employment, they were more likely to receive income from Social Security and public assistance, they were less likely to own their own home, and they were more likely to live in poverty (Disability and American Families, n.d.).
- No one in my family has any serious medical issues, yet at my age it is common that health does decline, and I now have begun to ‘feel’ my years.
- Mental health is an interesting thing to consider. I have come from family with a troubled history, and therefore I carry all sorts of unwanted baggage. My husband has his own difficult past situation, too. What we have discovered is that education can help to reverse some of the negative impact that our upbringing has imposed on us. So although I would not rate either of us as perfectly well – we have no major issues, and none that affect our ability to work and care for our families.
- I have NYS provided Family Health Plus health coverage insurance that would provide myself (and my family) a degree of security in the event of illness or injury. Access to both healthcare and healthcare insurance is a privilege not all individuals currently have the opportunity to enjoy.
There are many forms of privilege one can realize, that of financial wellbeing, mental and physical wellbeing, and opportunity name only a few. Yet these few examples demonstrate another important social phenomenon: Where there is privilege, there is power.
- When identity resides in groups that are considered the social ‘norm’, hegemonic forces work to create even greater privileges through a type of majority (mob) rule.
- Those who have the privilege of mental and physical health have greater opportunity to increase wealth through education, employment, investments, etc.
- Those who have racial and/or gender privilege realize greater opportunities in family, education and employment situations.
- Those who have financial wellbeing are better positioned to take advantage of opportunity of higher education, and the rewards of asset ownership such as a home or business or financial investments.
- Those with the highest education levels have the opportunity to take advantage of careers that pay substantially above the average or median income.
Privilege offers opportunities that work to create additional privileges, and in turn these increased privileges offer greater opportunity in a cyclic fashion. This is the relationship between privilege and power. Having one permits the other to increase. Wealth and education are two such areas that allow a person to have a high social standing, one in which they have the opportunity to make decisions that affect not only their own wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of many others. This phenomenon is apparent in our larger social institutions such as the world of academia with its research, and the corporate world with its government and military support.
First we will examine privilege and power in the world of academia and research. For example, we can consider the ‘gender gap’ circumstance in the U.S. The gender gap, or the systemic differences between males and females in education and the labor market, as represented by educational opportunity, occupational choices, opportunities for upward mobility, and differences in pay rate and income, is the result of many factors. These factors may include the type of position held, the difference in education and experience that these positions require, but perhaps they also may include the social pressure that men and women encounter, which encourages them to make the career decisions they choose.
Broverman, et al. (1970), examined the nature of this social pressure more than four decades ago. They found, for example, that although there was no significant difference as a function of the sex of the therapist, it was a common belief among clinical psychologists that the characteristics of healthy males and females differed as a function of one’s sex. These differences paralleled gender-role stereotypes. Additionally, it was shown that characteristics and behaviors considered healthy for an adult (no sex specified) resembled those considered healthy for men, but not those considered healthy for women. Broverman, et al. reasoned that the “double standard” of mental health was a function of the “adjustment notion”, that is, one’s good health was dependent upon being well adjusted to one’s environment (1970). The implications in this finding were and still are astounding.
We should consider how the authority given by society to the social scientists allowed them the power to exert influence on social standards and attitudes. Their privileged and highly educated position provided them with the ability to engage in ‘expert’ advisory functions not only for their clients, but also for government agencies, private institutions and the general public. By the authority given to them, these clinicians even had the power to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. The ‘adjustment notion’ that the social scientists suggested, placed women in conflict with their choices. They could either choose between positive identity characteristics that were associated with adults (and men), such as competence, or they could choose identity characteristics that were more socially accepted for females, such as empathy. Yet, feminine gender norms held a lower social ranking than those of men. Choosing identity characteristics such as competence, which was considered more socially accepted for adults (and men), would classify that behavior as pathological for a woman, and therefore would still position a woman at a lower social ranking than that of a healthy, competent man. Either identity characteristic choice would marginalize a woman and consequently, women were left with very little privilege of choice or power in relation to men. The overall social stratification between men and women still persists today. The high social standing, the status, given to highly educated professionals, allows them a great deal of privilege and power, even the authority to make decisions that negatively affect the lives of many others.
This example of the relationship between privilege and power (and status) demonstrates how social hierarchies can be created, reinforced, and enforced within and through our social institutions such as the world of academia, research and healthcare. We can also find a relationship between privilege and power in the corporate world and the institutions that support it – the government and the military.
Paul Street, in his ZNet commentary, Savage Inequalities (2002), provided an excellent illustration of the interconnected privilege and power structures of the corporate world, the U.S. Government, and the military. Street’s observations were that the U.S. response to the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the flight that was presumed to have been headed toward the White House is a perfect example of the ‘savage inequalities’ that exist in U.S. culture.
Street wrote of the ‘fast track’ manner in which the Victim’s Compensation Fund (VCF) was created and how the way it operated was a perfect example of the unequal valuation of human life in this country. He brought to light the fact that families of the victims of the 9-11 terrorists attacks each received very different financial awards. Victim’s families were compensated as determined by a scale that did not represent individual and intrinsic human value or social value. Instead, the compensation valued the victims as a human resource. This was represented in the compensation valuation being determined by a formula quite similar to the income replacement formula that life insurance companies use to advise their customers when selecting life insurance policies. He also elaborated on the fact that this seemingly unequal way of determining human value was rather egalitarian in relation to the real wealth distribution in the U.S and how airlines generally compensate victims of crashes and their families. It is interesting to consider that if the administration at that time had not created the ‘fast track’ (taxpayer funded) VCF, the compensation awards would have been left for the courts to decide, and the typical payout for this type of incident generally ranges from zero dollars to 30 million dollars – much less equal than the VCF formula. Paradoxically, the VCF, as unequal as it seemed on the surface, was actually much more equalitarian than the typical ‘American’ way of doing business (Street, 2002.).
Additionally, Street brought to light another important post 9-11 issue, that our ‘War on Terror” primarily functioned to provide welfare for those who needed it the least, and it decreased assistance to those who needed it the most. He asserted that the VCF was created as a type of corporate welfare, designed to benefit the airline and insurance industries, and those who were already at the top of the social hierarchy, while at the same time, nothing was created to benefit the now unemployed airline workers (another negative social consequence of the 9-11 tragedy). He also cited the thriving state of corporate welfare, in the form of billions of dollars of retroactive tax cuts for already profitable corporations, in the midst of decreasing budgets for social services, welfare reform’s lifetime limits, increasing food insecurity, high child poverty rates, and new standards of ‘academic achievement’ being enacted in what was to become the ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislation (which, in reality, defunds those schools and students most in need of assistance). Post 9-11 government support was primarily provided, not to people in need, but rather to entities that would maintain strong GDP for the U.S. economy. In the response to the 9-11 tragedy, we can see that the systemic and structural inequalities of U.S. society are rooted in what Street called the “inherently amoral and in-egalitarian pinball machine of capitalism” (Street, 2002.).
Perhaps these are the very entities that were being targeted in the attacks that day – the World Trade Center (a symbol of corporate power), the White House (a symbol of government support of industry) and the Pentagon (a symbol of the military that serves to protect the institutions of government and industry) – and the dominating nature of the ‘American way of life’ as Street named it (Street, 2002.).
The United States of America is a country where its citizens profess to value human equality as among one of their highest moral standards. It is written in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal”, yet in reality the U.S. is one of the most highly stratified societies. We identify with equality, yet at the same time structural inequalities are built into our most dominant and interconnected social institutions – our economy, our education systems, our governments, and the military, amongst others.
Identity construction has a complex and dynamic nature. Identities are many times related to group affiliation. Group dynamics create both intended and unintended situations of domination and oppression. This creates a social stratification where individuals each realize different degrees of power, privilege and status within and among societies. Paradoxically, this type of hierarchical structural inequality can take place in societies that simultaneously strive to value human equality as one of its highest moral standards. Because of this paradox, others may identify the U.S. (and its culture and its citizens) as a nation that maintains a double standard. In reality, the U.S. is one of the most highly stratified (unequal) societies in the world, and additionally it also dominates in world affairs.
For this reason, when considering my own identity, and my position of status hierarchy, I place U.S. citizenship as the highest on the hierarchical list. This is so that I remember my current position of extreme privilege, power and status in relation to others. This helps me to also remember others position of disadvantage and also quite likely, their situation of need. With this understanding and perspective I can begin to deconstruct the hierarchies that are present in my own life and social circles. Perhaps, when considering identity, instead of thinking in terms of group affiliation, personal traits and qualities should be the primary consideration. Yet, as is the case with the harm in attempting to be ‘colorblind’ when dealing with unequal race relations, ignoring the fact that marginalized groups are, in fact, realizing situations of disadvantage, this desire is more of an idealistic goal than it is a desirable current reality. Perhaps someday soon, we may be able to think of our own and others identities based solely on individual characteristics and traits.
2013 Poverty Guidelines. (n.d.). 2013 poverty guidelines. [Web page]. Retrieved from http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/13poverty.cfm#threshold
Broverman, I. K., Broverman, D. M., Clarkson, F. E., Rosenkrantz, P. S., & Vogel, S. R. (1970). Sex-role stereotypes and clinical judgments of mental health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 34(1), 1-7. doi:10.1037/h0028797
Disability and American Families: Census 2000 Special Report. (n.d.). Disability and American families: Census 2000 special report. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/censr-23.pdf
Educational Attainment: Field of Degree and Earnings by Selected Employment Characteristics. (n.d.). Educational attainment: Field of degree and earnings by selected employment characteristics. [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Race, class, and gender in the United States: An integrated study, 4, 165-169.
Street, P. (2002). Savage inequalities. ZNet. Retrieved from https://moodle.esc.edu/pluginfile.php/574166/mod_page/content/7/paulstreetsavageinequality.pdf
Wealth and Asset Ownership: Detailed Tables on Wealth and Asset Ownership, 2011. (n.d.). Wealth and asset ownership: Detailed tables on wealth and asset ownership, Table 4, 2011. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/people/wealth/data/dtables.htm
© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.