How do we identify ourselves and others?
How might we judge others based on what we see?
One way is that we like to classify ourselves and others. We classify people based on categories such as race, gender, ability/disability and class, for example.
We have a great deal more control over the social groups to which we identify for ourselves, more so than to the groups to which others tend to attribute to us (correctly or not). Yet our current degree of control is not a certainty either. Perhaps how much we realize we have control over our identity characteristics has a great deal to do with how we have been socialized (including the education we have/have not received).
Race – We may not always have control over which ‘race’ we identity with, yet the reality is that many of us have a heritage that places us in a mixed-race category, and in these circumstances, we may choose. It is good to know that there is no biological basis for racial categories – rather ‘race’ is a social construct that changes over time and place.
Sex – Contrary to what many of us realize, even one’s biological sex can be a matter of uncertainty. Approximately 1-2% of the population has ambiguous biological sex characteristics not clearly fitting into either a male or a female category, allowing opportunity for choice. Some societies recognize a third ‘gender’ a term sometimes confused with one’s biological sex.
Gender – is not a characteristic inherent to specific body types, but rather a social construct, as is one’s race. A process of socialization ‘teaches’ us our gender roles – how we should act as either males or females, for example. Gender roles change over time and place. By definition then, gender might have fluidity, depending on personal awareness and circumstance.
Sexuality – is also socially constructed. How people express their sexuality changes over time and place, too.
Physical/Mental Ability are characteristics that are not always clearly understood and defined. We can consider parapalegic, Stephen Hawking, for example, and label him disabled. As a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge, Hawking is far from lacking in mental ability though, even as he has very little control over his body. We might instead think of differences in abiltity as differently-abled.
Class – is an interesting category. The only class that is well defined is the one at the poverty level (and this changes from nation to nation). There is a federal definition of what it means to be poor. Rich is not so well defined, yet we all understand what it means to be rich. Middle class is the least well defined class and lies somewhere between the rich and the poor. It may include the working class or not, depending on the definition being used. We might think of ‘traditional’ middle class values or ideals (although there is nothing ‘traditional’ about the middle class) – making middle class more than simply a socioeconomic status. It may also be a way of thinking and a way of behaving, for example. When we use these terms, it is a good idea to provide a working definition for clarity in communication and understanding. Being that class status may not even have a formal definition (except in the case of poverty) this identity characteristic is fluid also.
I think that we all tend to make generalizing assumptions, perhaps based on what we believe to be statistically true about ‘others’ and also from what society has (sometimes incorrectly) taught us. It is a good practice to realize that our generalizing assumptions are, in fact, assumptions and not necessarily truths. I think it important to not make too many assumptions about a person’s appearance, or even their behavior (body language). We live in a diverse and increasingly globalized world. What is ‘normal’ for one society may not be the norm for another. Additionally, we all engage in face-making to one degree or another – presenting to the world what we wish them to see and believe about ourselves. We do not always present ourselves with true authenticity. For these reasons, attempting to make judgements based on what we think we ‘see’ can be very deceptive.
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