Navigating Social Identity in the Classroom
Jackson Bartlett, Associate Director for Inclusive Teaching at CATE
August 8, 2022
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Inclusive teaching requires an understanding of how social identities matter to our students, and to ourselves as instructors.
Whether it’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, socioeconomic status, national origin, or something else, social identity is a part (but not all) of who we are as individuals. And social identities can shape students’ learning experiences positively or negatively.
Drawn from the latest research and best practices in dialogue and inclusive teaching, this guide provides instructors with a step-by-step explanation of what social identities are and why they matter. It also includes strategies to help instructors from all disciplines reflect on student and instructor identity and successfully navigate difference in the classroom. Whether teaching in Neuroscience, Theater, Design, or Chemistry, instructors should come away from this guide with the language and tools needed to understand themselves and their students in context.
Social identity is a part (but not all) of who we are as individuals.
WHAT ARE SOCIAL IDENTITIES Heading link
Students and instructors both come into the classroom with multiple, overlapping identities that have shaped their perceptions of and experiences and interactions with others (Tatum, 2000). Some of those identities are personal and individual, related to hobbies, career, or family identity (mother, child, sister, uncle, etc).
Some identities are social, meaning they are made up of the social groups to which we belong (Tajfel, 1979). Social identities can be ascribed (placed on us by others) and avowed (claimed for ourselves) (Erikson, 1959-1994; Gergen, 1991; Goffman, 1963; Hames-Garcia, 2011), and are usually a unique combination of both.
Examples of Social Identities Heading link
See below for examples.
Race is a concept devised by Europeans over time to separate themselves from the rest of the world (Smedley & Smedley, 2012). In other words, Europeans ascribed race to various people based on broad categories that were previously irrelevant. Black Africans, Asians, and indigenous peoples did not previously think of themselves as Black, Asian, or indigenous. They thought of themselves as Ibo, Tibetan, Lakota, or Nahua.
Over time, the ascription of racial categories by Europeans came to matter so much in everyday life via apartheid legal systems, prejudice, and resistance that many people now also avow or self-ascribe race as a social identity (Wright, 2004). For more on the origins of race as a concept and social system, see this resource on the historical foundations of race from the Smithsonian.
Sexual orientation or sexual identity has not always existed as it has today. What people do has not always been linked to who people are considered to be. Sexual practices have only been strongly linked to social identity since the nineteenth century after the medicalization and pathologization of homosexual practices (Higgs, 1999; Foucault, 1990). This accelerated after World War II when anxieties about reproduction and the family led to a harsh crackdown on non-normative sexual practices on the part of the state and major institutions (Canaday, 2011).
People of course resisted. The medicalization, pathologization, and persecution of same-sex sexual practices and the ensuing social LGBTQ+ social movements that rose in their midst resulted in sexual identities that were avowed as much as they were ascribed by those seeking to control sexual practices. Over time, these terms and identities have evolved as LGBTQ+ people have reset the terms of their identities.
Gender is the set of assumptions and values that are attached to biological sex and reproductive capacity. Gender, then, is a social construction, and it has evolved over time. Dominant social narratives about gender in Western society have placed people into a binary system – man and woman – and those narratives attach social meaning and scripts dictating how people should behave (Wharton, 2011).
In this way, gender is often ascribed to individuals. Everyday people, however, have long challenged this binary social system, blurring the lines, adding categories, changing descriptions, and discarding the binary altogether. The differences between ascribed and avowed gender sometimes leads to conflict. For more on gender identity, consult our Teaching Guide on Pronoun Usage for more.
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These examples show that social identities often stem from the ways in which certain people have been grouped together by external forces and actors, and often from the ways in which those groups have banded together to create community, or to resist oppression.
Social Identities Stem from Social Systems
What social groups are is often determined by broader social, political, economic, and/or cultural systems like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and so on that privilege one or more groups over others. In each system there are dominant groups and non-dominant groups (Allen, 2011; Anderson & Collins, 2007).
The dominant group is the group that is privileged, meaning that they benefit in one or more ways from that group membership. The dominant group is often dominant in our language an culture, viewed as “normal” within that system (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Certain kinds of advantage–economic, political, cultural, social–can also confer more power to those groups, meaning that they have greater degrees of self-determination, sovereignty, and the ability to make decisions for oneself or for others.
For example, racism is the idea that whites are superior to other racial groups. In this system, white people are the dominant group and non-white people belong to non-dominant groups. In the case of sexism, cisgender (gender identity is aligned with sex assigned at birth) men are the dominant group, and women and queer and trans people are non-dominant groups. Another way of thinking about dominant and non-dominant groups is to consider who has advantage and disadvantage in a society.
One person can have both dominant-group and non-dominant group identities, meaning that one or more identities may confer privilege, power, or advantage while others may not. See the section on Intersectionality for more on how our multiple identities matter.
"isms" table Heading link
Click below to consider how “isms” and identities relate. This list is not exhaustive:
System of Inequality ( the “-isms”) Dominant-group Identity/ies Non-dominant group Identities RACISM: The creation of a global hierarchy, benefiting white people, that is based on the interpretation of physical differences (primarily skin color) as indicative of deeper biological, cultural, or social differences / the inferiority of nonwhite people. Racism has spun off “colorism,” or, the idea that lighter skinned people are somehow better than darker skinned people (sometimes deployed within nonwhite groups). White Light-skinned Black, Asian, Indigenous, Mixed-race, Non-white, Dark-skinned (colorism) SEXISM: A hierarchy whereby men are privileged over women, and cisgender people are privileged over queer, nonbinary, and trans people. Cis gendered men Cisgendered, women, Trans, Queer, Non-binary, Other gender nonconforming and gender expansive groups HETEROSEXISM: A hierarchy whereby cisgender heterosexuality is deemed the norm, and all other sexual expression and gender expression are deemed “deviant” or inferior. Heterosexual or “straight” cisgendered people Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Nonbinary ABLEISM: A hierarchy whereby the world is built to a certain standard of able-bodiedness and able-bodied people are deemed “normal,” and disabled people are denied access, opportunity, and equal status. Click here to learn more about ableism in higher education from the Disability Visibility Project. Non-disabled Able-bodied Disabled, Person with a disability CLASSISM: A hierarchy where people of lower socioeconomic status or class background are denied access, opportunity, and equal status to people with higher wealth, income, or class background. Click here for more from the Council on Foreign Relations on US wealth and income inequality and how that compares globally. People with various privileged combinations of wealth (assets), income, education, networks, and resources. People with various marginal combinations of wealth, income, education, networks, or resources. Think: First-generation, students, Poverty, Renters, Single parents
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Systems and social identities are just one level at which power operates. There are also individual, interpersonal, and contextual dynamics (like workplace hierarchies) that come into play (Azmitia, Syed, & Radmacher, 2008). In other words, social identities aren’t everything, and they don’t determine behavior.
We’re all unique individuals operating 1) in unique local contexts; and 2) within larger systems that can create or constrain our choices and ability to act (for more on the relationship between structure and agency, see Thoits, 2003; Jessop, 1996).
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Salience & the Importance of Context
Identities that are different, either to ourselves or to others, tend to stand out more than those that don’t. Thus the “salience,” or, importance of any particular identity is context-specific (Stryker & Serpe, 1982; Brenner, Serpe, & Stryker 2014).
Members of dominant groups may or may not identify strongly with their group status. For dominant group members, those identities tend to be less salient, or noticeable, because they’re perceived by many as the norm in most settings. Members of non-dominant groups tend to identify more strongly with those identities because they are more noticeable as identities that are frequently not perceived as the norm.
They also may identify strongly with non-dominant group identities out of pride, and as a way to survive, advocate, and thrive in an unequal society. For example, a white cisgender woman in a room full of white men may be less likely to think about race (everyone is white) and more likely to think about gender (nobody else is female).
This is not a hard and fast rule. With knowledge and practice we are able to become aware of both our dominant-group and non-dominant group identities. The point is that dominant-group identities are less visible, whereas non-dominant group identities are often more visible because they’re considered outside the norm in a given space.
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The Spectrum of Visibility
Some social identities are not visible at all and may be salient to the person who holds that identity but unknown to others unless it is shared. Many people identify with a disability or as disabled, yet not all disabilities are outwardly apparent (Kattari, Olzman, & Hanna, 2018).
Gender, sexual identity, and ethnicity also vary in terms of visibility. And because race is a social construction without clear boundaries, people often have racial identities that aren’t known or immediately apparent. Salience for oneself and salience for others may differ greatly due to context.
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The Importance of Affinity Spaces for Non-dominant Groups
For members of non-dominant groups, it can be important to find spaces where their non-dominant social identities are in the majority (Martinez, 2000; Moseley, 2018)Volpe & Jones, 2021). These are known as “affinity spaces.” Affinity spaces may be formal and intentional (a Black Student Union or Asian Faculty Association, for instance) or informal and circumstantial (being Black and living in a majority Black neighborhood or country).
These spaces can increase one’s sense of individuality by decreasing the salience of one or more social identities, and are thus important for non-dominant group members to feel seen as whole and complex individuals.
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Each one of us has multiple social identities. These identities do not exist in isolation from one another. Rather, they are simultaneous and can influence one another. This is called intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989; McCall, 2005; Jones 2000 & 2009).
Legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, officially coined the term intersectionality in 1989 to describe how people experience the various degrees of oppression or privilege experienced by their identities. She uses an analogy of roads coming together to make this point. The intersectionality of multiple identities is often most apparent when a particular combination of identities leads to unique patterns of discrimination or disadvantage.
“Consider an analogy for traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination” (Crenshaw, 1989, p. 149).
It’s not just our social identities that are intersectional, but also the social systems that generate those identities. In this sense, both advantage and disadvantage are intersectional. One may hold a dominant-group identity at the same time as a non-dominant group identity. A Black, gay, cis gender man, for instance, holds two dominant-group identities (cis gender, and male) and one non-dominant group identity (Black and gay). That same person may also have social identities related to class, disability, religion, or others that intersect with these.
An intersectional analysis provides us with a more sophisticated lens to examine how identities operate together and influence one another – an intersectional analysis may provide insights that are more detailed or even counter to an analysis that considers each identity in isolation.
To further understand how intersectionality appears in multiple different contexts, click on the drop-down menu below for a set of scenarios where an instructor might need an intersectional analysis. Note: these examples are not meant to be representative of any given field; rather, they are intended to help you begin to see intersectionality at play in a broad diversity of contexts.
Examples of Intersectionality Heading link
Examples of Intersectionality
Scenario Analysis You’ve placed students in small groups to discuss the influence of social risk factors in the spread of monkeypox in Illinois. In this scenario, multiple identities are at play. The first and most salient identity in this scenario in Fall of 2022 was sexuality: upwards of 98% of those infected with MPV were men who have sex with men. If we were to stop at this statistic, students may draw a number of incorrect conclusions. Students may start to think that there is something about gay sex that is leading to the spread of the disease, or that it is the behavior of men who have sex with men that is the cause of it influencing that particular community. What public health experts know, however, is that a combination of factors are at play. First, the virus is more prominent in this community because that’s where the first infections were located. Second, what makes someone at-risk is sexual practies and not identity, meaning men who have sex with men and who have multiple partners, have unprotected sex, etc. are more at risk than those who don’t (CDC, 2022). And lastly, research has shown that risk factors are compounded by other group memberships that shape access to health information and care, like race, income, and age (AP, 2022). In the case of Monkeypox Virus, the lens of sexual identity and sexual practices is misleading all by itself. When combined with class in particular, but also gender identity, disability, and race, we have a fuller understanding of why outcomes differ (at least at first) among social groups. In this scenario, it may be helpful for you as the instructor to either provide structure before (or after) to help the students think about intersectionality.
Scenario Analysis You overhear a student say before class, “yeah, I applied to Michigan Tech but I didn’t get in because of affirmative action.” The student is a white, cis gendered man. In this scenario, two identities have surfaced for this student: whiteness and maleness. While the student may be suggesting that two of their identities are operating together, they are missing a crucial piece of intersectional analysis: attention to the status of those identities within the systems of oppression that structure our social world (and the status of those identities in engineering and in higher education more broadly). The student is claiming non-dominant group status for their two dominant-group identities: race and gender. In this instance, you might help this student adopt a more sophisticated intersectional lens by adding context. What are the diversity issues in STEM? How does affirmative action really work? What is the history of affirmative action in engineering? Of exclusion and inclusion on the basis of race, gender, disability, and historically excluded groups?
Scenario Analysis You’re teaching a course on the rise and fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The syllabus your mentor (a former dissertation advisor) gave you has a couple of old books and articles on military history and the negotiations of a lot of old, white, men. You want more students to be able to connect to the subject and see themselves more in the material. In this scenario, the existing course and framework for teaching this subject doesn’t engage social identity much at all, let alone from an intersectional lens. Yet we know that there is a growing body of work on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and disability and the Cold War. Both the Soviet Union and the United States attached cultural meaning to dueling economic and political systems, and both projects were projects of social engineering, right? In this instance, an intersectional framework is brought to bear in service of creating a more complete, sophisticated, and relevant framework for understanding the subject-area. What was the state’s vision of ideal gender relations? How did the USSR position itself vis a vis ongoing racial strife in the US? How did the Communist Party’s view of religion impact Jews, Muslims, and Christians differently across Eastern Europe? And since this is a course on the “rise and fall,” how did these things change over time? There’s a lot that you can do with this based on your own interests and expertise, but here intersectionality and an attention to social identities and systems of oppression across time and space leads to a much more
WHAT ARE SOCIAL IDENTITIES continued Heading link
Other examples abound, where instructors can help students apply an intersectional analysis to social identities in the classroom.
WHY DO SOCIAL IDENTITIES MATTER? Heading link
Students age 18-23 (the age of many, but not all, of our college students) is a formative life-stage where identity is one of the factors our students may be exploring (Kaufman & Feldman, 2004).
Our awareness of social identities and why they matter can shape the kinds of interactions we have with our students and the kinds of interactions they have with one another. It can also influence the choices we make as instructors. Research suggests that instructors who take an identity-blind approach (specifically “colorblind”) are less likely to adopt inclusive teaching practices and use them successfully (Aragón, Graham, & Dovidio, 2016).
A lack of awareness around social identities can lead to misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and a lack of connection as instructors fail to engage students as whole persons with unique and diverse experiences.
By contrast, instructors who recognize and embrace the diversity of their students are more likely to adopt and use inclusive teaching practices (Aragón, Graham, & Dovidio, 2016), foster higher levels of creativity among their students, and increase student engagement (Thatcher & Greer 2007).
HOW TO NAVIGATE SOCIAL IDENTITY IN THE COURSE AND CLASSROOM Heading link
A big part of inclusive teaching is being able to account for and navigate group settings where multiple, intersecting identities are in play. In this section, you will be provided some strategies to get you started. These strategies are sorted into the following categories: awareness, mindset, course design, and interaction.
- Be aware of social identities. Understanding how identities are linked to social, political, and economic systems, and understanding how identities and systems intersect, is the first step to effectively engaging and navigating identities and differences in the classroom. See this social identity wheel exercise from the University of Michigan to help you reflect on your identities and the identities of your students.
- Consider that identities are only a part of who we are. Your students don’t just bring social identities into the classroom. Much more than that, they are bringing their own unique experiences, interests, viewpoints, needs, and goals. While social identities may shape how we behave towards one other and how things are received and experienced, they are not everything. Cultivate an interest and relationship with your students as unique individuals, and do not rely on them to serve as representatives of entire groups (i.e. calling on the only international student to give an international perspective).
- Oppression is about barriers – not deficits. A sophisticated understanding of social identity is not designed to pinpoint student deficits (this student lacks x, y, or z based on the adversity they might face) (Ladson-Billings, 2007; Menchaca, 1997; O’Shea et al, 2016; Smith, 2012; Valencia, 2010). These identities, however, may provide a window into institutional barriers, and the unique assets students bring to the table as people who have had to overcome those barriers (Ramasubramanian, 2017). In other words, differences in group outcomes stem from systemic and institutional problems, not group differences.
- Design your courses with the diversity of your students in mind. Do they see themselves reflected in the subjects and material? If so, are their social identities represented positively and with dignity, or only negatively? Give your students opportunities in assessments, activities, and discussions to connect their lived experiences to the content. This way you don’t have to anticipate every identity and experience, but can co-construct engagement with the material together.
- Set a tone of inclusion by sharing your pronouns (see CATE’s Teaching Guide on Pronoun Usage), using appropriate language around race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and other social identities, and by including an authentic diversity statement in your syllabus.
- Establish a community of shared norms and values around diversity and inclusion. Spend time in the beginning of your course to ask students what they can expect from themselves, and what they expect from others (including the instructor). Consider making a shared document the learning community can refer back to. Note: as the instructor, you can add norms and expectations the students miss and see what they think. Shared agreements go much further than a list of rules and policies!
- Know how to identify and respond to microaggressions. Microaggressions are implicit or explicit messages that communicate to someone that they don’t belong. Contrary to what many people think, they are not just small, unintentional slights (although they can be), but can take many forms. When they are unintentional, they tend to stem from a lack of knowledge about how social identities appear in person to person interaction. The knowledge about social identities provided in this guide should help you spot microaggressions in real time, whether you’ve committed one or simply observed it among students. For more on how to respond to microaggressions, review the ACTION framework provided in this article from Faculty Focus.
As instructors, we sometimes feel like we have to “get it right” all the time, and that if we mess up, our authority or credibility are undermined. We also should acknowledge that all identities cannot be known all the time. Vulnerability is a key ingredient to trust, and trust helps us navigate mistakes in learning communities.
RESOURCES, REFERENCES & CITING THIS GUIDE Heading link
CITING THIS GUIDE
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