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Personal and Social Identity: Who Are You Through Others’ Eyes

There’s a reason folks judge others by the company they keep.

Key points

  • Personal identity is about how you see yourself as “different” from those around you.
  • Social identities tell how you are like others—they connote similarity rather than difference.
  • Some identities carry a different “privilege valance” or “oppression valance” than others.

Let’s talk about identity—the pieces of ourselves that tell us who we are and what we like and the pieces of ourselves that others use to decide who they think we are and what we are actually like. There are basically two types of identities that we possess: a personal identity and our social identity.

Personal identities

Let’s focus first on personal identities. Take a few moments and think about who you are and your personal traits. Personal identity is about how you see yourself as “different” from those around you. Hobbies, education, interests, personality traits, and so on. Favorite foods, the roles you hold—“I’m the oldest in my family.” These are the things that make you unique from other people.

We might dislike a quality of one of our friends, perhaps, but that might not keep us from enjoying their company and valuing the friendship. For instance, If someone doesn’t like piano music, and you’re a pianist, they might not ever care to hear you play, but they may look beyond that one trait to appreciate you as a whole person.

Social identities

Social identities are the identities that you share with similar group members. They tell how you are like others—they connote similarity rather than difference. Our social identities, though, are the categories that create entities such as “ingroups” and “outgroups,” those “us” versus “them” groups.

These include categories such as social class, race, gender identity, political affinity, and of course, religion and sexual orientation. Not only does falling into a specific category give you a feeling of “belongingness” and “community,” but it also sets up the possibility of being seen as “one of those,” which can lead to a sense of internalized stigmatization or shame for openly claiming membership in a particular group.

Social identities may bestow or withdraw power and privilege

While personal identities are how we see our own unique individuality, our social identities are internally constructed but also externally applied—simultaneously. Social identities have three important characteristics that describe their role in how others are perceived:

  • Social identities are designed to award power and its benefits or to disadvantage others through the lack of access to power.
  • These group identities are often used to justify the differences in outcomes, abilities, or the endeavors taken to achieve particular goals.
  • Once categorized into a particular group, social identities are nearly impossible to shift due to the difficulty, the cost, or the danger involved in transforming self and others’ perceptions.

The “Big 8” social identities: Where outcomes are decided

What are your social identities? Take a few moments and think about who you are and the groups to which you feel you belong. Social identity is about how you see yourself as “alike” with those with whom you identify: “fathers,” “French Canadians,” “Gen Zers,” “Republicans,” “Northsiders,” etc. If someone doesn’t like Southerners, and you’re from NC, they won’t like you because of what you represent.

There are a group of social identities that are considered “The Big 8.” These include age, race, gender, ability, religion, class, immigration status, and sexual orientation. Each of these represents a value metric in that power is awarded to those who represent the majority groups in a space. Oppression is exerted upon those who represent a marginalized identity group, such as women, non-Christians, or older or younger persons.

Thinking about your own social identities, which of these identities is most salient to you? Your race? Your sexual orientation? Your religion or faith?

Now, think about what that identity means to you—what does it say to others about you? Often, it is the ones that you do not think about that represent the privileges you hold. It is also the social identities that carry a significant weight that often represent the identities that have less privilege or carry a sense of oppression with them.

All of us are equal, but...

Some identities carry a different “privilege valance” or “oppression valance” than others. What are the identities in your neighborhood, community, social groups, workplaces that carry privilege? What are the identities that we might be slower to acknowledge with others in order to avoid risking the loss of some amount of privilege? It is those identities and alliances that we fear others might “see” and make judgments about who we are, as individuals, based on group membership. Being straight, white, and Catholic when all of your friends are straight, white, and Catholic is probably not a social identity that you think about much—it carries privilege that being Hispanic, trans, and Buddhist might not. If you’re the only Jewish person in the room, you may be much more aware of your religious beliefs than you are of your race, education, or gender.

It is essential that we look inside ourselves and see which social identities we may be implicitly biased against. Who are the people that we give less credence or respect than others? Think long and hard about the implicit biases you may hold and the damage you may be doing to others based on your own limited experiences and perspective. Then do the inner work to combat this often automatic thinking that limits your ability to grow as a person and be a part of an expanding array of relational networks that would bring depth and diversity to your world.

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