Introduction to Social Identities

Sharon Raz

We are all educators. When we are teaching, we are bringing more than just our knowledge and experiences to the class, we bring our social identities, which influence our teaching. An individual’s social identity indicates who they are in terms of the groups to which they belong. Social identity groups are usually defined by some physical, social, and mental characteristics of individuals. Examples of social identities are race/ethnicity, gender, social class/socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, (dis)abilities, and religion/religious beliefs. Some instructors may believe that social identities are not relevant to their courses. However, the positions and identities we hold deeply affect our perceptions, behavior, and expectations in both explicit and implicit ways. Positionality is a critical understanding of the role an educator’s background and current (socially constructed and perceived) position in the world plays in their teaching.

Through this chapter, you will spend some time thinking and reflecting on your own identities and positions within the social structure. This will allow you to think about how others may see you and categorize you according to what they see and know about you. You will also begin to look at the perceptions that we may have of others based on what groups they belong to and how our beliefs and values (overt or covert) are shaped by people’s social identities. Before you reflect on your own identities and the ways in which they influence your teaching and positionality in the classroom, I would like to provide you with some information about social identities and some core concepts in the field:

First, here are some definitions that could guide your reading:

  • Dominant group: A social group that is systematically advantaged by the society because of group membership. The dominant identity seems to set the rules and standards for the subordinate to follow.
  • Subordinate group: A social group  that is systematically disadvantaged. The group is looked down upon as being incapable of performing their preferred roles.
  • Privilege:  A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a person or group.
  • Intersectionality: The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. Intersectionality is the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups. Kimberley Crenshaw introduced the theory of intersectionality, the idea that when it comes to thinking about how inequalities persist, categories like gender, race, and class are best understood as overlapping and mutually constitutive rather than isolated and distinct (Merriam-Webster). TedTalk Video: The Urgency of Intersectionality

You can find a discussion about social identities and their impact on our teaching in part 2 of Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (2016):

  • Chapter 12 (pages 397-418) focuses on critical self-knowledge for social justice educators.

In addition, below there are a variety of resources that you are invited to read and reflect on:

You are invited to read (or watch a summary video of) Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “The Complexity of Identity: Who am I?’” In this article Tatum analyzes the factors that contribute to one’s identity and the societal mirror in which we shape this image. She explains that who we are is a result of our own characteristics, familial ties, past experiences, and political and social conditions; the synthesis of one’s past, present and future forges one’s identity.

Next, you can review the social identity map. Social Identity Mapping (SIM) can engage people in constructing a visual map that identifies the groups to which they subjectively belong as well as their psychological importance. The map can create a visual representation of a person’s social world and can capture key features of relevant social identities and their interrelationship.


An image that describe the identity wheel. It highlights different dimensions and levels of identity.
The Four Layers Model, Gardenswartz and Rowe (1995) 


Finally, Below is a table of key social identities in our culture, their common definitions, and some examples:

Social Identity Definition Examples of identities
Race Socially constructed. Race refers to a person’s physical characteristics, such as bone structure and skin, hair, or eye color. White, Black, Asian
Ethnicity Cultural factors, including nationality, regional culture, ancestry, and language. Hispanic, English, Irish, Canadian
Sex The label assigned at birth based on the reproductive organs a person is born with Male, female, intersex
Gender Person’s perception, understanding, and experience of themselves and roles in society. It’s their inner sense about who they’re meant to be and how they want to interact with the world. Man, woman, gender non-binary, gender fluid, transgender, queer
Sexual orientation A person’s identity in relation to the gender or genders to which they are sexually attracted. Heterosexual, Homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, asexual
Social class A division of a society based on social and economic status. Upper class (1% percent), Upper middle class, Lower middle class, Working Class, Working Poor, Under class
Religious affiliation A self–identified association of a person with a religion, denomination or sub–denominational religious group. In the US, Christianity is the dominant group while other religions are considered subordinates
Ability / Disability Disability as a condition or function judged to be significantly impaired relative to the usual standard of an individual or group (ability). Able, disable, visible versus invisible disabilities
Age cohort A group of people born around the same time period from a population that typically shares certain events and experiences over their life course. Kids, teenagers, young adults, adults, older adults
Native English speaking A Native speaker is a person who has learned and used English from early childhood. Native speaker, Non-native speaker
Level of education A broad section of the education “ladder” that represents the progression from very elementary to more complicated learning experiences. Elementary, high school diploma, some college, college, graduate level
Immigration status The way in which a person is present in the United States. U.S citizen, Legal Permanent Resident (“green card holder”), Conditional Permanent Resident, Asylee or Refugee, Undocumented person
Occupational status The amount of esteem attributed to members of a profession by a culture. High-status occupations, low-status occupations, unemployed
Look-related status A standard for beauty and attractiveness, and judgments made about people based on how well or poorly they meet the standard. Attractive, non-attractive, skinny, obese, overweight, tall, short




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