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2.4: How identities are Built (Summary)

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    From theory to practice...

    • Explore your own cultural identity. An awareness of your cultural heritage can help make you aware of the sources of the values and behaviors you may take for granted. Being able to articulate our own views – and their origins – can be helpful in intercultural encounters.
    • Consider the nature of your social identity. Think about how the different groups you may belong to help constitute who you are – what you believe, how you behave, and how you interact with others.
    • Evaluate your personal identity. To what extent do your individual tastes and preferences lead you in directions away from your family background, ethnic heritage, or group affiliations? Consider how you envision your future self.

    For discussion and reflection...

    1. Consider the number of groups to which you belong and the roles you play in each. How do the groups affect the way you think, feel, and act? By virtue of your membership in these groups, how are you treated by others? What are some of the groups to which you would like to belong but do not?

    2. After reading the article by Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, and watching the selection from the documentary "Color of Fear":

    What's your reaction to McIntosh's essay and the excerpt from Color of Fear? To what extent do the views expressed reflect your own experiences? Is this type of conversation represented by the documentary useful? To what extent was the conversation affected by not including any women?

    3. After watching the TED talks on women and identity by Liza Donnelly, Caroline Casey and Lizzie Velasquez...

    How do you define who you are? What role does appearance have? Where do the rules for appearance and behavior come from? Are these rules universal? For women everywhere? Do you agree on the power of cartoons and humor?

    4. After watching the TED talk by Pico Iyer on multicultural identities:

    How typical do you think his personal experience with identity is? To what extent are we all "a work in progress"?

    5. After watching the TED talk on prejudice by Paul Bloom:

    Do you agree that our initial judgments about people tend to be accurate? What is your take on his recommendations for overcoming "bad" prejudice? Are there other approaches that might work?

    6.. Get together in groups of two or three. Spend about two to three minues describing yourself to your group members. Now respond to the question: "Who am I?" Also respond to the question "Who is 'A' or 'B' where 'A' and 'B' and so on represent each of your group members. Compare your notes. The exercise may be modified for a discussion on biases and prejudices.

    Key Concepts

    • Ascribed identity: Identity given to a person by others
    • Assimilation: Used here in the sense of cultural assimilation - the process by which a person or a group's language and/or culture come to resemble those of another group.
    • Avowed identity: How a person perceives his or her own self
    • Categorization: Classifying or sorting of perceived information into distinct groups
    • Co-culture: A group of people that are not part of the dominant structure of society; use of the term emphasizes the lack of power and control in comparison to the mainstream culture
    • Code-switching: Alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation
    • Communication theory of identity: Theory developed by Michael Hecht that identities are constructed through social situations and communication
    • Contact theory: Theory by Gordon Allport that under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members
    • Critical reflectivity: Willingness to examine in a serious way ones values and beliefs so as to be able to deal fairly and equitably with the values and beliefs of others
    • Cultural identity: Identity based on cultural membership; one's identification with and perceived acceptance into a larger culture group
    • Ebonics: Distinctive variety of English spoken by African Americans, which most linguists refer to as African American Vernacular English
    • Endogamy: The practice of marrying only within one's local community, clan, or tribe
    • Ethnicity: classification of people based on combinations of shared characteristics such as nationality, geographic origin, language, religion, ancestral customs, and tradition
    • Ethnocentrism: Favoring the ethnic group you belong to over all others
    • Exogamy: The practice of marrying outside of one's group or community
    • Hegemony: Dominance, especially by one country or social group over others
    • Ideology: A system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy
    • Imagined community: Concept coined by Benedict Anderson referring to a community not based on face-to-face interactions; for example, Anderson believes that a nation is a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group
    • In-group: A group to which we belong
    • In-group bias: A pattern of favoring members of one's in-group over out-group members
    • Intolerance: Unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behavior that differ from one's own.
    • LGBTQ Acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer; sometimes LGBT+ is used to encompass spectrums of sexuality and gender
    • Linguistic landscape: The visibility and salience of languages on public and commercial signs in a given territory or region
    • Marginalization: The treatment of a person, group, or concept as insignificant or peripheral
    • Microculture: An identifiable group of people who share a set of values, beliefs, and behaviors and who possess a common history and a verbal and nonverbal symbol system that is similar to but systematically varies from the larger, often dominant cultural milieu
    • Minority group: A subordinate group whose members have significantly less power and control over their own lives than do members of the dominant or majority group
    • Model minority: A minority group whose members are perceived to achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic success than the population average
    • Muted groups: Microcultures whose members are forced to express themselves (e.g., speak, write) within the dominant mode of expression
    • Out-group: A group to which we do not belong and which we often treat differently from those in our in-group Pluralism: Used here in the sense of Cultural pluralism is a term used when smaller groups within a larger society maintain their unique cultural identities, and their values and practices are accepted by the wider culture
    • Out-group negativity: Attributing negative characteristics to people not in your in-group
    • Pluralism: Cultural pluralism refers to small groups within a larger society maintaining their unique cultural identities and having that accepted widely
    • Prejudice: A rigid attitude based on group membership; involves making a prejudgment based on membership in a social category
    • Racism: The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior to another race
    • Reference group: A group to which we look for meanings and identity
    • Second language acquisition: The process by which people learn a second language, often abbreviated to SLA; also refers to the scientific discipline devoted to studying that process
    • Social identity: The total combination of one's group roles; a part of the individual's self-concept that is derived from the person's membership in groups
    • Spanglish: A hybrid language combining words and idioms from both Spanish and English, especially Spanish speech that uses many English words and expressions.
    • Stereotype: A set of characteristics that a group or individuals in that group are assumed to have; a generalization about what people are like; an exaggerated image of their characteristics, without regard to individual attributes
    • Symbolic racism: Subtle and indirect form of racism, often expressed in US towards Blacks
    • White privilege: Societal privileges that benefit white people in western countries beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances

    Learn more…


    • Adichie, C. (2013). Americanah. Novel examining blackness in America, Nigeria and Britain
    • Blee, K. (2002). Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement: Self-identities of women connect to the US racist organization, the Ku Klux Klan
    • Friend, T. (2010). Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor: Provocative assessment of the role of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) white privilege in US society
    • Lubrano, A. (2005). Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams: Personal account of growing up in a working-class, Italian-American community and working his way into the middle class
    • Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Classic study discussing cultural representations that are the bases of "Orientalism", defined as the West's patronizing representations of "The East"
    • Shaprio, J. (1994). No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. Classic account on the rights of the disabled


    • Afro-Punk (2003): Documentary film exploring the roles of African-Americans within what was then a white punk scene

    • Babette's Feast (1987, Danish title: Babettes gæstebud) celebration of the French culinary tradition
    • Bend It Like Beckham (2002). Story of an Indian girl in the UK who challenges norms and traditions of the Indian community to play soccer (football)
    • Chocolat (2000): French film illustrating the power of food to change identities
    • The Color of Fear (1994). Documentary film showing eight North American men from different ethnic backgrounds, gathered for a dialog on race relations
    • Crash (2004): Feature film featuring racial and social tensions in Los Angeles, exploring a verity of stereotypes
    • Witness (1985). Crime thriller which features members of the Amish community

    Online resources

    - Ethnicity and microcultures

    - Conversations on race and prejudice

    • TED description: “Our biases can be dangerous, even deadly — as we've seen in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, in Staten Island, New York. Diversity advocate Vernā Myers looks closely at some of the subconscious attitudes we hold toward out-groups. She makes a plea to all people: Acknowledge your biases. Then move toward, not away from, the groups that make you uncomfortable. In a funny, impassioned, important talk, she shows us how.”

    - TED talks on identity: Knowing yourself before judging others

    • Liza Donnelly: Drawing on humor for change
      Interesting perspective on identity creation and appearance for women; humor as a powerful tool for self-actualization
      TED description: "New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly shares a portfolio of her wise and funny cartoons about modern life — and talks about how humor can empower women to change the rules."
    • Caroline Casey: Looking past limits
      On the importance of "being true to yourself" and overcoming what seem like unsurmountable barriers
      TED description: "Activist Caroline Casey tells the story of her extraordinary life, starting with a revelation (no spoilers). In a talk that challenges perceptions, Casey asks us all to move beyond the limits we may think we have."
    • Lizzie Velasquez: How do you define yourself?
      TED description: "In a time when beauty is defined by supermodels, success is defined by wealth, and fame is deified by how many followers you have on social media, Lizzie Velasquez asks the question how do you define yourself? Once labeled, 'The Worlds Ugliest Woman,' Lizzie decided to turn things around and create her own definitions of what she defines as beauty and happiness."
    • Pico Iyer: Where is home?
      On the multicultural identities today and how we all are a "work in progress"
      TED description: "More and more people worldwide are living in countries not considered their own. Writer Pico Iyer — who himself has three or four 'origins' — meditates on the meaning of home, the joy of traveling and the serenity of standing still."

    - Humorous takes on issues of race, ethnicity, and nationality

    - Food and cultural identity

    On different roles of food, including "food as identity"

    TED description: "Reporter Jennifer 8. Lee talks about her hunt for the origins of familiar Chinese-American dishes” exploring the hidden spots where these two cultures have (so tastily) combined to form a new cuisine."

    Is it British or Indian?

    Extracts from a speech by the foreign secretary to the Social Market Foundation in London: "Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish"

    TED description: "Dr. Bernard-Carreno has been actively researching and writing about the cultural performance of food, food access and food racism in low income neighborhoods in New York City and abroad. Along with researching and writing, Dr. Bernard-Carreno has been designing scholarly projects and community products based on food access in poor NYC areas."


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    Amish women: By Pasteur (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

    Refugees from Western Sahara: Danielle Van Brunt Smith

    Laina Dawes: George Kelly

    Syrian refugees in Vienna on way to Germany: Josh Zakary

    Romani in Urkraine

    Amish family: Ernest Mettendorf,_Lyndenville,_New_York.jpg

    Native Americans: Derek Bridges

    Anti-racism: Robert Thivierge

    Chinese sign

    Snake charmer by Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Clark Art Institute

    McDonalds Times Square: Jim Lambert

    2.4: How identities are Built (Summary) is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert Godwin-Jones.

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