Challenges and opportunities we need to understand from our unique identities

As we understand that we are unique and special because of all the different parts of who we are. We need to also understand different challenges and opportunities each faces because of our unique identities.

Identity is a powerful force that can be both positive and negative. It can uplift us, but it can also hurt and diminish our self-esteem. In some cases, it can lead to injustice and violations of certain identities. Social identity theory suggests that individuals define themselves about the groups they belong to (in-groups) and those they don’t (out-groups). Group membership influences self-concepts, shaping individuals’ norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes.

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This idea proposed by psychologist Hendri Tajfe in 1979 on social identity theory was based on a person’s sense of who they are, and their group membership(s), which then be an important source of their pride and self-esteem. Tajfe hypothesizes that an out-group (them) labels or attachments to group members of in-group (us) can enhance in-group self-image, or the opposite. But, how does the theory work in our real life?

Take an example from a quotes collection that reflects a transformative journey within the Indigenous community. Initially, there was a sense of embarrassment and disinterest in traditional customs and rituals. However, exposure to outsiders’ enthusiasm sparked a newfound curiosity and appreciation for their indigenous culture. The realization that external interest could outweigh internal apathy prompted introspection among community members. The integration of traditional clothing and customs into everyday discussions fostered a sense of pride and confidence among youth, particularly when interacting with foreigners. Moreover, this shift in mindset was further reinforced when their friends at school engaged in serious discussions and gained confidence in their customs, especially when seen through videos and photos in traditional clothing–highlighting a journey of self-discovery, confidence-building, and cultural resurgence within the Indigenous community.

“In the past, I was embarrassed and felt that it was old-fashioned. There was no deeper motivation to know more about my culture- feeling that rituals in customs were not important and unnecessary. But, because outsiders are very interested, I tried to find out more. Also, why we weren’t interested before was because of the difficulties to understand at first, what was the goal and purpose (traditional ritual)” (Being and Becoming Indigenous, RMI Report).

On the other hand, we can also find some using identity to encompass affiliation with a specific group, party, or ideology, to manipulate, suppress, lead to conflicts, or take benefits from the groups. In a presidential election momentum, for instance, we may find many candidates talk and share messages to show they are like certain groups of people. This is called “identity ownership.” It’s like when someone wants us to think they’re the best choice for a group, and they talk about us a lot. They want us to see them as a good match for our group’s values and ways. Yet, it can also be very dangerous if a candidate uses the Tajfe idea of identity to give negative labels and attachments to other candidates to enhance their self-image or it costs us more if the candidate sacrifices certain groups in society by keeping giving the other candidates groups such negative label that the out-group and their members may perceive.

If we aim to foster a more inclusive society and avoid whether it is intentional or unintentional perpetuation of stereotypes or discrimination, we need to understand both the positive and negative consequences of our unique identities.

In our everyday lives, we tend to place people into social categories whether it is race, education, social status, location (rural or urban), sex (man, woman, or bi-sexual, etc), and more. Once assigned to a category, individuals tend to adopt the identity associated with that group. For example, someone identified as part of an Indigenous group may start acting in ways they believe align with Indigenous norms.

Unfortunately, both individuals and groups have limited control over how they are perceived by others. Our society and media inadvertently contribute to the shaping of stereotypes supporting or against certain groups. We should be aware that while some positive labels may be attached to a group’s identity, there is also the risk of negative labels that can harm our self-esteem.

What we should know about social identity, intersectionality, and multiple identities?

Identity can play a huge role in the way an individual or group perceives it. However, as we understand that we do not have full control of those that may influence our identity, then, how do we prevent and minimize the negative side of identities from those who may want to only take benefits from us?

Understanding social identity, intersectionality, and multiple identities is essential for appreciating the uniqueness of each person. If Hendri Tajfel tells us that we get a lot of our sense of who we are from the groups we belong to, like our family, our school, or our community, Amartya Sen’s idea on capabilities approach in the multiple identities introduces us to capabilities as superpowers for a good life, emphasizing not just having things but also being able to do things and being treated fairly. It is as if you were a Spider-Man, you don’t just have a cool suit; but, you can also climb walls and swing between buildings. That everyone is unique and has many parts to who they are and that being a student, a friend, a brother or sister, and more are our superpowers for a good life. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black feminist scholar, introduced the idea of intersectionality, which helps us understand how different parts of our identity, like our race, gender, and family income, can all be connected. It’s like we are all made up of many pieces, and each piece is important. All these ideas help us see that everyone is special because of all the different parts of who we are. They also help us understand that people can face different challenges and opportunities because of their unique identities.

The support and differences among these concepts are crucial to navigating the complexities of identity. While intersectionality and capabilities both focus on the uniqueness of individuals, intersectionality looks at how different identity pieces fit together, whereas capabilities emphasize the essential superpowers everyone should possess. Similarly, both intersectionality and social identity recognize belonging to various groups, with the former examining intersections and experiences and the latter exploring group preferences. Both capabilities and social identity acknowledge the importance of how individuals are treated and the opportunities they have, with capabilities emphasizing individual superpowers and social identity examining the impact of group memberships.

A call to action: What identity can teach us in building a more peaceful world?

“An educated person must learn to act justly, beginning, first of all, with his thoughts, then later in his deeds. This is what it means to be educated. ― Pramoedya Ananta Toer

In light of these concepts, the question arises about preventing and minimizing the negative aspects of identities that some may exploit. Recognizing the interconnectedness of identities, promoting equitable capabilities, and fostering an understanding of diverse social groups can contribute to creating a more inclusive and just society. By educating ourselves and others about these concepts, we can work towards mitigating negative impacts and ensuring that everyone’s unique puzzle pieces are valued and respected.

Below are three things amongst many that we can do and examples in promoting a more peaceful world through identity understanding.

  • Recognizing the interconnectedness of identities

Intersectionality, as introduced by Crenshaw, allows for a comprehensive understanding of multiple identities leading to discrimination. Recognizing and acknowledging these intersecting factors can validate feelings and address specific challenges faced by an individual or group. Amartya Sen’s concept emphasizes recognizing the plurality of identities beyond one-dimensional categorizations. Supporting confidence involves acknowledging various aspects of identity, such as roles and relationships. Take an instance of a young professional in the workplace, experiencing discrimination based on her/ his gender, racial background, and sexual orientation. Recognizing the interconnectedness of her/ his identities through an intersectional lens is crucial for understanding the nuanced challenges she/ he faces. Validation of her/ his feelings and tailored support is essential to address the specific layers of discrimination. Amartya Sen’s concept emphasizes recognizing the plurality of the person’s identities, and appreciating the various roles and relationships she/ he navigates. Supporting the one in the example involves acknowledging her/ his gender, race, and sexual orientation, as well as recognizing her/ his roles as a professional, friend, and community member, fostering a more inclusive and empathetic environment that understands the interconnectedness of identities.

  • Promoting equitable capabilities

Tajfel’s social identity theory highlights the role of group membership in shaping identity. Addressing a group’s confidence involves understanding their social identities and developing strategies for positive group dynamics. Consider the scenario of a high school classroom where students are divided into different academic tracks based on their perceived abilities. Recognizing the impact of group membership on identity, educators aim to promote equitable capabilities among students. Rather than reinforcing divisions, they implement strategies that focus on positive group dynamics. Through collaborative projects, peer mentoring, and inclusive classroom discussions, students are encouraged to appreciate each other’s strengths and diverse perspectives. By addressing the social identities within these academic tracks and fostering an environment that values each student’s potential, educators contribute to a more equitable development of capabilities, aligning with Tajfel’s social identity theory.

  • Fostering an understanding of diverse social groups

Fostering an understanding of diverse social groups can contribute to creating a more inclusive and just society. Imagine a community initiative aimed at fostering an understanding of diverse social groups within a neighborhood. To achieve this, residents organize a series of cultural exchange events, where individuals from various backgrounds share their traditions, experiences, and stories. Through interactive workshops and community gatherings, participants gain insights into the rich tapestry of cultures present in their community. By promoting open dialogue and actively engaging with diverse perspectives, the initiative encourages residents to break down stereotypes and build connections. This grassroots effort not only enhances cultural understanding but also contributes to the creation of a more inclusive and just society by fostering empathy and appreciation for the diversity that exists within the community.

Novia Fadhilla Sari
Novia Fadhilla Sari
A young entrepreneur Novia Fadhilla Sari (Novia) is currently managing a consultancy business called Mockingbird Consultant--Exploring human potential through coaching. Whilst now she is also a master degree candidate on Sustainability Management in a dual degree program held by Universitas Gadjah Mada and Agder University.