Who am I? A simple question that can be answered with an infinite number of succinct descriptors. Perhaps things come to mind like student, friend, loyal, intelligent or maybe insecure, anxious, and timid? Is it possible to answer without any descriptors at all? In truth, our self-identity is intertwined with labels: our understanding of ourselves is a collection of goals and values that reflect how we compartmentalize the world.

Our tendency as human beings is to place things into nice neat categories, a perfectly natural method of coping with the sheer volume of information in the external world. This allows us to process even the most basic of senses, such as texture, sound, or colour, by providing a point of reference. This mechanism is utilized from the earliest age; even infants record information pertaining to their surroundings. As personality develops, we also attempt to understand our own identity in terms of categories since the human mind itself is too complex to understand. Even societal structures are based upon common connections and traits between a diverse set of groups, thus allowing us to react and engage with our world in a rapid, consistent manner without dispensing considerable time to critical thought. That, of course, comes with certain costs as our ability to attain and retain accurate and truthful information, even about our own identity, can become distorted.

equality-2110599_1920To understand how this innate human tendency can impede our ability to know, we must explore the concept of identity power. Identity power is unique because it arises from the abstract social mind and can be exercised actively or passively by utilizing societal descriptors to influence another person’s intuitive thought. One form of identity power is gender identity. For example, a man can simply use his identity as a man to affect a woman’s opinions or thoughts about herself and the world. Pretend both James and Freida experience an emotionally charged event. Later, Freida must present at a professional conference but James offers to do the presentation instead. Although intending to be kind, James is acting on the bias that Freida is less capable of managing her emotions and behaving professionally because she is a woman, thus judging her based on gender identity despite having experienced the same emotional perturbation. James may not consciously believe this, but acts on implicit biases – something we all have and will act upon unless we are made aware of them. In a society where men and women have defined roles, personalities and actions, this can quickly become detrimental because a speaker can easily silence or alter the thoughts and attitudes of a listener, based solely on his or her identity rather than true ability or credibility. If a young girl is consistently told she is bad at math because she is a girl, she will likely do worse when challenged with a math problem with respect to her equivalent peers, irrespective of actual ability.

No person is exempt from the reach of bias. Some may experience it more explicitly due to their identification with a certain minority group, but it is important to remember that nearly every person belongs to some minority.”

Identity power has an important effect on how we connect with others and how we absorb information. This is a two-way street, where the implicit biases of a listener can also affect the credibility of the speaker. This is known as testimonial injustice, where the individual is again judged based on his/her identity- be it due to race, sex, or gender – within the greater social construct regardless of ability or competency. One does not even need to believe a certain prejudicial statement to perpetuate it. Over time, exposure to testimonial injustice can affect one’s ability to learn about the world and distort understanding of his or her own identity.

Human beings, adapt to the world by communicating and learning from others. If effective communication is limited due to an imbalance of identity powers, gaps form in our knowledge and perceptions become skewed. Our ability to connect securely, with not only those around us, but also with ourselves becomes compromised. No person is exempt from the reach of bias. Some may experience it more explicitly due to their identification with a certain minority group, but it is important to remember that nearly every person belongs to some minority. Without a strong understanding of self and values, it becomes challenging to navigate the inevitable stressors in life. In fact, multiple sociological studies propose that our connection to self identity is highly related to depression, anxiety, stress and many other mental health issues. While it is impossible to disconnect from every social bias and prejudice, we can strive to identify them and consider how they might affect how we treat ourselves and those around us.

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Megan Gusdal

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