Module 2 - Power & Privilege

Understanding Yourself

What shapes identity?

According to Beverley Tatum (1997) in "Complexity of Identity: Who Am I?", identity is shaped by five major concepts:

  • Individual characteristics
  • Family dynamics
  • Historical factors
  • Social contexts
  • Political context (p.18)

A person's identity is not just based on who that person says s/he is, but also, and perhaps more importantly, on what people around her/him say and the messages s/he gets from society. In fact, social scientist Chris Cooley (1922) informs us that people around us - those we know and those we don't - become mirrors in which we see who we are. This mirror and those in it are part of the one's social context.

System and Invididual

According to Erik Erikson, "we deal with a process 'located' in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his [sic] communal culture...In psychological terms, identity formation employs a process of simultaneous reflection and observation, a process taking place on all levels of mental functioning" (as cited in Tatum, 1997, p.19). People are continually observing what goes on around them and reflecting on that to help decipher who they are, who they were before, and even who they will become. Figuring out where one fits within this social context is part of one's development. As time passes, people are shaping who they are based on many different cues given to them over the course of their lifetime.

As you can see, your identity is shaped by a variety of influences, both internal and external. Who you are and how you see yourself impacts the way you work in groups. The flip side of this is that people respond to you in certain ways based on their perceptions of who you are. This in turn, impacts your own self-perception. The external influences come from our participation in social systems. The figure above is adapted from Allan Johnson's Privilege, Power, and Difference and represents this interaction.


How do you think others perceive you? How has this impacted how you perceive yourself?


Progress Nav Back Nav Forward