Is Social Identity our Authentic Identity?

“The Social Identity Wheel worksheet is an activity that encourages students to identify social identities and reflect on the various ways those identities become visible or more keenly felt at different times, and how those identities impact the ways others perceive or treat them. The worksheet prompts students to fill in various social identities (such as race, gender, sex, ability disability, sexual orientation, etc.) and further categorize those identities based on which matter most in their self-perception and which matter most in others’ perception of them.”

The topic of identity is arguably more relevant today than ever before. Psychological and philosophical theories of identity have existed since long before the 21st century, but now sociological and political theories are coming to the forefront and contributing to a new kind of cultural dialogue. In attending two liberal arts schools – Wesleyan University and now Wheaton College, I have twice encountered the Social Identity Wheel as a tool for understanding identity. The Wheel was created by the University of Michigan to help students to reflect on their own identities. It is a tool that other colleges and institutions have adopted to facilitate conversation about ourselves and our relationships. However, I challenge the idea that this framework helps us understand our authentic identities.

Social identity is a specific subset of identity that consists of our social groups, such as race, sexuality, and gender. The topics and language surrounding social identity are becoming more popular in academic and social settings. This can partly be attributed to the growing prevalence of the term “intersectionality,” which was coined by scholar Kimberle Crenshaw and states that the interconnectedness of our social identities create overlapping systems of discrimination or privilege. She describes intersectionality as a tool: “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” The Social Identity Wheel is based on this model, using social identity as its main components. The Wheel is often accompanied by questions regarding power, privilege, and oppression. 

The adoption of the Social Identity Wheel in academia may be due to the much discussed notion that our social identities shape our social experiences within societal structures. Race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality all significantly shape the culture we grow up in and the values we develop. Age, socio-economic class, and mental and physical ability are consequential factors in our life experiences. Since our life experiences shape who we are in many ways, it makes sense that social identity would contribute to our understanding of identity. But it cannot define our authentic identity.

What defines us is what makes us truly different from anyone or anything else in the world. What defines us are our values and character. We may have certain shared experiences because of shared social identities, but we deeply connect with others when we share our authentic selves with them. I may share similar experiences and values with someone who also shares my exact social identity. However, if we have opposing values, our social identity connection is superficial. I will have more in common with a person who has a different social identity, but shares my values. When it comes to defining ourselves, values override social group membership. 

When used as a framework for identity, the Social Identity Wheel places emphasis on social groups alone, rather than on underlying values. Social categories are constructs that inevitably create social perceptions, which affect how people may treat us. According to the Wheel, the way we are treated supposedly then becomes part of our identity. But the way we are treated should not define our authentic identity.

When a man is sexist towards a woman, we do not believe his treatment of her actually determines her value; she is not defined by his actions. Even our language has shifted to recognize that people are not simply defined by their experiences due to social perceptions. For instance, it is no longer appropriate to call an enslaved person “a slave.” This wording is important because it reframes the enslaved person as a human being who was captured and treated as a slave. It encompasses the idea that the person is only captive because someone else made them so, recognizing their humanity. This kind of language shift indicates a greater societal understanding that the circumstances of our birth, our experiences, our suffering, and our oppression or privilege do not define us. And that is what the Social Identity Wheel does: it defines us by our social identity and the social power we hold. 

Social identity provides a sparse theory of who we are because it is merely a subset of our identity. It excludes values, purpose, meaning, and personality. Even if these other aspects of identity are considered, they are discussed through the lens of social identity, and maybe even wrongly attributed to those categories. But race, gender identity, sexuality, do not determine values and attitude towards life. Even religion, which is a chosen identity, does not define values – how many Christians have you met that do not espouse Christian values of love and equality? Although our social identity shapes us, it does not define us. What defines us are the intangibles of who we are — what we value, how we treat others, the choices we make that truly matter. 

When we choose a framework for describing who we are, we become limited to a certain set of values. The Social Identity Wheel limits us to placing values on shared group identities and experiences. Reflect on the people you care about and admire the most. Why do you value them? Is it their race, gender, experiences? Or is it their personality? The values they choose to embody as they confront the hardships of life? Kimberle Crenshaw said herself; intersectionality is a tool. “Some people look to intersectionality as a grand theory of everything, but that’s not my intention…If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, it’s not like you have to use this concept.” 

The tool of intersectionality has its place in understanding societal structures and systems of oppression. However, when the social identity framework is applied to our authentic identity – who we are and what defines us, it comes up short. Authentic identity is many things. It is the sum of our individual parts: experiences, relationships, memories, personality, and values. It is our individual sense of meaning and purpose. It is our self-perception of all these traits and experiences. When understanding our authentic identity, we need to use a framework that does justice to the meaningful nature of our lives.