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Difference, Identity and Power

By Anu Taranath, Department of English, University of Washington

What You Can Learn By Studying This Topic

  • How have your ideas, beliefs, and assumptions been shaped by your identities and experiences?
  • How are different identities shaped by power and privilege?
  • How can you use new understandings of your social location as a basis for empathy and action?

If one of the goals of critically reading Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder, is to more fully understand the inequities of the world, understanding our own identities in relation to these topics can be an important first step. Critical learning about who we are and the various ways in which our identities are constructed can contribute to a rich sense of personal fulfillment, and furthermore, helps us make the intellectual connections between our own lives and the lives of others around the world.
Each of us has a complex identity that is rooted in human differences such as gender, class, race, sexuality, disability, religion, nationality, age and ethnicity. The ways in which all of these various categories intersect with and inform our individual lives creates the uniqueness of each of us. “Locating oneself” is a term that encourages us to look at the historical and social components of our identities, including how we came to be the person we are. For example, how might a 19-year-old Asian American woman begin to “locate herself”? She does this by reflecting upon the myriad components of her identity and thinking about how her history (family, racial, community) informs her present. She could begin to recognize how her identity shapes her ideas, beliefs, and assumptions about diverse issues on both local and global levels. She might forge links between her identity and other people whom she might or might not know. These links might take the form of reading a novel about a Pakistani daughter and reflecting on her own experiences as a daughter, or thinking about her own middle-class experiences in Seattle in relation to poverty in Haiti.

Thought Experiment: In a recent interview, Paul Farmer answered questions on how he began his work and involvement in Haiti: “So an answer to your question is involvement with migrant farm workers; understanding the connection between my country of origin and Haiti and then, later, other countries; and understanding that these are stories of proximity and not distance. We are connected to Haiti in important ways, as well as to other places where there is violence and poverty and suffering.”
Think about your personal history and the life experiences that have influenced the development of your identities over time. How do you identify yourself in relation to race, class, gender, and so forth? Have some of these identities been more important at one stage of your life or another? Why?

When we begin to realize that all identities are complex and varied, including our own, our methods of investigating other perspectives and viewpoints are enhanced and developed. This kind of intellectual expertise can easily be translated into daily skills: questioning media’s representation of a country or people, or listening more carefully to classmates or friends who seem “different” than us. All of us are members of various groups, although no membership is static and constant. Our membership in groups or categories may change over time, be voluntary and offer us solidarity and camaraderie, or may seem forced and unyielding like a too-tight pair of shoes. Based on how we understand ourselves and our identities, we form alliances with others.

Thought Experiment: In which groups do you consider yourself a member? Is this how others view you, and if not, what do you make of the discrepancy between self-image and how others see you? Do most of the people you choose to spend time with share certain identities with you? For example, if you are white or an athlete, are you in the company of whites or athletes most often? As college is often regarded as a time to experience new ideas and encounters, how can your college years serve as an avenue to make connections with people who are different than you?

Locating ourselves in society and history often yields comparisons and hierarchies between peoples’ experiences. If someone has been raised in a wealthy community, for example, we can begin to understand how various class privileges might have threaded together to create an economic safety net for this person. These experiences of privilege might differ greatly from those of someone who was raised in a working class home, and consequently, inform these two people’s lives and perspectives in distinctive ways. Critically understanding our identity also means being cognizant and reflective of the privileges and power inherent in all of our lives.

Thought Experiment: As you begin to become aware of the range of identities belonging to each of us, are there identities that are privileged over others? For example, think of the societal supports available for men and how these might be different for women. How are particular group identities strengthened and maintained by society, and how are other identities constructed as improper? For instance, heterosexuality is considered the “norm” in most societies, whereas LGBT identities are often charged as “unnatural or deviant.” What happens to these distinctions when we begin to consider the intersection of identities, that is, when a person simultaneously inhabits both identities that are privileged and disadvantaged? For example, an upper-middle class white woman occupies both advantaged (class) and disadvantaged identities (gender).

Avenues for Further Study

American Ethnic Studies
Through the department’s three curricula—African-American Studies, Asian/Pacific American Studies, and Chicano Studies—students learn interdisciplinary, ethnic-specific, and comparative concepts, theories, and methods of inquiry, which shape the cultural, literary, social, historical, economic, and political character of selected communities.
Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies (GWSS)

Women Studies provides a framework for the study of women’s and men’s lives within historical and contemporary contexts and in multi-ethnic and multi-racial contexts. This interdisciplinary department encourages students to understand intellectually the importance of class, race, sexuality, physical ability, and gender to women’s and men’s lives.
American Indian Studies (AIS)

The course work in AIS investigates, celebrates, and researches American Indian knowledge and worldviews offering vital and unique ways of looking at the world. AIS is a multidisciplinary program, with faculty in English, film studies, anthropology, history, political science, sociology, art, and medicine.
The Diversity Minor
The Diversity Minor is an interdisciplinary program that draws on American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, Communications, History, Psychology, Women Studies and other departments to strengthen students’ understandings of critical analyses of diversity—how race, class, gender, disability, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, religion, and age interact to define identities and social relations.
Intergroup Dialogue, Education and Action Center(IDEA)

The Intergroup Dialogue, Education and Action (IDEA) Center was founded in 1996 at the University of Washington School of Social Work. According to the IDEA website, the Center’s aim is to enable “social work educators to prepare competent practitioners who can work with an increasingly diverse clientele and embrace the profession’s social justice mission.” The Center uses intergroup dialogue, “facilitated meetings of students from different social identity groups,” to “engage students in substantive, sustained and conceptually integrated learning experiences.”
People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

The People’s Institute was established in 1980 “to develop more analytical, culturally-rooted and effective community organizers.” The Institute trains community organizers to “do their work with an understanding of history, culture, and the impact of racism on communities.”
To learn more about the UW Common Book program, visit the Common Book website at: