Module 2. Our Power & Identity


Like racial formation, identity labels and categories are socially constructed by the dominant group. Othering is the process of inventing labels and defining characteristics of people into inferior group categories (Schwalbe et al., 2000). Symbolic language is directly and indirectly used to label and categorize inferior group members who form their own collective identity of belonging.

The dominant group defines the existence of inferior groups by practicing othering in three forms. Oppressive othering occurs when the dominant group seeks advantage by defining a group as morally and/or intellectually inferior (Schwalbe et al., 2000). Race classification schemes are an example of oppressive othering by overtly or subtly asserting racial difference of non-White as a deficit. Implicit othering uses dramaturgical fronts of power where White elites or would-be elites take on or portray powerful self-images and implicitly create inferior others (Schwalbe et al., 2000). Politicians and corporate executives often engage in implicit othering by shaping their public personas and performances to show strength and masculinity. Defensive othering is practiced by individuals seeking belonging into the dominant group or by those wanting to deflect stigma experienced by the inferior or subordinate group (Schwalbe et al., 2000).  This type of othering involves accepting the devalued identity imposed by the dominant group reproducing social inequality. When inferior group members seek safety or advantage by othering those within their own group, the dominant group’s claim to superiority is reinforced by their actions.


diverse group of three men
Image by Armin Rimoldi, Pexels is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Cultural attributes within social networks build community, group loyalty, and personal and social identity. People must learn to develop the social and cultural knowledge they need to belong, garner support, and feel embraced by their community and society at large. A person’s social status or composition dictates one’s admittance into a group or society to access cultural knowledge, information, and skills.

Sociologists find cultural capital or the social assets of a person (including intellect, education, speech pattern, mannerisms, and dress) promote social mobility (Harper-Scott & Samson, 2009). People who accumulate and display the cultural knowledge of a society or the dominant group may earn social acceptance, status, and power. Bourdieau (1991) explained the accumulation and transmission of culture is a social investment from socializing agents including family, peers, and community. People learn culture and cultural characteristics and traits from one another; however, social status effects whether people share, spread, or communicate cultural knowledge to each other. A person’s social status in a group or society influences their ability to access and develop cultural capital.

Cultural capital provides people access to cultural connections such as institutions, individuals, materials, and economic resources (Kennedy, 2012). Status guides people in choosing who and when culture or cultural capital is transferable. Bourdieu (1991) believed cultural inheritance and personal biography attributes to individual success more than intelligence or talent. With status comes access to social and cultural capital that generates access to privileges and power among and between groups. Individuals with cultural capital deficits face social inequalities (Reay, 2004). If someone does not have the cultural knowledge and skills to maneuver the social world they occupy, then they will not find acceptance within a group or society to access support and resources.



Being a person of color in particular African-American, does carry a social imbalance on the ladder to success.   Educated in Middle-class, Catholic schools in the sixties and seventies for my entire first 12 years of school, I had to learn through the years that being Black meant that I was to be seen by others in ways I was unaware of, ways that signified that I was seen differently than my Caucasian counterparts. I really had no idea how true that came to be.

In 1968 I was a high school freshman at one of those aforementioned Parochial schools, and I received my first lesson in ethnic studies from a most unlikely mentor. His name was Father Kieran Cunningham, a White immigrant from Ireland.  One day the two of us were out walking, and he told me of his last days in Ireland and his first moments in the airport after landing in New York. Fr. Kieran mentioned the moment he saw the first Black person in his life that first day in New York, and he related how he couldn’t keep from staring. I could only hope that the person he was eyeballing was unaware of it for both his and Father Kieran’s benefit.

I honestly wasn’t sure where this conversation was going. Then Father Kieran turned to me and said a sentence that has remained with me my entire life. “Daryl, to be a success in life you are going to have to work three times harder than the average White person, do you understand that?”  

“No, I don’t understand that at all,” I thought. As far as I was concerned, why would I have to work harder than the next guy?  But this very wise man was right, and time would prove him out. I have been successful professionally, but at times my expectation bar was higher than others. As a former Air Force officer, I was told by a superior that, in addition to showing leadership to all the 100-plus airmen assigned to me, I was to also show “Black leadership.”  “What was the difference between that and regular leadership?” I thought.

Later on, in my early years as an elementary educator, parents removed their children from my class roster the first day of school when they found out I was Black, and told my principal to support their decision, in not very nice words of reference to me. A student teacher requested to be removed from my supervision the minute she laid eyes on me and realized I was not her race. She refused to be mentored by me. Some of my own students sent racial slurs my way when I corrected them for misbehavior. It was of course unpleasant, but I also wondered why pre-teen kids thought they had license to address their adult teacher in that manner. I was a bit naïve then, even I will admit.

And yes, Fr. Kieran was right, there were certain challenges that, as an African American I experienced that let’s face it—were due to the fact that I am African American. And it remains almost surreal to me that I first heard of this inequity not from a fellow African American, but a wise, well-meaning white immigrant from Ireland.

I don’t know if I have had to work two, three, or four times harder than Caucasians to achieve the same goal, but I will admit with some regret, that part of my success as a professional has been because I have been seen as a “specially gifted African American,” and not simply a gifted man, period. And as long as one needs to stand out from within an ethnic group, that individual will always begin from a starting point of deficit.

Do you think Fr. Kieran had a right to tell the writer what he told him? Did it help the writer, or maybe cause more harm? Do you believe that minorities really have to work harder than whites, in the same situation? Have you felt that you were seen as a “special” member of your demographic group, that deserved more than the “average” member of your group?

This story “One Times Three Equals One” by Daryl Johnson is licensed under CC BY NC ND 4.0

Obtaining social and cultural acceptance for people of color in the U.S. often results in mental and emotional injury from living in a system of White supremacy where historically racists ideas, norms, and practices have been passed down through generations. On a daily basis, people of color face racial bias, microaggressions, ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. This racial trauma or race-based traumatic stress (RBTS) lead to symptoms like those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as depression, anger, reoccurring thoughts related to a traumatic event, physical ailments, hypervigilance, low self-esteem, and psychological distancing from traumatic events (Mental Health America, 2021).




To access how identities inform our experiences, values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors to understand diversity and make connections with others.


 The primary dimensions of identity including age, race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual identity, social class, and religion serve as core elements and shape our self-image and perspective. They help form our core expectations of others in our personal and professional life. The secondary dimensions of identify including education, income, beliefs, relationship/parental status, geographic location, and work experience serve as independent influences on our self-esteem and self-definition. This influence varies with who we are, our stage of life, and changes we have experienced. These dimensions of identity affect the way we view and interact with the world, but we rarely take time to carefully examine them. When we tell our own story, we have a powerful sense of agency. Too often, however, the stories we hear about others are not individual stories, but rather dominant stereotypes that subtly shape our ideas about groups of people. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Please watch The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As you watch this video think about the ways you diminish some people to a single story. Think of five dimensions that highlight your identity. Review the primary and secondary dimensions above for ideas.

  1. Write a story about who you are that reflects the dimensions you identified.
  2. Describe which identities are the least comfortable for you to share with others.
  3. Discuss the identities you are most conscious or mindful about and explain why.
  4. Analyze what your responses to items # 1 thru 3 mean to you.
  5. Reflect and explain how the information you learned about in this exercise impacts you, your social interactions, and relationships with others.


Ellis Cose (1993) illuminated the experiences of successful African Americans in their struggle with issues of racial fairness. His work documents the anger and pain associated with those who pursued and obtained the American dream. Regardless of how similar backgrounds and personal attributes align, Blacks and Whites live fundamentally different lives (Cose, 1993). Middle-class Blacks have been labeled a model minority or law-abiding productive citizens, but they have not garnered the same socio-economic respect and treatment as middle-class Whites. For model minorities, success does not carry the same social meaning or equal the same life experiences and opportunities as Whites.

African Americans continue to face the burdens of racial discrimination regardless of social status and wealth. The most common issues experienced by people of color in achieving social and economic success are the inability to fit in, lack of respect, low expectations, faint praise, maintaining true racial-ethnic identity, self-censorship on sensitive race topics not to upset Whites, collective guilt for lack of achievement of those within our own race, and exclusion from the dominant or ruling class group (Cose, 1993). The experiences of being a model minority show people of color must acculturate and develop cultural capital for social mobility and success but still face discrepancies in earning recognition and achievement in comparison to Whites.




To analyze and evaluate the influence of socio-cultural identity and experiences on quality of life.


  1. Research You-Tube user-created videos on privilege and life chances such as the following:
  2. Complete the Test Your Life Chances exercise and answer the following questions:
    1. What barriers or issues are you able to identify with after completing the exercise?
    2. What advantages or opportunities are you able to distinguish about yourself?
    3. Were there any statements you found more difficult or easier to answer? Explain.
    4. Were there any challenges or obstacles that you have faced that are missing in the exercise? Explain.
    5. Were there any life privileges you have experienced that are missing in the exercise? If so, explain.
    6. Did you answer untruthfully on any of the statements? If you are comfortable sharing, explain which one(s)? Why did you not answer truthfully?
    7. How do barriers and opportunities influence people’s lives? What connections do you see among success and identity (i.e., racial-ethnic, gender, class, disability, language, and sexuality)?


Kennedy, V. (2018). Beyond race: Cultural influences on human social life. West Hills College Lemoore.


There are four distinct ways inferior groups or people of color adapt to inequality. One way is trading power for patronage or simply stated accepting it for recompense. This method gains compensatory benefits from relationships with dominant group members by accepting their demeaning and disempowering practices in exchange for approval, protection, compensation, or autonomy from close supervision and control (Schwalbe et al., 2000).

People who share inferior status sometimes collaborate to create alternative subcultures outside the fringes of mainstream or dominant culture including the urban drug trade. Schwalbe et al. (2000) found alternative subcultures to be simultaneously subversive and reproductive of inequality by creating their own hierarchies, forms of power, and ways to earn a living. A problem with seeking success outside of the mainstream is the conflict generated with the dominant group making success economically, politically, and psychologically tenuous.

Some inferior group’s members adapt or survive inequality by hustling or exploiting the vulnerable such as the jobless, elderly, uneducated, and addicted (Schwalbe et al., 2000). Other people of color respond to inequality by dropping out of mainstream society such as the homeless. Research shows inferior groups and people of color undergo a variety of strategies to cope with the deprivations of othering, racial trauma, and inequality.



The role of being a single mother has moments of pride. Pride in knowing that I worked hard in providing a loving, safe, and faith filled environment for my children. It also has its moments of insecurities.  Insecurities of being seen as having a life that statistically suggests that I’m broke and unhappy.

Why would I feel so insecure about this subject? I am a strong, proud, Latin/African American woman that feels confident in the roles that I embody. The uneasiness is directly related to the overwhelming feeling I get when discussions about roles of women in communities of color come up. I read data that points to single motherhood as the culprit for delinquency of children and ultimately their life of crime. Being a single mother of color often comes with treatment that is less than respectful with a stigma that pins us as “contributing to the degradation of society.”

I contribute to society. I have never been on welfare as an adult. I was not going to be a statistic, and I was going to provide the best life possible for my children. I have been gainfully employed my entire adult life and sometimes have worked two full time jobs. I am educated, pay taxes, care for my children, volunteer my time for my church, and sit on the board of a local non-profit drug treatment program, while being a single mother. I didn’t choose the life of being a single parent; somehow it feels like it chose me.

The insecurity of being a woman of color who is a single mom fueled me to lean in and make sure that my sons had a parent that was visible. There were so many times that I was dealing with coaches that did not extend the same respect and consideration to me and my child as they did to the athletes who had fathers present.

I think of the dichotomy in the way single fathers are embraced. They experience hero status when they announce that they are single dads who have primary custody of children. When asked by other parents at sporting events or performances, “You’re a single mom?” I answer, “Yes.” Then there is a drag that I feel in my chest as if though I’m a victim in some way, and my life is incomplete.

The truth is my family and I have a beautiful life. Single motherhood is not the culprit.

This story “Single Mother Gets a Bad Rap” by Guadalupe Capozzi is licensed under CC BY NC ND 4.0


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer Copyright © 2022 by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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