Group Identity and Assimilation

During a discussion about social identity theory, someone asked how race functioned as an identity. Social belief structure is defined by Hogg as, “people’s beliefs about the nature of intergroup relations and their assessment of the validity and effectiveness of different strategies to achieve or maintain positive intergroup distinctiveness,” meaning there is an emphasis on maintaining a group identity that is distinct from other groups, creating a clear “us” “them” dynamic. The five components of social identity theory—group’s social status, stability, legitimacy, permeability, and achievability—are all crucial in maintaining the structures of race and racism.

This past week, someone provided an example of how racial identity is created; a student described how a Black, male professor and his son were treated based on how they dressed. The professor, who was dressed in business casual, was treated similarly to other white patrons in the dinning room. Despite having no dress code, his son was treated rudely by the staff for wearing athletic shorts. The question of assimilation was brought up: would dressing in a way that was consistent with what the dominant culture saw as acceptable grant an individual group membership?

I don’t think it’s as simple as assimilation; the reason why racism is so insidious is because our culture relies on a racial binary, where there is an “us vs. them” mentality. The structure of racism is dependent on a social status and a racial hierarchy, which is maintained by emphasizing and solidifying the identity of the in-group and creating a clear distinction from out-groups. There seems to be little movement and permeability, as race—although socially constructed—is supposed to be determined physically, which makes it difficult to transcend a group.

Even if assimilation were possible, there is something profoundly wrong with this strategy. In essence, the social belief structure tells individuals their cultural values and experiences are unvalued; consequently, they must reject their identity and adopt the values of the dominant group in order to have access to equal resources and opportunities. In my Multicultural Psychology class, we learned that individuals who assimilate have higher rates of depression and drug abuse. In fact, Mossakowski (2003) suggests that an ethnic identity may serve as a buffer for discrimination and mental health. If the social identity of race is both impermeable and influential to our lives, how do we challenge the “us vs. them” dynamic? How can we best convey to others that wanting individuals to conform to the dominant group’s values is problematic and destructive?

Mossakowski’s article: