Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Complexity of Identity

The Complexity of Identity

When people fail to understand the complexity of their identity, they tend to disregard their intersecting similarities, and, in essence, miss sharing the emotional experience that comes from oppression related to gender issues, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status (Laureate Education, Inc., n.d.).

When counselors (or anyone) perceives individuals as a complex composition of identities, the variety of characteristics opens up new inroads by which to relate to others. For example, when an Asian student cannot relate to a Black student, they may develop a relationship based on the fact they are both women, or that they came from a similar socioeconomic class (Laureate Education, Inc., n.d.). As they establish a relationship based on similar characteristics of their identities, it may be easier to later discuss racial issues.

This may be equally true in the counseling environment. If a counselor embarks on a new relationship with a client who is racially different, it may be important to establish similarities by which the two can relate to each other. For example, if a White client visits a Black counselor, the client may believe nothing common exists between them. This case could also be reversed and the Black counselor feels separate from the White client. If they determine similarities in other aspects of their identity, this may be a way to break through apparent differences.

LaFramboise (Laureate Education, Inc., n.d.) mentions that these similarities can also be helpful between racial groups. When individuals in a racial group become aware of the complexity of identity, they can begin to become aware of intersections whereby they have similarities. These similarities create a sense of camaraderie even though their race is different. LaFramboise (Laureate Education, n.d.) suggests this phenomenon (of finding similarities) has a somewhat disarming affect that puts people on the same team. Parham (Laureate Education, Inc., n.d.) believes racial differences may be the hardest aspect of identity to discuss - feelings and emotions can escalate quickly. If people can establish a position which places them on the same side, or the same team, so to speak, they can easier learn to discuss and understand the racial differences in a less threatening way.

Establishing similarity creates a safe zone wherein individuals from diverse identity characteristics can come together as comrades to understand the painful and emotional issues related to their differences. Basically, if we can start from a place where we understand each other, it may be easier to use that position as a starting point for a discussion of our differences.

The best way to utilize information about cultural groups when counseling an individual with multiple identities is to use the information to find intersections that overlap with each aspect of identity. Determining positive aspects of each identity gives a client a broader, perhaps softer identity for matters of self-perception as well as for relating to others.

For example, I am not just White. I am a woman, a mother, a daughter, a student, a family member, a good friend, a resident of Hawaii, a spiritual person, an advocate for dying patients, an activist on several issues, and a volunteer. So, even if someone may feel different from me because I am White, they may relate to me as an advocate. The more dimensional description lets others see me as a friend rather than an adversary. It also lets me see myself as a multi-dimensional person, not simply a static statistic. As each person acknowledges their complex identity, they will find more places by which they may intersect with others. This concept is as important for counselors as it is for all people (Sue & Sue, 2007).


Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (n. d.). The Intersection of Multiple Identities [Streaming Video]. Baltimore: Author.

Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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