Dimensions of Personal Identity in the Workplace
In a training video I used many years ago, an African American man told a group of other men:
When I look into the mirror I see my black face. I cannot change this; this is who I am and I go to the workplace every day with this black face. So, often, people cannot see beyond it.
The man was stating the obvious about his physical appearance, but also pointing out that people may not get to know him more fully if they have immediate thoughts and emotions about his appearance. In fact, this is a reality that many individuals experience in the workplace. In the model below, Dimensions of Personal Identity (Arredondo, 2017; Arredondo & Glauner, 1992), I propose intersecting dimensions of identity. While the ‘A’ dimensions are the more visible, dimensions ‘B’ and ‘C’ are more invisible, yet very much part of an individual.
The ‘A’ Dimensions of Identity: Visible
Many of us believe we can see another’s gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and even age, and automatically make assessments. This is stereotyping, a very common practice. Stereotypes are not always accurate, however, and sometimes we are wrong in our assessments based on a visible identity characteristic. Being wrong can contribute to errors in judgments with negative prejudicial outcomes. It is also possible to view ‘A’ Dimensions positively because an individual has a familiar “look” or their accent connotes prestige (a British accent, perhaps). For example, if I see another woman at work with a certain Latinx-sounding surname, I might want to get to know her because we may have some commonalities. In short, the ‘A’ Dimensions may lead to assumptions and biases, both negative and positive, but they are part of our workplace realities.
The ‘B’ Dimensions of Identity: Not always Visible
In any given workplace, you may find individuals with different geographic origins, religions, educational backgrounds, recreational interests, family statuses, healthcare practices, and citizenship statuses. First impressions or physical appearances might not reveal any of these ‘B’ dimensions, but they are an integral part of a person’s total being. This is important because impressions formed based on ‘A’ dimensions may overlook the fact that two people in the same department went to the same university or grew up 20 miles apart in Chicago. Religious affiliation, another integral part of a person’s identity, is not always visible. Yet an errant critical statement about a religious group can be hurtful and disruptive in the workplace.
The ‘C’ Dimensions of Identity:
Historical Moments/Eras—Invisible Formative Forces
The Great Depression, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Recession of 2008, and September 11, are historical moments or eras that we may or may not have lived through but still affect us. Perhaps our families experienced job or home losses in 2008, new opportunities for college admission as a result of civil rights’ legislation or we learned to live frugally as a child of Depression-era parents. These histories affected our formative years, our careers, and even lives of family members. Other historical moments that shape our lives could be more personal such as a physical disability because of an accident or moving across global borders as an immigrant child. Natural disasters and wars are also occurrences with impact on people’s lives. Families are still recovering from the devastating hurricanes of 2017 and 2018. Whether the formative forces in our lives shaped an entire generation or shaped us individually, we carry the results with us. In diversity training, I invite participants to consider how an historical moment may have had differing impacts based on age, gender, or race. No two stories are ever alike. The 2008 Recession, for example, may have affected women and men, or the young and old, in very different ways.
Many work sites continue to focus on diversity training. The Arredondo Advisory Group first engages participants by helping them recognize their own dimensions of personal identity, including which dimensions matter the most. These newfound realizations can then facilitate an appreciation for others’ priority identity dimensions, opening the door to new discussions. I encourage you to explore one of the ‘B’ dimensions, say “hobbies and recreation activities,” with your employees and see what emerges in your department. Perhaps there can be conversations about an historical moment to identify an event that had an impact on one’s career direction. This kind of learning can benefit workplace relationships, teamwork, and productivity in general.
Arredondo, P. (2017). Dimensions of personal identity (Revised). Phoenix: Arredondo Advisory Group.
Arredondo, P. & Glauner, T. (1992). Boston: Empowerment Workshops.