“You Can Keep That”

It’s important for social justice educators to undergo the same work on ourselves that we ask of others. This means being vulnerable. This means taking risks. It means placing ourselves in positions that cause us to critically reflect, and so much more. I was recently involved in an activity that caused me to reflect in a different way.

Social Identity Spectrum Activity

I have used the social identity spectrum activity or “traveling” social identity spectrum activity in my workshops, and in my classrooms as well. It’s a great experiential activity that is helpful towards increasing our understanding of the ways we’re impacted by systems of oppression, as well as how we’re implicated in perpetuating oppression.

Several signs with identity categories are placed around the room like Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation/Attractionality, Religion/Spirituality/Faith/Meaning, Social Class, Age, Body Size/Type, (Dis)Ability, Nation of Origin or Citizenship, and Tribal or Indigenous Affiliation.

A series of questions are posed to participants who would then travel to the identity that best resonates with how they would respond to the question. When I’ve facilitated it, we pause, observe where everyone is, and then open the floor for anyone to share a personal experience about the what or why that led them to that place. Example questions include:

What part of your identity do you think about the least?

What part of your identity do people first notice about you? 

What part of your identity did you struggle the most with growing up?

What part of your identity do you feel gives you the most privilege?

among others. If you haven’t done this activity before, but would like to, let me know.

Important Considerations

It’s important to recognize that the exercise is an opportunity to see where we are at the moment. Some responses may remain similar over time depending on our identities while others may change over time as we gain new awareness and experience, or as our positions change over time.  It’s also important to consider intersectionality here, and I while they travel to an identity that may be most salient to the question, I encourage participants to speak from multiple positions in their sharing.

“You Can Keep That”

Recently however, I experienced this activity as a participant instead of a facilitator. At one point in the activity they asked us a question that I’ve never asked a group before:

“Which of your identities is least important to you?”

I took a quick scan around the room, and I was so surprised by how quickly my eyes went to the identity I picked. Before I knew it I found myself saying out loud: “You Can Keep That.” I moved right over to nation of origin or citizenship and waited for my turn to speak.

It didn’t take me long to answer the question at all. My motivator? My answer?

As we started someone shared “this is the least important to me, because I am the least important to it.” I did the mic drop motion as an affirmation. I acknowledge the immense privilege that comes with being an American citizen. I also acknowledge that all the privilege that comes with it, does not negate my experiences as a Black person in this country who knows the answer to DuBois’ question “How Does It Feel To Be A Problem?”; whose everyday experiences can keep me questioning every interaction, from getting doughnuts to examining larger systems.

For me, I realized that I picked citizenship not because it was not important, but because of all the other identities in the room, I realized that it was the least felt; and is the least felt on a consistent basis because of hypocrisy, because of white supremacy.

I’ll continue to channel my own rage in ways that it does not consume me, and help others channel theirs.

I’ll remain uncomfortable. Malajusted in the ways Dr. King spoke about, and do what I can to make the place more true to what it says on paper.

Until then though, you can keep that.


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones

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I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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2 Responses

  1. I really appreciate this article. Thank you for taking time to always critically self-reflect. I have a professor I much admire and respect right now in my MSW program. Unfortunately, more than once he has seemed blind or ignorant of the oppression he is promoting through silencing students who may disagree with him, instead of taking the time to promote critical reflection. We’re all human, I guess.

    • And thank you for your kind comment. I’m sorry to hear about the silencing you and others are experiencing. One thing I’ve realized over time is that, even professors are on their own journey in the cycle of socialization. It means that even they must continue their own critical self-reflection. It means they must commit to learning new ways and behaviors that are helpful, and unlearning thought processes and behaviors that are harmful. I plan on writing more about that in detail here soon.

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