A ? of Group Identity

“Who am I?” – one of the most hopeful and frightening questions we face as individuals. But perhaps there’s one question that even more hopeful and more frightening – “Who are we?”

Understanding the workings of group identity is fraught with both delicious possibility and hideous despair, just ask our major political parties. In group life we rarely have the tools that enable us to understand what happens to our individual identity when we become part of a collective. For instance, one of our most common human responses to problems in group life is to attribute blame to individuals, cleverly absolving the remainder of the group of responsibility. The truth is rarely this straightforward.

With distributed models of leadership becoming more commonplace, the cult of the “I” is shifting, so the importance of understanding and engaging intelligently with issues of group identity are becoming more urgent. There is merit in bringing these issues into our consciousness through practices that encourage people to experience themselves and others in ways that are playful, meaningful and (hopefully) revelatory.

Understanding group identity is not as simple as whipping down to the marketing department, devising a series of feel good values, and placing them on lanyards that people can wear around their neck in order to create the perception of ‘oneness’. That approach has had its day. Many of us are now looking for a greater level of congruence between our individual and group identities in our workplaces. This doesn’t necessarily mean always mean identifying shared values, it’s more about an ability to build tolerances to support a diversity of them.

Anatomy of Judgement

You have to hand it to Jane Elliot, that lady has some chutzpah. In her famous ‘brown eye, blue eye’ experiments, she turns the tables on the dominant white man’s view of the world by showing favour to the ethno-diverse brown-eyed participants while unkindly hammering the blue-eyed ‘whities’. Her techniques may be unorthodox but they lay bare the unpalatable existence of racial discrimination that dominates our world view.

After watching the documentary Anatomy of Prejudice it was hard not to feel a little sorry for her unsuspecting, often hapless, blue-eyed English participants.  It was fascinating to watch their brains implode as they grappled to acknowledge intractably embedded racial story-lines. This was a startling insight into our cultural unconscious at work. That deep-seated conditioning that helps shape the way we operate in world and how we respond to the other, the not me, that we encounter in our daily lives.

At times, it appeared as if the documentary became very dark theatre. You can see why her approach has been highly criticised. It’s like watching a car crash – riveting for all the wrong reasons. As an observer, it sometimes descended into what felt like pure spectacle, a cruel joke that was appealing to the voyeur in us all.

The viewer is given time to reflect on how repellent they find some the participant’s views. At the same time, they can comfort themselves from their armchairs that (as educated people) they know better. While the participants struggle with their own fears of the racial other, the viewer is being confronted by their own judgement of the ignorant other.

It’s the unrelenting and repetitious cycle of judgement that is ultimately the most frightening.