Social Identities and Success

This blog is part of a series addressing issues further explored in GSA’s Pardee Session Women Rising: Removing Barriers and Achieving Parity in the Geosciences.  Attend the Women Rising session, 1:30 – 5:30 p.m., Monday, November 5, Sagamore Ballroom 5, Indianapolis Convention Center (ICC), Indianapolis, followed by a networking social, 5:30 – 7:00 p.m.​

by Tahlia Bear, GSA Diversity and Career Officer

When I was approached to write an article on the intersection of race, gender, and being a first-generation student (meaning the first in my immediate family to attend college) I had to take a step back and think about what the real connection was. Luckily this summer I had the opportunity to to attend a National Science Foundation sponsored training through the Hearts of GOLD (Geo Opportunities for Leadership in Diversity) initiative. This specific project aims to identify leaders in the geosciences who are advocates of diversity but have not had formal training in this area. Over the course of this two-day training training our group of professionals and geoscientists explored topics such as privilege, implicit bias, stereotype threat, microaggressions, and culturally inclusive leadership through our own experiences. What I discovered there I realized I knew all along, that my social identities were critical to my personal, academic, and career experiences.

I knew from an early age I wanted to study science, but my first year at the University of Colorado at Boulder was challenging. I did not yet understand how to succeed at the college level. I didn’t have a mentor or other support mechanisms to help me along the way, and felt pressure from my college advisor to graduate in four years. For these reasons I decided that I couldn’t do science anymore and switched to the social sciences. I do regret that I didn’t have the grit to continue in science but at that time it felt as though science was meant to weed out those who didn’t have the will to continue as a way to keep its elitism real.

The reason I was able to succeed in the social sciences and receive my undergraduate degree and eventually go on to obtain my master’s degree was because I realized that in order to succeed I needed to study in a subject that allowed me to weave in opportunities that aligned to my strongest social identity as an American Indian. If I was allowed to research and work with marginalized groups, who had shared experiences I knew this would propel me to succeed with the understanding that I would be helping communities like my own someday. This is an example of how powerful social identities played into my own life goals.

I am not unlike anyone else, we all have multiple social identities that we belong to. Some of the more common social identities that come to mind may be gender, race/ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, national origin, and disability status. But we also belong to other social groups, some of which we may not consider at first glance such as immigration status, geographic region, family status (single parent, foster, etc.), parental status (no children, unmarried, LBGTQ parent, etc.), and educational attainment. We may associate more strongly with some of these identities and others not as much; some we are born into and cannot alter in our lifetime, and some are visible to others while others may not be.

Recognizing our social identities is important because they are tied either to privilege or marginalization. In our society each social identity has a number of subgroupings but there is one group that is considered “the norm” by societal standards. That group therefore receives a type of advantage in the system, while the other subgroups are at a disadvantage. This may be referred to as privilege and marginalization but I’ve also heard it described as dominant and subordinate groups. The key factor is that those belonging to a privileged or dominant group have greater access to power and resources, and operate in a system that is built just for them. On the other hand, belonging to a marginalized or subordinate group presents more obstacles to overcome because there is less power and fewer resources to share. I learned a bit about this as it applied to how the education system is built on the foundations of Germanic ways of learning and teaching – in hindsight, so completely different from my own roots of indigenous knowing and learning.

As I moved through my academics I learned that participation in professional associations that appealed to one of my social identities was critical to my success. In those communities I found others who shared interests and who came from backgrounds like myself. It was a place where I could let down my guard and be myself. Finding my community was good for me and may be for you as well. Consider exploring professional associations that will help you professionally but also celebrate your identities. Attend the GSA Annual Meeting but also experience the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), or the National Association of Black Geoscientists (NABG). Even if you do not identify with one of these ethnic/racial groups maybe your peers or the students you work with do and this might help you understand where they are coming from and the role that social identity plays in their lives.

Also, if you are attending the GSA Annual Meeting this year in Indianapolis, consider attending some of the events below that celebrate one or more of your social identities, in addition to attending the Women Rising: Removing Barriers and Achieving Parity in the Geosciences session:

  • Women in Geology Reception, Sunday, 4 November, 5:30-7 p.m., ICC, Mentoring Center, Rooms 206/207.
  • Diversity in the Geosciences and On To the Future Alumni Reception, Tuesday, 6 November, 5:30-7 p.m., ICC, Room 211.
  • LBGTQ Social, Tuesday, 6 November, 7:30-11 p.m.. Yard House.

Photo of author Tahlia BearTahlia Bear is the Diversity and Career Officer at the Geological Society of America. Tahlia is responsible for GSA’s career and diversity initiatives, including the development and operation of strategies that strengthen opportunities for participation of underrepresented minorities in the geosciences. She also works to enhance career opportunities and career skills of GSA members, with an emphasis on students and young professionals, and to raise awareness of opportunities for careers in all areas of the geosciences. Tahlia has a Master’s degree in Education and Human Development from the George Washington University and a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from University of Colorado, Boulder. She has worked for non-profit STEM organizations with tribal nations, K-12 teachers, faculty, and youth for over 10 years.

References

Goodman, D., (2010). Helping Student Explore Their Privileged Identities. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Spring 2010, Vol. 13, No. 2. Retrieved August 24, 2018 from: https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/helping-students-explore-their-privileged-identities

McIntosh, P. (1989). “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” first appeared in Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp. 10-12, a publication of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Philadelphia, PA. Retrieved August 24, 2018 from: http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf

University of Arizona, Social Justice – Privilege and Oppression online module. Retrieved August 24, 2018 from: https://career.arizona.edu/sites/career.arizona.edu/files/social_justice/story_html5.html

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