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What are social identities and what is intersectionality?

A social identity is a part of our identities that stem from our memberships in particular social groups. There are many social identities, such as race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, and religion. As social beings, we tend to hold multiple social identities, which impact both how we view the world and how the world views us. Intersectionality, then, is the result of overlapping social identities that interact with systems of power and lead to the advancement and oppression of those who hold different social identities. When people hold various, marginalized social identities that intersect, they are less likely to experience social advancements, such as career opportunities and privilege, and are more likely to experience social oppressions, such as structural racism and health inequities. However, the opposite is true for individuals who hold multiple privileged social identities. By understanding the social identities we hold, we can begin understanding our worldview and to begin building empathy towards others who hold different social identities. 

How do our social identities come up in our day-to-day lives?

We all hold multiple social identities, some of them may be more salient than others, and the salience of each our identities may fluctuate depending on our environment and whom we’re with. It’s common for people, especially those who hold marginalized social identities, to feel safer among similar groups of people. When we are with our friends, we may not notice things that may feel more proximal to us in the workplace. For instance, people of color may not experience the same insecurities that are salient at work because of their race when they are with family or with friends. Alternatively, it is common for women to feel safer when they are around a group of other women as opposed to being around a group of men. Our identities are inherently social and are dependent on place and time. When we are able to identify our various social identities and the ways they intersect, we are better able to understand when and why they become triggered. 

How do our social identities come up in therapy?

It’s common for our social identities to “come up” differently depending on our environment. If you are or were in therapy, chances are your social identities have come up. Just like any other relationship we have, our relationships with therapists will elicit different feelings and will trigger our identities differently. The way our social identities interact with our therapist’s can be a critical component for the therapeutic alliance (how connected we feel with our therapist). Our social identities can facilitate rapport with our therapist and can cause us to feel safe and validated; however, depending on our experiences and the therapist’s cultural competency, this can also be a hindrance to therapy and the therapeutic alliance. For instance, a woman might find it easier to engage in therapy with a female therapist than with a male therapist because having a male therapist may elicit power dynamics that are ingrained within the larger community. It’s important to understand our social identities and the factors that may trigger various emotions that can advance or disrupt the therapeutic process so that we can be more aware of how our identities “come up” in a therapy session. 

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.