3 Chapter 3 – Identity and Intercultural Communication

 Chapter 3 – Cultural Identity Formation

“Cause you were born to make this right. Cause you were born to change this life. Cause you were born to chase the flight. Cause you were born.”

“You Were Born” Lyrics – Cloud Cult

woman looking up to the ksyIdentity: “Who am I?”

Like the Cloud Cult lyrics noted above, one often wonders why they were born and into whom they will develop. While the song lyrics seem confident that there is a purpose, it is a conversation open for discussion. Samovar et al. (2017) remark that we are “born into this world without a sense of self.” Moreover, quoting Julia Wood, ‘Self is not innate, but is acquired in the process of communication with others.’ With this declaration, Wood argues that “through contact with others, information accumulates, helping to define who you are, where you belong, and where your loyalties rest.” Hence, Identity is multi-dimensional given that an individual has numerous identities ranging from “… concepts of self, emotional ties to family, attitudes toward gender, to beliefs about one’s culture. Regardless of the Identity in question, notions regarding all your identities have evolved during the course of interaction with others” (p. 27).

This chapter includes three sections and is primarily integrated, with Creative Commons licensing permission, directly and with adaptation, from Communication in the Real World (2016). We have updated this University of MN free open education publication by adding and integrating into Chapter Three case studies and current events. TED Talks, past and present student stories, and trending Tic Tock influencers.

While reading, consider how to adapt and update the chapter for future classes. Please email lori.halverson-wente@rctc.edu or add comments to the course discussion.


a small world model on someone's outstretched handChapter Three Learning Outcomes

  • Review the definition of culture
  • Define personal, social, and cultural identities
  • Summarize nondominant and dominant identity development from a variety of perspectives
  • Explain why difference matters in the study of culture and identity
  • List the “Dimensions of Difference”
  • Understand Intersectionality
  • Review the difference between ascribed and avowed identities
  • Apply identity formation to current case studies


As we have seen in the first two chapters, starting with definitions of terms provides a grounding for any topic of discussion. Culture, a particularly complex concept, is defined as an:

ongoing negotiation of learned and patterned beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors. Unpacking the definition, we can see that culture shouldn’t be conceptualized as stable and unchanging.” Moreover, “Culture is ‘negotiated,’ …culture is dynamic, and cultural changes can be traced and analyzed to better understand why our society is the way it is. The definition also points out that culture is learned, which accounts for the importance of socializing institutions like family, school, peers, and the media. Culture is patterned in that there are recognizable widespread similarities among people within a cultural group. There is also deviation from and resistance to those patterns by individuals and subgroups within a culture, which is why cultural patterns change over time. Last, the definition acknowledges that culture influences our beliefs about what is true and false, our attitudes including our likes and dislikes, our values regarding what is right and wrong, and our behaviors.” These aspects and characteristics of culture form our identities. (Communication in the Real World, 2016).

Personal, Social, and Cultural Identities

We have asked, “Who am I?” and included definitions and terms of Intercultural Communication. Chapter One previewed topics giving one a more grounded understanding of the many considerations of how communication, through a process influenced by and embedded in one’s culture, shapes and forms our self and identity (“Who am I?”). Chapter Two examined theoretical understandings of intercultural communication and deep culture's impact culture on our communication. Chapter Three narrows the focus to details impacting one’s identity formation. This chapter will consider stories of individuals from our local area to understand how culture continues to understand, “Who am I?”

Now, the notion of one’s identity is three-fold: personal, social, and cultural. Identities are fluid, not constant. The dynamic nature of communication influences identity formation “through processes that started before we were born and will continue after we are gone; therefore, our identities are not something we achieve or complete. Two related but distinct components of our identities are our personal and social identities (Spreckels, J. & Kotthoff, H., 2009). Personal identities include the components of self that are primarily intrapersonal and connected to our life experiences.” Table 3.1 provides examples of these three types of identities and reflects students’ replies to the question “how do you identify?” from an online class discussion board.

Personal, Social, and Cultural Identities Adapted from our Online Discussion One




Gardener Member of MN Extension Master Gardeners Finnish American
Student RCTC Liberal Arts Club African-American woman in America
Athlete Hockey Team Member German American millennial
Foodie Church Member Hmong Christian woman
Traveler French Club First Generation American
Gamer RCTC LGBTQ+ Club Member Nonbinary

The authors of Communication in the Real World explain:

“Personal identities may change often as people have new experiences and develop new interests and hobbies…Cultural identites are based on socially constructed categories that teach us a way of being and include expectations for social behavior or ways of acting (Yep, G. A., 2002). Since we are often a part of them since birth, cultural identities are the least changeable of the three. The ways of being and the social expectations for behavior within cultural identities do change over time, but what separates them from most social identities is their historical roots (Collier, M. J., 1996)… Additionally, common ways of being and acting within a cultural identity group are expressed through communication. In order to be accepted as a member of a cultural group, members must be acculturated, essentially learning and using a code that other group members will be able to recognize. We are acculturated into our various cultural identities in obvious and less obvious ways. We may literally have a parent or friend tell us what it means to be a man or a woman [as well as, have parents and friends tell us about what it means to be binary or non-binary, , gender fluid, gender nonconforming, or to identify as transgender]. We may also unconsciously consume messages from popular culture that offer representations of gender" (2016).

Most simply defined, gender, "refers to the cultural, social, and psychological meanings that are associated with masculinity and femininity" (Worthy, Lavigne, & Romero, 2022).

Family Influence on Identity

Historically, families  have often been described as extended and nuclear. Nuclear families are generally defined as a core unit of parents and children living in a dwelling. Extended families include other relations and generations in addition to the nuclear family. Along with married parents and their offspring, there might be the parents' parents, siblings of the spouses and children, and in-laws. In most extended families, all the family members live in one house or homes close to one another, forming one cooperative unit. Samovar et al. (2017) share that "...families help with functions as specific as reproductive fun, economic, socialization, and identity functions." Today, numerous variations of the family have emerged.

Within cultures, the unit of the family contributes significantly to the formation of personal identity. Samovar et al. (2017) explain:

One of the most important responsibilities of any culture is to assist its members in forming their identities. You are not born with an identity, but through countless interactions  you discover who you are, how you fit in, and where to find security...

While there is no simple answer to just what a family is, a definition advanced by Lamanna and Riedman is helpful: 'A family is any sexually expressive or parent-child or other kin relationship in which peopleusually related by ancestry, marriage, or adoption(1) form an economic unit and care for any young, (2) consider their identity to be significantly attached to the group, and (3) commit to maintaining that group over time.' We like the Lamanna and Riedman definition because it is broad enough to include most types of family configurations found all over the world. That is to say, their definition is descriptive and non-ethnocentric (pp. 63-65).

The case study below illustrates these functions of the family in Kao Kalia Yang's life. 

Case Study One  - Identity Formation and the Influence of Deep Culture

To apply the information above, consider Minnesota writer Kao Kalila Yang. In the TED Talk below (filmed before she received many awards), her story weaves her many identities into the narrative. When watching, think about how she shares the many different parts of her life where others attempted to define her and how she has come to know her true self/identity despite the definition from others. The notion of deep culture and the cultural iceberg discussed in Chapter Two help explain the complexity of Identity Formation. Kao Kalia's extended family, notation of spirituality/religion, and government/social structures from both her country of origin and the United States deeply influenced her life choices and life experiences. Find more information about Hmong Culture in the last third of the class (or by linking here.)  Further, we will return to Kao Kalia's life story in Chapter Four with an interview between Cindy (a past student) and Kao Kalia Yang. At the end of this chapter, we embed many other stories related to identity formation for consideration.

Learning about Personal, Social, and Cultural Identity through Stories

Who is Kao Kalia Yang?

“Kao Kalia Yang came to America after spending the first six years of her life in Hmong refugee camps in Thailand. Her family’s story is one of love, life, and a deadly war – one rarely taught in history classes. Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong-American writer. Born in the refugee camps of Thailand to a family that had fled the aftermath of America’s Secret War in Laos, she came to America at age six. Kao Kalia is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University’s MFA Program. Her books include National Endowment for the Arts Big Read title The Latehomecomer and The Song Poet, which will be the first Hmong story adapted into an opera by the Minnesota Opera in the spring of 2021. Yang’s first picture book A Map Into the World and an edited collection What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Native Women and Women of Color were published in fall of 2019. In spring of 2020, a second children’s book The Shared Room and a collective memoir of refugee stories Somewhere in the Unknown World will be published. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community” (TEDTalk Description).

Since she filmed this TED talk, Ms. Yang has won many awards and has touched the lives of countless others. In her story, notice that her identity shifts from seeing herself as an "Aspiring Doctor" to an "Author." She shares her social identities of being a "grade school student," "a Carleton College Student," and a "New Minnesotan." Finally, she also deeply shares her cultural identity as a "Hmong American."

An early video of her residency work shows the importance of teaching children, especially refugee and first-generation American children, that they can be writers.

In 2022, Kao Kalia Yang served as Rochester Community and Technical College's Keynote Speaker for the "Common Read." During her talk, she shared why she wrote one of her books for children, The Shared Room." (Covered in a beautiful Minnesota Public Radio article - take time to follow the links about Ms. Yang's work. It is well worth your time).


Kao Kalia Yang's book offers a story that is universal - loss and grief. Her illustrations and unique cultural imagery offer a story to commemorate the tragic loss of a Minnesota child - one who is from a Hmong family. A personal interview that Lori and Cindy Thao conducted reveals more details about the importance of cultural representation. Books help children understand the many hard losses in life. When Cindy interviewed Kao Kalia, Cindy remarked, "If only there had been any books or classes that talked about Hmong culture." She shared how she was constantly asked if she was from China. Cindy remembers reading about Hmong Culture only once, and it was less than a paragraph. For those who want to learn more about the Hmong culture highlighted at the end of this ebook, feel free to jump ahead and explore the rich resources integrated into this OER textbook.

In considering this case study, a key term, dominant culture must be first defined. Samovar, et. al. (2013) defines dominant culture as:

Referring to a group of people as a culture…applying the term to the dominant culture found in most societies. In the United States, a variety of terms have been coined to represent this group, such as umbrella culture, mainstream culture, U.S. Americans, and Euro-Americans. We prefer to use dominant culture because it clearly indicates that the group we are referring to generally exercises the greatest influence on the beliefs, values, perceptions, communication patterns, and customs of the culture. A dominant group is characteristic of all cultures, and this collective of people possesses those instruments of power that allow it to set the broad societal agenda the majority of others will commonly follow. The power we are referring to does not necessarily reside in numerical dominance but in the ability to control the major institutions within the culture — governmental, educational, mass media, economic, military, religious, and the like. What a dominant cultural group uses as the basis of power (money, fear, the military, and such) may differ from culture to culture, but in every case, the group determines the political, economic, and social agenda. Regardless of the source of power, certain people within every culture possess and exercise disproportionate influence, and that influence is translated into how other members of the culture shape their lives (pp. 8-9).

The books Kao Kailia Yang offers the world are not just about Hmong culture; they offer insight into the concepts of Chapter Two's theoretical understanding of intercultural communication. In her TED talk, Kao Kailia notes the tension of living between collectivist and individualistic cultures, the dynamics between the dominant culture and co-culture, and her family's long-term orientation in a new country characterized by short-term orientation. Her cultural identity embedded in her work opens shared feelings of sorrow and joy, community and isolation - yet personalizes these shared human feelings in a culture mostly underrepresented and without a voice in the dominant culture.

This 7-minute video shows the power of mentorship in Kao Kalia Yang's Writing Workshop.

More about Kao Kalia Yang:

Kao Kalia Yang generously provided many video interviews during the pandemic (and before). We will return to this Minnesota award-winning author in future chapters, such as Chapter four on Perception. Visit some of the links below to understand Kao Kalia's work better.

Case Study Two - Gender Identity and the Influence of the "State"

The case study above illustrates deep culture's influence on identity formation, with a focus on the family's role. How we understand, talk about, and even legislate education about identity formation impacts the external perception of someone's identity and how one feels about it. Micahel, a former Communication major at Rochester Community and Technical College, shares his story in this brief video he created a few years ago. After watching his story, we will consider current laws surrounding his identity to explore the role the "state" can play in identity and identity formation, education, and socialization.


Later in this chapter (as well as later in the "Guest Speaker" sections of the textbook), detailed case studies will address various identity-related topics, including gender identity. One current example of how  "identity" is a process that shifts and changes, includes gender and how messages of gender identity, human sexuality, and more visible gender expression are publicly discussed, debated, and legislated.

The formation of gender identity has long been discussed. Over the past year, "state" or government regulation of public education about gender identity has received much attention. For more information about the research surrounding Americans' complex views on gender identity and transgender Issues, see Pew Research Center's June 28, 2022 article:

As the United States addresses issues of transgender rights and the broader landscape around gender identity continues to shift, the American public holds a complex set of views around these issues, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Roughly eight-in-ten U.S. adults say there is at least some discrimination against transgender people in our society, and a majority favor laws that would protect transgender individuals from discrimination in jobs, housing and public spaces. At the same time, 60% say a person’s gender is determined by their sex assigned at birth, up from 56% in 2021 and 54% in 2017

When it comes to issues surrounding gender identity, young adults are at the leading edge of change and acceptance. Half of adults ages 18 to 29 say someone can be a man or a woman even if that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. This compares with about four-in-ten of those ages 30 to 49 and about a third of those 50 and older. Adults younger than 30 are also more likely than older adults to say society hasn’t gone far enough in accepting people who are transgender (47% vs. 39% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 31% of those 50 and older) (Pew Research Center, 2022).

Laws such as 2022  Florida's CS/CS/HB 1557 titled "Parental Rights in Education" (and often referred to the the "Don't Say Gay" Bill)  have recently received attention as they regulate how public schools discuss how sexuality and gender identity formation. Below is a short "case study" about this very topic.

Case Study - "Parental Rights in Education" or "Don't Say Gay" Bill

PBS.org reported, on August 15, 2022:

"TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Some Florida schools have moved library books and debated changing textbooks in response to a law critics call “Don’t Say Gay” — and some teachers have worried that family pictures on their desks could get them in trouble.

As students return from summer break, educators are cautiously adjusting and waiting to see how the new law governing lessons on gender and sexual orientation will be interpreted and enforced.

The new law, championed by Florida’s GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade as well as material that is not deemed age-appropriate. Most educators do not expect a major change in lesson plans — one of the key reasons critics cited in saying the law was unnecessary was that teachers do not cover such subjects in early grades anyway.

But some worry it sets a tone that will leave LGBTQ teachers and kids feeling ostracized.

“The messaging of this law is horrible. It’s toxic, it’s discriminatory,” said Gretchen Robinson, a lesbian high school teacher in Orange County. “It targets, very obviously, LGBTQ students, it ‘others’ them, and that is not OK.”

WATCH: How Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law regulates school lessons on gender, sexual orientation

Workshops about the law that her school district’s legal team held over the summer caused confusion. Some staff said they were told teachers in kindergarten through third grade could not display pride flags or photos of their same-sex spouses. The district later said the law only applied to classroom instruction and that the photos were allowed. It apologized for offering bad guidance with a hypothetical discussion....

...The Florida debate reflects one that is playing out nationwide, with fights in school boards and state legislatures over what and how children learn about race, gender, sexual orientation and American history. DeSantis and other Republicans have argued parents should be the ones in control of teaching their children about sexual orientation and gender identity" (PBS.org, 2022).

Regardless of one's view on the Florida law, it has elicited vigorous public conversation regarding discussing or teaching issues of Identity. Note the wording of the bill (effective 7/1/2022) and the language about Identity as copied below from the Florida State Senate site:

Consider Florida's CS/CS/HB 1557: Parental Rights in Education

GENERAL BILL by Judiciary Committee ; Education and Employment Committee ; Harding ; Grall ; (CO-INTRODUCERS) Avila ; Bell ; Borrero ; Byrd ; Fernandez-Barquin ; Fetterhoff ; Fine ; Fischer ; Latvala ; Maggard ; McClain ; Plakon ; Roach ; Roth ; Sirois ; Snyder ; Truenow ; Yarborough

Parental Rights in Education; Requires district school boards to adopt procedures that comport with certain provisions of law for notifying student's parent of specified information; requires such procedures to reinforce fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding upbringing & control of their children; prohibits school district from adopting procedures or student support forms that prohibit school district personnel from notifying parent about specified information or that encourage student to withhold from parent such information; prohibits school district personnel from discouraging or prohibiting parental notification & involvement in critical decisions affecting student's mental, emotional, or physical well-being; prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels; requires school districts to notify parents of healthcare services; authorizes parent to bring action against school district to obtain declaratory judgment; provides for additional award of injunctive relief, damages, & reasonable attorney fees & court costs to certain parents (www.flsenate.gov, 2022).

Question: What do you think?

Consider conducting a Google Search on this topic (try both the legal title, "Parental Rights in Education Bill," as well as the bill's "nickname" "Don't Say Gay Bill." As you seek more information, note the comments below the articles. In addition to the mainstream media, cable channels, and online news from various credible or less credible sources, the statements of other readers/viewers also provide communication feedback.

What is the influence of comments (credible or not?)? The author of Communication in the Real World notes that media "may influence our gender identity." Mediated messages today include not only the many social media messages that saturate our screen time as well as the screen time of children but also the "likes," "dislikes," and comments accompanying the original message.

More on Identity Development

Martin and Nakayama's Terms

In this section, the following concepts/vocabulary terms, shared in the Cengage 2012 slide show accompanying the Samovar et al. (2017) textbook, are attributed to the primary researchers, Martin and Nakayama:

Unexamined identity - individuals are unconcerned with identity issues
Conformity, minority members endeavor to fit in with the dominant culture and may even possess negative self-images
Resistance and separatism - cultural awakening that stimulates a greater interest in and adherence to one’s own culture
Integration - individuals have a sense of pride in, and identify with, their own cultural group, and demonstrate an acceptance of other groups

Communication in the Real World  (2016) explains that becoming aware of one's identity is a process:

Although some identities are essentially permanent, the degree to which we are aware of them, also known as salience, changes. The intensity with which we avow an identity also changes based on context. For example, an African American may not have difficulty deciding which box to check on the demographic section of a survey. But if an African American becomes president of her college’s Black Student Union, she may more intensely avow her African American identity, which has now become more salient. If she studies abroad in Africa her junior year, she may be ascribed an identity of American by her new African friends rather than African American. For the Africans, their visitor’s identity as American is likely more salient than her identity as someone of African descent. If someone is biracial or multiracial, they may change their racial identification as they engage in an identity search. One intercultural communication scholar writes of his experiences as an “Asianlatinoamerican” (Yep, 2002). He notes repressing his Chinese identity as an adolescent living in Peru and then later embracing his Chinese identity and learning about his family history while in college in the United States. This example shows how even national identity fluctuates. Obviously one can change nationality by becoming a citizen of another country, although most people do not. My identity as a US American became very salient for me for the first time in my life when I studied abroad in Sweden.

Throughout modern history, cultural and social influences have established dominant and nondominant groups (Allen, 2011). Dominant identities historically had and currently have more resources and influence, while nondominant identities historically had and currently have less resources and influence. It’s important to remember that these distinctions are being made at the societal level, not the individual level. There are obviously exceptions, with people in groups considered nondominant obtaining more resources and power than a person in a dominant group. However, the overall trend is that difference based on cultural groups has been institutionalized, and exceptions do not change this fact. Because of this uneven distribution of resources and power, members of dominant groups are granted privileges while nondominant groups are at a disadvantage. The main nondominant groups must face various forms of institutionalized discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. As we will discuss later, privilege and disadvantage, like similarity and difference, are not “all or nothing.” No two people are completely different or completely similar, and no one person is completely privileged or completely disadvantaged.

Identity Development

There are multiple models for examining identity development. Given our focus on how difference matters, we will examine similarities and differences in nondominant and dominant identity formation. While the stages in this model help us understand how many people experience their identities, identity development is complex, and there may be variations. We must also remember that people have multiple identities that intersect with each other. So, as you read, think about how circumstances may be different for an individual with multiple nondominant and/or dominant identities.

Nondominant Identity Development

There are four stages of nondominant identity development (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). The first stage is unexamined identity, which is characterized by a lack of awareness of or lack of interest in one’s identity. For example, a young woman who will later identify as a lesbian may not yet realize that a nondominant sexual orientation is part of her identity. Also, a young African American man may question his teachers or parents about the value of what he’s learning during Black History Month. When a person’s lack of interest in their own identity is replaced by an investment in a dominant group’s identity, they may move to the next stage, which is conformity.

In the conformity stage, an individual internalizes or adopts the values and norms of the dominant group, often in an effort not to be perceived as different. Individuals may attempt to assimilate into the dominant culture by changing their appearance, their mannerisms, the way they talk, or even their name. Moises, a Chicano man interviewed in a research project about identities, narrated how he changed his “Mexican sounding” name to Moses, which was easier for his middle-school classmates and teachers to say (Jones Jr., 2009). He also identified as white instead of Mexican American or Chicano because he saw how his teachers treated the other kids with “brown skin.” Additionally, some gay or lesbian people in this stage of identity development may try to “act straight.” In either case, some people move to the next stage, resistance and separation, when they realize that despite their efforts they are still perceived as different by and not included in the dominant group.

Quinn Dombrowski – ASL interpreter – CC BY-SA 2.0.

In the resistance and separation stage, an individual with a nondominant identity may shift away from the conformity of the previous stage to engage in actions that challenge the dominant identity group. Individuals in this stage may also actively try to separate themselves from the dominant group, interacting only with those who share their nondominant identity. For example, there has been a Deaf culture movement in the United States for decades. This movement includes people who are hearing impaired and believe that their use of a specific language, American Sign Language (ASL), and other cultural practices constitutes a unique culture, which they symbolize by capitalizing the D in Deaf (Allen, 2011).

While this is not a separatist movement, a person who is hearing impaired may find refuge in such a group after experiencing discrimination from hearing people. Staying in this stage may indicate a lack of critical thinking if a person endorses the values of the nondominant group without question.

The integration stage marks a period where individuals with a nondominant identity have achieved a balance between embracing their own identities and valuing other dominant and nondominant identities. Although there may still be residual anger from the discrimination and prejudice they have faced, they may direct this energy into positive outlets such as working to end discrimination for their own or other groups. Moises, the Chicano man I mentioned earlier, now works to support the Chicano community in his city and also has actively supported gay rights and women’s rights.

Dominant Identity Development

Dominant identity development consists of five stages (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). The unexamined stage of dominant identity formation is similar to nondominant in that individuals in this stage do not think about their or others’ identities. Although they may be aware of differences—for example, between races and genders—they either don’t realize there is a hierarchy that treats some people differently than others or they don’t think the hierarchy applies to them. For example, a white person may take notice that a person of color was elected to a prominent office. However, [they] may not see the underlying reason that it is noticeable—namely, that the overwhelming majority of our country’s leaders are white. Unlike people with a nondominant identity who usually have to acknowledge the positioning of their identity due to discrimination and prejudice they encounter, people with dominant identities may stay in the unexamined stage for a long time.

In the acceptance stage, a person with a dominant identity passively or actively accepts that some people are treated differently than others but doesn’t do anything internally or externally to address it. In the passive acceptance stage, we must be cautious not to blame individuals with dominant identities for internalizing racist, sexist, or heterosexist “norms.” The socializing institutions we discussed earlier (family, peers, media, religion, and education) often make oppression seem normal and natural. For example, I have had students who struggle to see that they are in this stage say things like “I know that racism exists, but my parents taught me to be a good person and see everyone as equal.” While this is admirable, seeing everyone as equal doesn’t make it so. And people who insist that we are all equal may claim that minorities are exaggerating their circumstances or “whining” and just need to “work harder” or “get over it.” The person making these statements acknowledges difference but doesn’t see their privilege or the institutional perpetuation of various “-isms.” Although I’ve encountered many more people in the passive state of acceptance than the active state, some may progress to an active state where they acknowledge inequality and are proud to be in the “superior” group. In either case, many people never progress from this stage. If they do, it’s usually because of repeated encounters with individuals or situations that challenge their acceptance of the status quo, such as befriending someone from a nondominant group or taking a course related to culture.

The resistance stage of dominant identity formation is a major change from the previous in that an individual acknowledges the unearned advantages they are given and feels guilt or shame about it. Having taught about various types of privilege for years, I’ve encountered many students who want to return their privilege or disown it. These individuals may begin to disassociate with their own dominant group because they feel like a curtain has been opened and their awareness of the inequality makes it difficult for them to interact with others in their dominant group. But it’s important to acknowledge that becoming aware of your white privilege, for instance, doesn’t mean that every person of color is going to want to accept you as an ally, so retreating to them may not be the most productive move. While moving to this step is a marked improvement in regards to becoming a more aware and socially just person, getting stuck in the resistance stage isn’t productive, because people are often retreating rather than trying to address injustice. For some, deciding to share what they’ve learned with others who share their dominant identity moves them to the next stage.

People in the redefinition stage revise negative views of their identity held in the previous stage and begin to acknowledge their privilege and try to use the power they are granted to work for social justice. They realize that they can claim their dominant identity as heterosexual, able-bodied, male, white, and so on, and perform their identity in ways that counter norms. A male participant in a research project on identity said the following about redefining his male identity: I don’t want to assert my maleness the same way that maleness is asserted all around us all the time. I don’t want to contribute to sexism. So I have to be conscious of that. There’s that guilt. But then, I try to utilize my maleness in positive ways, like when I’m talking to other men about male privilege (Jones, Jr., 2009).

The final stage of dominant identity formation is integration. This stage is reached when redefinition is complete and people can integrate their dominant identity into all aspects of their life, finding opportunities to educate others about privilege while also being a responsive ally to people in nondominant identities. As an example, some heterosexual people who find out a friend or family member is gay or lesbian may have to confront their dominant heterosexual identity for the first time, which may lead them through these various stages. As a sign of integration, some may join an organization like PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), where they can be around others who share their dominant identity as heterosexuals but also empathize with their loved ones.

Knowing more about various types of identities and some common experiences of how dominant and nondominant identities are formed prepares us to delve into more specifics about why difference matters.

Martin and Nakayama & Intercultural Communication Identity Key Terms

Summary: This 5 Step Model of Dominate Identity Formation Includes

  1. •Unexamined identity - individuals are unconcerned with identity issues
  2. •Acceptance - acquiescence to existing social inequities, even though such acceptance may be at a subconscious level
  3. •Resistance - members of the dominant culture become more aware of existing social inequities, begin to question their own culture, and increase association with minority culture members
  4. •Redefinition and 5. Reintegration - increased understanding of one’s dominant cultural identity and an appreciation of minority cultures
    *From the Cengage 2012 Slidedeck accompaying Samovar, et al. (2017)

Additionally: Martin and Nakayama also discuss the process of Biracial Identity has having 3 phases

  1.  Phase 1 - become conscious of differences in general and the potential for discord
  2.  Phase 2 - gain an awareness of their personal differences from other children
  3.  Phase 3 - begin to sense they are not part of the norm
Consider Recent Changes:
  • Globalization has increased cultural diversity and has revived local cultural identities in different parts of the world
  • Multiple cultural identities are becoming more commonplace
  • Globalized economy, immigration, ease of foreign travel, communication technologies, and intercultural marriage are bringing about an increased mixing of cultures
  • Cultural integration and Globalization results in indviduals who, now more than ever, possess multiple cultural identities

*From the Cengage 2012 Slidedeck accompaying Samovar, et al. (2017).

Difference Matters

Whenever we encounter someone, we notice similarities and differences. While both are important, it is often the differences that are highlighted and that contribute to communication troubles. We don’t only see similarities and differences on an individual level. In fact, we also place people into in-groups and out-groups based on the similarities and differences we perceive. This is important because we then tend to react to someone we perceive as a member of an out-group based on the characteristics we attach to the group rather than the individual (Allen, 2011). In these situations, it is more likely that stereotypes and prejudice will influence our communication. Learning about difference and why it matters will help us be more competent communicators. The flip side of emphasizing difference is to claim that no differences exist and that you see everyone as a human being. Rather than trying to ignore difference and see each person as a unique individual, we should know the history of how differences came to be so socially and culturally significant and how they continue to affect us today.

Culture and identity are complex. You may be wondering how some groups came to be dominant and others nondominant. These differences are not natural, which can be seen as we unpack how various identities have changed over time in the next section. There is, however, an ideology of domination that makes it seem natural and normal to many that some people or groups will always have power over others (Allen, 2011). In fact, hierarchy and domination, although prevalent throughout modern human history, were likely not the norm among early humans. So one of the first reasons difference matters is that people and groups are treated unequally, and better understanding how those differences came to be can help us create a more just society. Difference also matters because demographics and patterns of interaction are changing.

In the United States, the population of people of color is increasing and diversifying, and visibility for people who are gay or lesbian and people with disabilities has also increased. The 2010 Census shows that the Hispanic and Latino/a populations in the United States are now the second largest group in the country, having grown 43 percent since the last census in 2000 (Saenz, 2011). By 2030, racial and ethnic minorities will account for one-third of the population (Allen, 2011). Additionally, legal and social changes have created a more open environment for sexual minorities and people with disabilities. These changes directly affect our interpersonal relationships. The workplace is one context where changing demographics has become increasingly important. Many organizations are striving to comply with changing laws by implementing policies aimed at creating equal access and opportunity. Some organizations are going further than legal compliance to try to create inclusive climates where diversity is valued because of the interpersonal and economic benefits it has the potential to produce.

We can now see that difference matters due to the inequalities that exist among cultural groups and due to changing demographics that affect our personal and social relationships. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles that may impede our valuing of difference (Allen, 2011). Individuals with dominant identities may not validate the experiences of those in nondominant groups because they do not experience the oppression directed at those with nondominant identities. Further, they may find it difficult to acknowledge that not being aware of this oppression is due to privilege associated with their dominant identities. Because of this lack of recognition of oppression, members of dominant groups may minimize, dismiss, or question the experiences of nondominant groups and view them as “complainers” or “whiners.” Recall from our earlier discussion of identity formation that people with dominant identities may stay in the unexamined or acceptance stages for a long time. Being stuck in these stages makes it much more difficult to value difference.

Members of nondominant groups may have difficulty valuing difference due to negative experiences with the dominant group, such as not having their experiences validated. Both groups may be restrained from communicating about difference due to norms of political correctness, which may make people feel afraid to speak up because they may be perceived as insensitive or racist. All these obstacles are common and they are valid. However, as we will learn later, developing intercultural communication competence can help us gain new perspectives, become more mindful of our communication, and intervene in some of these negative cycles.

Pulling it Together: A Video Explanation of Identity, Society and Culture

University of Missouri's Dr. Stpehen Klien shares an excellent video series explaining Communication concepts. He describes this video as, "When we consider aspects of our identity that involve group affiliations, we often use the terms "society" and "culture" synonymously, when in fact these constructs are different in some important ways. Let's examine the distinctions -- and the potential connections -- between society and culture" (Klien, 2020)

He helps us understand the difference between social identity and cultural identity which can often be confused.


Case Study Three: Religion and Its Influence on Identity

Having looked at deep culture's family and state influence on identity formation, a final case study will highlight religion's influence on identity formation. At the start of this chapter, Kao Kalia Yang's life story helped illustrate the influence family has on one's identity. It must be noted that many individuals receive multiple spiritual or religious messages that influence their identity formation. Even if one does not practice a religion at home, there is still a public and mediated influence religion will have on identity. For a deeper dive into this discussion, visit the work of Carleton College, which offers an account of religions in Minnesota, including a deep discussion of Hmong Minnesotans' unique practice of Christianity and more traditional spiritual practices. Carleton College shares that most Hmong Americans will receive socialization from traditional Hmong families and cultural traditions of spirituality, as well as Christian teachings of the dominant culture of the United States.

Minnesota is home to the second largest concentration of Hmong immigrants in the United States.  From their roots in the mountains of Laos to refugee camps in Thailand to immigration to the U.S. and to Minnesota, Hmong people have brought with them not only their language and culture, but also their religious traditions.

Because the practice of these traditions is largely familial, taking place in Hmong homes and keyed to healing and to life passages— birth, marriage, and death, Hmong religious traditions do not take the same visible public shape as other religions.  Although some in the Hmong community have recently formed a "Temple of Hmongism" in St. Paul to help organize and promote "our religion of the future, there are altars and shrines in homes, but no traditional temples, or equivalents to churches or mosques.  There is no agreed upon sacred text or recognized hierarchy of clergy.  Interestingly, .

Some practice of these traditions can also be observed for some Hmong people who identify as Christian.  One rough estimate suggests that up to 50% of Hmong people in the U.S. are Christian, but, as with other indigenous traditions around the world, Hmong Christians may continue to practice elements of Hmong traditional religion, including veneration of ancestors, and the practices of traditional Hmong Shamanism for healing.  As one of our interviewees put it, Hmong Shamanism is as much "a way of life" as it is a religion (materials attributed to Carleton College, 2022 - shared with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License).

For more information about Minnesota and Religion, please see a summary of this discussion posted on Minnesota's Carleton College's "Religions in Minnesota" webpage.

Consider the Amish Co-Culture and "Deep Culture"

In the first week of class, many Intercultural Communication students are asked, "What co-cultures would you most like to learn about?" Students, especially at Rochester Community and Technical College, each year include the  Hmong and the Amish co-culture among their answers.

As for the Amish co-culture, Ava Ewald, in her MinnPost article, "Amish paradise? The traditionalist Christian group's population has been growing in Minnesota. A lot" (2021), reports that the "... number of Amish in the state has grown by more than 230 percent over the last 20 years, and there are now more than 20 Amish settlements in Minnesota...." Why? The Amish explosion has its origin, according to Ewald, in our legal system:

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court sent a case concerning a group of Minnesota Amish back to the state’s Court of Appeals. The group, known as the Swartzentruber Amish, sued southeast Minnesota’s Fillmore County over its requirement that most homes have modern septic systems to deal with greywater, which is water used for things like baths, dishes and other cleaning.

Brian Lipford, the attorney representing the Swartzentruber Amish in the case, says the group believes that the septic requirement violates their religious freedom.

The Supreme Court’s ruling came in the wake of another religious freedom case — that one about a Philadelphia-based Catholic foster care agency — with both cases hinging on the application of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects the religious use of land.

While the case is just the latest of several going back to the 1970s that have focused on how the Amish relate to their larger communities in the United States, it also served to highlight the growing presence of Amish in different parts of Minnesota.

Indeed, the Amish are now among the fastest-growing religious groups in the United States, according to Edsel Burdge, a researcher at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. In particular, the growth has occurred in several parts of Minnesota. Though their overall numbers remain small -- there are a little fewer than 5,000 Amish in Minnesota today -- their population in the state has grown by more than 230 percent over the last 20 years.

Ewald (2021) continues her "Amish 101" report:

Immigrating mainly from Switzerland and Germany, the Amish’s presence in America goes back to the 1700s. Part of the Anabaptist movement — a radical element of the Protestant Reformation — the Amish are closely related to Mennonites, with both practicing adult baptism and both believing that religion should be completely separate from state interference.

Though the Amish tend to be more conservative than Mennonites — especially when it comes to  the use of technology — their opinions on modern practices and “worldly” goods can vary widely depending on each settlements’ beliefs and regulations. Those settlements, groups of like-minded Amish that contain a number of individual families, function like small towns or villages, growing and splitting off into many settlements over time.

After originally settling in the eastern U.S., the Amish moved westward as communities grew, especially during the second half of the 20th century. Minnesota’s first recorded Amish population arrived in 1973 in Todd County, about 151 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.

In recent decades, the Amish have continued to grow and spread, in part due to their practice of having large families but also because of high retention rates; the Young Center estimates that 85 percent of Amish youth eventually join the church. “It’s not uncommon for them to have 10 to 12 children, and they grow up and get married,” said Sheila Craig, president of the Preston Historical Society in Fillmore County, home to several Amish settlements.

When Amish settlements grow to be larger than about 40 families, they split off to create new settlements, according to research done by Cory Anderson, a rural sociologist at Pennsylvania State University, while a report by David Luthy, an Amish historian, found that new Amish settlements are created every three weeks in the United States.

The Amish in Minnesota

That growth rate means the Amish tend to run out of space quickly, and the spread westward has been driven by the need for affordable farmland — one of the reasons they ended up in Minnesota. 'They would choose our smaller, old farms that nobody wanted anymore,' said Craig. 'The Amish would come and use that spot because it would have a well and they need the water [but] they don’t use electricity.'

Minnesota’s Amish settlements tend to be more conservative than Amish who live farther east when it comes to the use of  so-called 'worldly goods,' but views about the use of technology also vary widely among communities.

Amish settlements look to church leaders to decide what can and can not be used. While some communities completely ban things like computers and cellphones, others are fine with members having a presence on social media platforms. Though now deleted, the TikTok account of Mervin Kinsinger, a 25-year-old Amish man from Pennsylvania, once had 57,000 followers, who were treated to Kinsinger showing off his horse, buggy and karaoke skills. In one TikTok, he could be seen singing Weird Al Yankovic’s song 'Amish Paradise' to a cheering crowd....

The group at the center of the case against Fillmore County, the Swartzentruber Amish, tend to use as little technology as they can. 'They’re very old fashioned,' Burdge said. 'They are much more restrictive in technology kinds of things than some other Amish would be.'

The regulation of vehicle use is another point of contention within Amish settlements. 'Amish churches ended up rejecting ownership and operation of automobiles,' said Anderson. 'There are a few churches that allow ownership of automobiles, but you can’t drive it. So they actually hire people to drive their vehicles. Then there’s another Amish church where they’re allowed to drive it as long as they don’t own it.'

Horse and buggy vehicles remain the main mode of transportation for Amish in Minnesota, though the Amish in Fillmore County who work construction jobs are known to hire drivers when they need to transport materials or get to a site quickly.

But while the Amish may live vastly different lives from their 'English' neighbors, they are often very much part of their communities. 'They interact with us,' said Craig. 'They come into the grocery store and buy what they need. They go to the feed store and they work closely with the lumberyards.'

The Rochester Post Bulletin recently featured an article about the newest Tic Tock influencer, Eddie Swartzentruber. In the article, "From Amish life to TikTok videos, Rochester man makes unlikely change (2022), article author Matthew Stolle reports that Swartzentruber:

...was 17 when he slipped a note under his pillow, quietly crept to the farmhouse door and fled. It was a terribly cold January night, and his flimsy Amish clothes offered little protection against the sub-zero temperature.

Swartzentruber ran fast enough down the road to make progress and keep warm. He felt scared and guilty but determined to leave behind a lifestyle that offered him no prospect of happiness.

'I was pretty scared, but I knew somehow I would figure it out,' Swartzentruber said, recalling his flight eight years ago from his Amish community.

He did figure it out. Swartzentruber, 25, has proven successful in navigating the modern world. He sports swept-back blond hair and a well-trimmed mustache and beard distinctly not in the Amish mold. He is married to Karwyn. He owns his own roofing company.

And, perhaps, in the most unlikely twist, Swartzentruber has a growing legion of TikTok fans.

Swartzentruber wasn’t seeking TikTok fame when he opened an account last spring for fun. It wasn’t until two months ago that he began experimenting with the platform describing life in an Amish community. That’s when the number of his followers began to creep upwards, now 70,000 and growing.

It’s not hard to imagine why his TikToks are attracting tens of thousands. Swartzentruber keeps his videos short and sweet. He often ends them with a flash of his beatific smile.

But mostly, his short videos work because they lift the veil on a community largely shrouded in secrecy to the outside world. People, in short, are fascinated by Swartzentruber’s videos about the Amish" (Stolle, 2022).

Read more and see a sample of Eddie's Tic Toc videos at the Post Bulletin story site or find Eddie on Tic Tok.


If YOU would like to participate in an RCTC student interview with Eddie Swartzentruber, don't hesitate to contact lori.halverson-wente@rctc.edu - he has agreed to share more about his experience growing up Amish. You also might enjoy attending the Fall (or spring) auctions in St. Charles, MN area on Tuesday/Friday (and some weekend) mornings 10-noon-ish where many local St. Charles and area Amish farmers auction their produce, flowers, and plants. In special auctions, livestock, quilts, and woodworking items are also up for sale. See the site visit page for more information.

As you consider identity development, hopefully, the videos above, the case studies, and the personal reflections will bring life to the theory and help you evaluate your identity formation. In the next section, we will move more deeply into the process and elements of identity formation by integrating the University of MN's Communication in the Real World's discussion of Cultural Identity.

To read more about religions in Minnesota, visit the Carleton  College Sponsored webpage, "Exploring Minnesota's Religious Worlds.

Dimensions of Difference and Intersectionality

Communication in the Real World (2016) explains the Dimensions of Difference and Intersectionality as directly quoted and integrated below:

Cultures are very often associated with nation-states or countries; we often hear about US culture or French culture or Chinese culture. However, national culture isn’t the only dimension of culture. Within national boundaries, cultures are rarely monolithic. There tend to be many other kinds of difference, and many other kinds of socializing groups, and we can classify these differences through the Dimensions of Difference model. These twelve dimensions of cultural identity are intersectional. Intersectional menas that cultural identities are often deeply interwoven and the group socialization we experience in any one dimension can impact other identities. When we examine power and resource access, this intersectionality can potentially lead to greater opportunity and inclusion or greater oppression and marginalization, depending upon the larger social contexts in which we live and work. Though presented here in no particular order, to some degree these twelve dimensions are a part of all of our cultural identities:


Our generational groups can give us a shared language and way of seeing the world. Economic stability or instability, political upheaval, technological advancements and environmental crises can have profound impacts on the values and beliefs of the people living and coming of age during these times.

Class/Socioeconomic Status

Social class is much more than just income, it’s the education level, the family wealth, and the status that comes from family legacy and/or occupation. Our social class cultural experiences have a powerful impact on our assumptions about our place in the world and the choices we make, as well as our beliefs about our ability to shape our destiny.


[NOTE FROM LORI AND MARK - reminder, this section is from the Communication in Real World's author's opinion/scholarly view]

First of all, a note of your instructor’s preference for terms. My education [the original author, that is] in the field of intercultural communication has led me away from “race” and towards “ethnicity.” In many ways, both terms try to get at our ancestry and bloodlines and the ways that we build community identity around these, but “race” is a term and an idea with a powerfully problematic and damaging history. Genetic research may reveal important biological aspects of generational DNA changes within migratory groups, but they tell us absolutely nothing of value about human cultural difference. In short, externally labeling people with racial categories - “black” or “white” or “brown” - can reinforce racist categorizations while potentially teaching us nothing about cultural difference.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a deeper, broader and more inclusive term. Ethnicity emphasizes the importance of cultural groups to define their family, tribal or clan ancestry or heritage. Racial categories are simplistic; ethnic categories are often complex. In the US, for example, members of a recent Sudanese Dinka immigrant community and members of a multi-generation southern Haitian-American family would both be racially identified as “black.” However, through the lens of ethnicity, we can learn so much more about how members of these different communities live and identify themselves culturally.

However, even if we choose to set aside the term “race” in our exploration of intercultural communication, this doesn’t mean we can ignore the concept of racism and its devastating impact on cultural groups. Experience with oppression in itself often shapes cultural practices, norms, values and beliefs as well.

[Note from Lori and Mark - later in this OER Textbook, we'll talk more directly about the terms Race and Ethnicity. Scholars differ on their approach to discussions on Race and Ethnicity]

Case Study - Documentary: Being Asian in America

This amazing Asian American Video from Pew Research Center helps share stories from more than 66 focus groups. The Pew Research Center shares, "In a new Pew Research Center analysis based on 66 focus groups conducted in the fall of 2021, Asian American participants described navigating their own identity in a nation where the label “Asian” brings expectations about their origins, behavior and physical self. The participants in this companion documentary were not part of the focus group study, but were similarly sampled to tell their own stories" (Pew Research Center, 2022).


Biological sex (male, female, or intersexed) may lead human beings to certain universal physiological differences, but gender identity is a process of cultural socialization. Gender performances that are considered “preferable” or “acceptable” by group members can vary greatly at the intersections of ethnic, national and religious cultural identities

[*NOTE  from Lori and Mark- Our professors used to define gender as, "the difference the difference makes." In other words, gender, as noted above, is much more broad than biological sex. Gender and gender identity, is discussed in much more complex terms. Please visit the section of this book that shares more about gender identity for videos and more case studies.]


Have you ever lived in a large urban city? A small rural town? A suburban neighborhood? The population density (how many other people live near and around you) of where you live can have a profound impact on your way of life, shaping your social interactions as well as the way you understand the importance of interconnection and human beings’ relationship to the natural environment.

Mental/Physical Variation

You may already be familiar with the term “disability,” but disability too often implies that a mental or physical difference makes one less able to live life fully or complete tasks. Thanks to the testimony of those who live with variations, we know this often isn’t true. Additionally, a mental/physical variation that calls for medical treatment or isolation from the group in one culture, but might instead give the individual greater status in the group and more opportunities for interaction with group members in another culture. Since “disability” limits our understanding in this context, we’ll use the term “mental/physical variation.” [Note - again, this is the writing from the Communication in the Real World authors].

Culture can be formed around these variations. People with certain mental/physical variations - loss of mobility, blindness, deafness, ADHD, etc. - often forge a group identity. They may share a common history of oppression based in others’ perceptions, and they may also share a common bond of resilience in asserting their rights. Members of these groups generate art, music, literature, activism and other expressions in order to communicate their cultural experiences with these variations.

Occupation (or Profession)

The work we do - particularly our longer-term career - shapes our total way of life as well. Occupations often have their own specialized languages and jargon, as well as necessary uniforms and general codes of ethical conduct. Technical colleges like Century College offer programs which serve as cultural adjustment experiences, preparing students to acclimate to the culture of their chosen occupation.


It’s not just what you do for work that shapes you culturally, but also where you do that work or service.  Business and nonprofit organizations often have clear dress codes, expectations for communication with coworkers and clients, and internal management structures that may vary greatly from organization to organization.

And organizations aren’t just about service or labor. Hobbies, sports and shared interests also bind our experience together with others, forming those “small cultures” we explored in the previous lesson.


The nations in which we live or in which we are a citizen shape us in powerful ways. Though national borders can change over time, these territorial lines often serve not only to communicate the boundaries of occupied land but to establish formal ways of life, with common or official languages, customs, formal laws and a systems of authority that are generally intended to culturally unify the people within these borders.

Region [Regional Identity]

Despite the importance of national culture, regional settlements within nations often contain unique variations of these larger practices and beliefs. Due to historical ethnic settlements, geographic features, or both, we may find different vocal accents, different nonverbal gestures, different customs and maybe even differing belief systems as we travel from region to region within a nation.


Religion is a powerful cultural force, leading to the creation of birth and burial practices, architectural spaces, music and other forms of human expression and art. Religious groups often clarify expectations of behavior for group members as well as help explain the importance of spiritual ideas. Iceberg Model third-level beliefs may be difficult to identify in many cultures, but they are usually clearly identified in religious cultures. Even those who do not identify or affiliate with a religion often share certain worldviews, which may also lead them to a shared cultural identity or shared secular practices.

Sexual Orientation

Also, see Deeper Dive into LGBTQT+ Topics.

Human sexuality is a topic for an entire course or even specialization in graduate school. Intercultural Communication scholars note sexuality comprises a cultural identity as well:

Some LGBTQ artists and scholars have pointed out that the sexual and relational challenges facing "gay" partners don't really differ all that greatly from the sexual and relational challenges "straight" partners face. However, the experience of being oppressed or threatened as a result of one's sexuality may lead to a cultural system of shared practices and beliefs which serve to bond and protect members and help them establish rights and express human experiences (Jersek, 2022).

The LGBTQ+  community comprises a group of individuals who identify as Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Transgender or Nonconforming (T),  Queer (Q), and others (+). Within the LGBTQ+ initialism, the symbol "+" indicates that the acronym (or "initialism") may include more sexual orientations/identities. The basis for initialisms lies with the concept of nonbinary gender identity. These initialisms, in short, help to "move beyond the binary."

Now, binary refers to either-or, two possible choices – much like a bicycle has two tires, "male or female" is an example of a binary choice. However, "throughout history, some people have identified as neither male nor female, or as 'nonbinary'….Nonbinary people's gender identity lies outside the boundaries of a strict male-female dichotomy" (National Institute of Health, 2020).


Case Study: Initialisms

Additional initialisms include LGBT, LGBT+, LGBTQ, and LGBTQ+, and LGBTTQIA. In the last initialism, an "I" includes individuals who are intersexual, an "A" includes individuals who are A-sexual (or, some might claim, Allies). LGBTTQQIA is a more recent initialism of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, allies, and pansexual. Reid-Smith points out that "[s]ome people wrongly think LGBT or LGBTQ are acronyms. In fact, he continues, initial letters are only an acronym if you say them as a word, like "NASA." Therefore LGBT+ and all the other options are initialisms, because you spell out each letter, like you do in the USA" ( 2020).

Ren and Grace with rainbow unbrella
Literally, an umbrella!

Reid-Smith (2020) asserts that "all of the options are umbrella terms for the same community..[t]hey broadly mean the same." The exciting part is that adding more letters means one is thereby "explicitly including more identities. On face value, that makes your choice more overtly inclusive. In a like manner, "using the '+' symbol is a more implicit way of doing that. Thus, by "adding the plus, you include everyone else" without having to season a rich, thick alphabet soup of dizzying letter combinations.

Reid-Smith cautions us to "remember that many people feel their own identities are overlooked within our community…" commenting that, "[a]fter all, the initialisms don't contain 'pansexual', 'non-binary' or many more. So why stop at just LGBTQ?" Reid-Smith concludes that, simply, the "truth is there is no option that everyone agrees with. And some LGBT+ people actively dislike some of the choices" (2020).

So, why the alphabet soup? Tris Reid-Smith's (2020) commentary reflects the complexity of initialism:

“…And if you want a ‘house style’ on how to express ‘LGBT+’, understand there are pros and cons to all the options and no right answer. So do your best and be prepared to listen and change as the community moves on. But most importantly, always remember our community is made up of 460 million individuals – so reflect their identities and respect their individuality in everything you do.”

Improving Intercultural Communication Competence

What can you do to improve your skills, motivation, and knowledge?


OutFront Minnesota Education provides educational training sessions and uses the following materials  in the LGBTQ+ 101 & Intersectional Equity Training organized by Kelly Holstine, Director of Education Equity, in entirety, below:

Strategies to Increase Intersectional Equity

  • Creating safe, respectful, and caring environments for every learner (help students & educators feel like they matter) & utilizing restorative practices
  • Celebrating vulnerability, sharing authentic selves, and eliminating perspective gaps
  • Advocating for the rights of people who are discriminated against
  • Including diverse voices in the curriculum
  • Engaging in courageous conversations to challenge prejudice and discrimination (including: owning and improving your own flaws and biases [explicit and implicit])
  • Letting go of needing to be the “expert” and “in charge” (i.e, being open to asking questions and being curious instead of judgmental)
  • Being aware of intention vs. impact
  • Breaking down systems that are creating barriers

Strategies to increase LGBTQ+ Educational Equity

  • Adding your pronouns to your email signature
  • Not making assumptions when people tell you stories about their lives (e.g., pronouns, sexual orientations, genders, etc.)
  • Introducing yourself with affirmed pronouns and using other people’s affirmed pronouns and names
  • Using gender inclusive language (e.g., folks, humans, learners, etc.)
  • Not gendering students in activities (e.g., having students line up by birthdays or last names instead of by gender identify)
  • Speaking out against LGBTQ+ bullying and harassment (i.e., Immediately addressing the use of anti-
  • LGBTQ+ language in schools, standing up for students when they are being discriminated against, etc.)
  • Displaying posters and art that represent LGBTQ+ culture (e.g, symbols of support, Safe Space signs).
  • Gender Unicorn posters, pictures of LGBTQ+ people, etc.)
  • Having safe restroom access (e.g., gender neutral bathrooms, single stall/private bathrooms, supporting students to use whatever bathrooms make them feel safe)
  • Recognizing families that are diverse in structure and using inclusive, non-gendered terms (e.g., parents, grown-ups, guardians, caregivers, etc.)
  • Including LGBTQ+ voices and examples in the curriculum
  • Starting/Supporting Gender Sexuality Alliances (GSAs)
  • Supporting laws and policies that support LGBTQ+ humans
  • First day with students: read the student’s last name and ask what first name they would like you to use (create rosters with “Student Name” on first line and “Legal name [if different]” on the second line

The Dimensions of Difference model ultimately serves to remind us that culture isn't something exclusive to certain groups of people; we are all cultured, we are all shaped and socialized in different kinds of groups and we all have multicultural identities. These cultural identities teach us a way of being and include expectations for social behavior or ways of acting in different contexts (Yep, G. A., 2002). We have been a part of some of these groups since birth, but any of these identity types can be ascribed or avowed. Ascribed identities are cultural identities placed on us by others, while avowed identities are those we claim for ourselves (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Ascribed and avowed identities may change over the course of our lives, often making our overall cultural identity hard to describe or explain in simple terms. Though these foundational chapters are designed to give us a framework for understanding and navigating cultural differences, there is always more depth and complexity than we initially perceive. Keep this in mind as you connect with others across cultural boundaries, and be willing to let others explain how they view or define themselves culturally before making broad assumptions about their cultural identity.

Case Study as a Deeper Dive - LGBTQ+ Intersectionality, Dominant Culture, and Co-Culture

Oppression is linked…

The Balance of Intersectionality, Dominant Culture, and Co-Culture

When considering co-cultures, one may easily succumb to the assumption that someone from a different co-culture than one's own would necessarily differ in categories and characteristics such as race, age, ethnic background. Some students looking to complete the co-culture interview assignment infer that there are readily observable attributes that identify another as from a different co-culture. We are immersed within difference whether we can observe it or not. Conversely, one may also succumb to the assumption that those from one's own co-culture necessarily share the same behavioral traits, characteristics, and categories common to that co-culture. Both assumptions need to be avoided. The National LGBT Health Education Center  (2020) shares that LGBT people "...are from all different races, ethnicities, ages, social/economic classes, and places. Some in the community are very open about being LGB or T, while some are only "out" to a few people, or just to themselves. In short, one can "never be sure whether someone is LGBT unless they tell you" (LGBT Health Education).

The assumptions of difference and sameness above, in and of themselves, possess some level of validity; however, given the concept of intersectionality -- the "interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating [non-discrete] overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage" (Oxford Dictionaries)–it is necessary to tread lightly about these assumptions. Case studies provide a demonstration of how individuals might belong simultaneously to a number of co-cultures such as "Julie," who identifies as lesbian, Christian, white, middle-class, and American. These five traits form an "intersection" of "overlapping and interdependent systems" which confer privilege/advantage, or conversely in other cases, as we'll next see, discrimination/disadvantage. Contrast Julie's "intersection" to that of, "Vithu," a Cambodian international student attending a US college (on a scholarship) who identifies as Pansexual, and is from a Cambodian Buddhist tradition though has converted to Christianity. The intersection of Vithu's various co-cultures does not include the same power or social privilege as Julie's intersection of being white, middle-class, American, and Christain, all aspects of our dominant culture. However, because Vithu is both a man and now has earned a Ph.D. in Engineering from Harvard University, he may, indeed, jump over Julie in crucial respects of social rank. While not a "competition," these examples show how intersectionality is a dynamic theory that offers insight into how individuals are not easily defined by one culture (or co-culture) even when it dominates.

Samovar's concepts of the dominant culture and co-cultures and intersectionality challenge the validity of assumptions surrounding one's view of co-cultures, whether those of others or one's own. Regarding the notion of co-cultures, Samovar et. al. (2013) explains that it is rash to make blanket generalizations and assumptions regarding difference or sameness as members of these groups so often tend to have overlapping memberships:

…within the dominant culture are numerous co-cultures and specialized cultures. We believe the best way to identify these groups is with the term co-culture, because it calls attention to the idea of dual membership. Therefore, we use co-culture when discussing groups or social communities exhibiting perceptions, values, beliefs, communicative behaviors, and social practices that are sufficiently different as to distinguish them from other groups and communities and from the dominant culture. Co-cultures may share many of the characteristics of the dominant culture, but their members also exhibit distinct and unique patterns of communication. Co-cultural affiliation can be based on ethnic heritage, gender, age cohort, sexual preference, or other criteria. What is important about all co-cultures is that being gay, disabled, Latino, African American, Chinese American, American Indian, female, young, or old, to name a few examples, exposes a person to a specialized set of messages that helps determine how some aspects of the external world are perceived. It also significantly influences how members of that co-culture communicate those perceptions (p. 9).

Hence, the vibrant LGBTQ co-culture includes a broad spectrum of members. LGBTQ members, to a lesser or greater degree, are part of the dominant culture and range from those who openly share nearly all aspects of themselves and their co-culture to those who still opt for "the closet" or who are as yet unsure if they are a member of this group.

Personalizing The Theory: Kao Bruce Thao's "White Washing a Rainbow"

Bruce Thao (2016) shares the "magic about rainbows"

“We silence queer people of color into only talking about one aspect of their identity, because the full prism of their identities and experiences is too much for our minds to comprehend. We strip trans undocumented immigrants of their rights and lock them in solitary confinement because we “don’t know what else to do with them”. We lump all Asian Americans under one category and stereotype of “Asian”, even though Asian Americans can trace their heritage to over 48 countries, with countless more ethnic groups, religions and spiritual practices represented.

The ways in which we ask people not to bring their full selves into spaces or conversations can also be subconscious. Here are some examples:

  • When an institution says that it cares about “racial equity” but is silent on gender equity, disability rights, or LGBTQ inclusion
  • When we invite someone to give a presentation because they represent a certain racial/ethnic group, but ask them not to talk about their sexual orientation because it may upset members of the audience
  • When a company trains all of their employees on “diversity and inclusion” but the conversation is only about race, and the race conversation is black and white
  • When co-workers get uncomfortable because some of their colleagues are speaking to each other in a language other than English, or ask their colleagues to translate what they just said in private so all can understand (ain’t none of your business!)

There are many unspoken rules about what is “appropriate” and “acceptable” within many work environments, public spaces, and society in general. Often these unspoken rules force us into diluting the complex, bold rainbow of colors that make us who we are. We are asked to mask, we are asked to dilute, we are asked to withhold, we are asked to erase until all that is left is…. White. And for those of us who cannot erase, cannot dilute, cannot withhold, cannot fade into whiteness, we are deemed “unacceptable” or “inappropriate”.

The above are examples of how we ask people not to bring their full selves into spaces, but why do we do it? Here are some potential reasons:

  • It makes us uncomfortable.
  • It’s confusing to us.
  • Guilt – Guilt that we never knew about their identities, experiences or struggles.
  • Shame – Shame that we may have been complicit in their oppression or discrimination.
  • Ignorance. Not knowing and not caring to know.
  • We feel like we can only focus on one issue at a time.



*Key Takeaways

  • Culture is an ongoing negotiation of learned patterns of beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors.
  • Each of us has personal, social, and cultural identities.

    • Personal identities are components of self that are primarily intrapersonal and connect to our individual interests and life experiences.
    • Social identities are components of self that are derived from our involvement in social groups to which we are interpersonally invested.
    • Cultural identities are components of self based on socially constructed categories that teach us a way of being and include expectations for our thoughts and behaviors.
  • Nondominant identity formation may include a person moving from unawareness of the importance of their identities, to adopting the values of dominant society, to separating from dominant society, to integrating components of identities.
  • Dominant identity formation may include a person moving from unawareness of their identities, to accepting the identity hierarchy, to separation from and guilt regarding the dominant group, to redefining and integrating components of identities.
  • Difference matters because people are treated differently based on their identities and demographics and patterns of interaction are changing. Knowing why and how this came to be and how to navigate our increasingly diverse society can make us more competent communicators.

*Attribution for the Key Takeaways: Communication in the Real World (2016)

Chapter Three Key Terms


  • How does culture impact identity?
  •  Identity
    • Personal, Social, and Cultural Identity
  • Gender Identity
    • Binary, non-binary, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, transgender
  • Family influence on identity
    • Extended family
    • Nuclear family
  • Dominate and Nondominate Identity Development Stages/Models
    • Unexamined identity
    • Acceptance
    • Resistance
    • Redefinition and Reintegration
  • Dimensions of Difference and Intersectionality
    • Age/Generation
    • Class/Socioeconomic Status
    • Ethnicity
    • Gender
    • Locality
    • Mental/Physical Variation
    • Occupation (or Profession)
    • Organization
    • Nationality
    • Region
    • Religion
    • Sexual Orientation

Deep Culture

  • how deep culture works, how deep structure impacts identity, social institutions, religion, extended and nuclear families, globalization, and families
  • the functions of the family (reproductive, economic, socialization, language acquisition, identity)
  • gender
  • collectivism/individualism

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We are grateful for the use of the following Open Education Resources remixed above as noted and under the Creative Commons 4.0 License.

  1. "Culture" by Keith Green, Ruth Fairchild, Bev Knudsen, & Darcy Lease-Gubrud, LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC .
  2. [Author removed at request of original publisher]. (2016, September 29). The University of M.N. Communication in the Real World. Retrieved December 17, 2021, from https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/front-matter/publisher-information/
  3. Ewald, H. (2021, July 28). ‘Amish Paradise’: The traditionalist Christian group’s population has been growing in Minnesota — a lot. MinnPost. https://www.minnpost.com/greater-minnesota/2021/07/amish-paradise-the-traditionalist-christian-groups-population-has-been-growing-in-minnesota-a-lot/
    Note: This article was shared with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.




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