Identity as a Social Construction

Before becoming a doctor, a person is required to attend medical school to learn how to treat the human body. While learning these skills, the budding doctor will also acquire the cultural competencies that will help shape her identity and provide her with situational power. The same holds true for a lawyer, a police officer, or someone in the corporate world.

Not only is a professional’s social identity defined personally, it is also constructed through social ascription. For example, while a doctor may decide to express herself individually (ie she may prefer to ask for patient input into treatment rather than be directive), patients may have a different expectation based on how the identities of medical professionals are socially constructed. As such, it is useful for all professionals to consider how their identities are shaped both personally and socially as there may be limitations to how much they can personally define themselves. This is important to understand, particularly by those working in professions—such as police services, politics, Faith-based activities—that are viewed negatively by some sectors of society.

When I used to volunteer with children in Toronto’s Regent Park community, I was often surprised by how many of the young people I interacted with viewed police officers in a negative manner. This was in sharp contrast to some other communities in the city in which children would view police as heroes and the good guys. Some children would get excited about hearing a siren, others would want to run and duck.

As we approach the annual Pride Parade in the city, it is also essential to acknowledge how identities are socially constructed, as this will help us understand why it can be difficult for some members of our city, such as those representing Black Lives Matter, to accept the presence of police marching in official uniform. While many of us would view the police services in a positive manner, and also see recent evidence of meaningful support and engagement with groups such as BLM and the LGBTQ community, there is a long history of negative interactions which have legitimately shaped how these groups view the police. It will take time for this to change, as these social constructs are deeply rooted in painful experiences.

It is not easy to redefine how we want people to view us, particularly when there have been incidents of hurt and marginalization. This doesn’t mean that we should stop seeking opportunities for reconciliation, but if we have been the cause of pain or oppression, we need to acknowledge that we do not get to control the process or the timeline for healing.