Can you exchange across cultural differences if you don’t have an understanding of your own identity?

Big Question: How can you expand your self-knowledge as an essential step in understanding others from different cultural backgrounds?

Time Commitment: 2.5 hours*

*Please note that this module includes a 59 minute podcast that will take additional time and is considered preparatory for engaging with this content.

Why This Matters: Social change often requires individual change – civil society starts with the individuals that form communities. Each individual is different, yet too often the societal structures that have developed around these differences are oppressive, using difference as a divider and creating a hierarchy of identities. How one identifies matters; what’s more, recognizing one’s identity, positioning it within current societal structures and learning how to communicate across identities is how disruption of oppressive societal construction can occur.  This page will broadly examine spectrums of identity and encourage participants to challenge and potentially shift their own perspective, understand how identity can be fluid and begin to see how identity, positionality and power are linked. Learners should be reflecting on:

  • How does self-knowledge contribute to understanding others from a different cultural background? 
  • Do you know how your identity is positioned in various cultural contexts?

Diving In, Part 1: Identity and Awareness of Self

 Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In America, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure.  It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society

-Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” (1980)

This quote from Audre Lorde is from a paper that is nearly 40 years old, yet today still rings loud and true. While Lorde specifically mentions the United States of America, across the world mythical norms exist. These norms may mirror the US definition – white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian and financially secure – but the way that they have been conceived, in other words, the historical and cultural contexts that have led to the birth of such norms might be vastly different, creating nuances that must be examined and understood. 

Image: Traffic Signal Vienna, Austria Press Democrat. Traffic signal shows two blue figures in dresses holding hands with a heart between them.
Image: Traffic Signal Vienna, Austria Press Democrat

Reflection Activity (15 minutes):

A critical dimension of the Intercultural Praxis is Inquiry, which refers to a desire and willingness to know, to ask, to find out, and to learn. Inquiry into oneself is probably the most important step in intercultural communication, so let’s turn the scope to you. 

We start this section by inviting you to engage with a personal inquiry activity. 

  1. Think about 2 or 3 ways that you identify. Some dimensions to keep in mind are gender, religion, socioeconomic class, education level, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity. It is important to note that the way that you identify may be different from the way that you are perceived — but for the purpose of this activity we want you to define yourself. 
  2. Then, reflect on a moment in your life that made your identity very salient to you :
    • Did something happen that marked when you started thinking about it?  (examples include puberty, a disruption in a parental relationship, moving to a new place for university, changing a style of dress, a new friendship or relationship)
    • When did you become conscious that this was an important piece of who you are?
    • Was there an event or experience that later solidified this identity? What was it about this event or experience that cemented this identity as an important part of who you are? 
  3. Now, think about how much of your identity is place-based. How is who you are impacted by where you are?
  • How much of your identity is informed by your physical location?
  • Did you include your nationality when reflecting on your identity?  Why or why not?
  • How prevalent is the lens of your home country when you are defining yourself and who you are?
  • Have you had experiences outside of your home country that have caused you to re-examine your own identity? 

Diving in, Part 2: Power, Privilege and Positionality: Are you a target or an agent? 

Critical reflection on identity must consider the dynamics of power, privilege and positionality. Human beings, inherently social, do not exist in individual vacuums. Our interactions are heavily influenced by where each individual’s identity exists in society—their power, privilege and positionality.

Let’s take a minute to define these three terms. To get back to the basics, Merriam Webster defines power as ability to act or produce an effect, possession of control, authority; influence over others and physical might. Privilege, according to the IFSA Butler Diversity and Inclusion Terminology, is “a special right,  advantage,  or immunity  granted  or available  only  to  a particular  person  or  group.” Lastly, positionality in the context of this module and subject matter, has been popularized by scholar Linda Martin Alcoff to mean an “understanding and description of how identity markers inform how we see the world around us and how we are seen.”

Society today operates in such a way that your identity is translated within these dynamics. Depending on who you are, you might be a target, whereby a certain aspect of your identity can be challenging, given the way society has been structured. On the other hand, aspects of your identity which have benefited from unearned privilege might place you into the agent category. It is also likely that one will have both target and agent identities at the same time. In the reflection activity below, you will examine your personal privilege, based on various dimensions of your identity.

Image from  Black and white image of a stick figure surrounded by the words "education," "income," "sex," "language," "ability," "race," and "age," with arrows pointing from the words to the figure.
Image from

Complete Activity and Reflect (40 minutes): 

Please complete this personal privilege profile activity, created by the Interaction Institute for Social Change. In it, you will identify a certain dimension of your identity (gender, race, physical functioning, socioeconomic status), classify whether this dimension holds a target (dominant) or agent (non-dominant) status of power, and identify some of the privileges or challenges that come with that status. You might find that, as mentioned above, while filling out the document you have both target and agent identities. It is also helpful to note that this activity is based within US culture, but it is possible to complete from other cultural contexts, including cultural contexts that are not an individual’s home culture. There is also space to add dimensions of identity that might not be listed but are salient to the cultural context you’re considering.


Reflection Questions:

  • How challenging was the document for you to fill out? Why or why not?
  • Was there anything surprising to you or any insight you gained when filling this out?
  • Did the number of non-dominant or dominant identities you had match how you have previously felt about your positionality within your culture?
  • How has the historical context of your country shaped/formed your identity?
  • What aspects of your identity have changed over time?
  • Did you find any part of this activity uncomfortable?

Diving in, Part 3: Why is increased self-awareness, understanding yourself and your frame of reference, a key component to be able to engage across cultures and understand others’ perspectives?

If we refer back to the dimension of Framing in the Intercultural Praxis model, we can see that our own self-awareness is key in our ability to understand the lens we use to interpret the language and actions around us and conversely help us to understand that other people have their own unique lenses as well. As stated on a previous page, we see things through individual, cultural, national, and regional frames that necessarily include some things and exclude others. It is critical that we become aware of the frames of reference from which we view and experience the world.

Listen and Reflect:

Photo from NPR’s Invisibilia Page

 Frame of Reference in NPR’s Invisibilia (59:27 min)

Reflection Questions:

  • In thinking about Kim’s story, has there been a time when you became aware that a long-held belief was in fact not true?  How did that make you feel?  How did it change you?
  • Has there been a time when you realized you had a very different perspective or frame of reference from a friend, family member or even someone you met from a different cultural background?  How did this experience make you feel?  Were you able to reconcile that both perspectives could be equally valid or did you feel the need for one of them to be “right”?
  • How are Hasan and his father’s frame of references connected to their identities and past experiences?
  • How do Hasan’s two frames of references (his own and the one influenced by his father) illustrate his identities as both a target and agent?
  • As stated in the podcast, we can have several frames of reference at the same time, but if you had to choose between Hasan’s or his father’s, which would you choose and why?

In the Intercultural Praxis Model, it is our understanding of our framing and positioning that will allow us to engage in the type of dialogue that can stretch across difference.  Dialogue is key to helping us understand that our experiences and perceptions are not universal but come  from our own unique lens.  Getting outside of oneself to critically reflect on your identity and position will help to strengthen your ability to develop empathy and understand the perspectives of others. 

Page Completion – Outcomes: 

Now that you have moved through the content of this page, you should be able to:

  • Expand your self-awareness around your identity and how it places you in society
  • Begin to interrogate power, privilege and positionality, especially as it relates to identity 

The next page will ask you to think about the reasons why we are positioned the way that we are by exploring the historical contexts of identity in Brazil, Germany, and France. You will be asked to partake in a fundamental aspect of dialogue in the ICP model, which is listening to other perspectives. 

NEXT: How does examining historically rooted inequity help us to compare and contrast contemporary local contexts of inequality and oppression? 

Citation for this page: Sandiford, N., DeGuzman, K. & Brandauer, S. (2021). Using the Intercultural Praxis Model to Build Bridges: Identity, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in a Global Context.  Can you exchange across cultural differences if you don’t have an understanding of your own identity? (Module 1) In S. Brandauer and E. Hartman (Eds.). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. The Community-based Global Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from:

See also:

Additional Resources:

Sekimoto S & Sorrells, K. (2016). Globalizing Intercultural Communication: A reader. Los  Angeles: SAGE.

Yosso, Tara J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth, Race Ethnicity and Education, 8, 69–91

Yancy, George & Alcoff, Linda (2015). ‘Philosophy’s Lost Body and Soul’ The New York Times,

Ahmed, Amer F. (2020). “ Why Transformative Accountability Will Provide Justice with Dr. Kathryn Sorrells” in The Eclectic Inclusion Podcast. retrieved on 12/28/20.


Sorrells, K. (2015). Intercultural Communication: Globalization and Social Justice (2nd ed.). SAGE Publications, Inc.

Lorde, A. (1980, April) Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. Copeland Colloquium, Amherst College.

IFSA Butler (2018). Diversity and Inclusion Terminology in a US American Cultural Context. Retrieved from:

Martin Alcoff, Linda (2019). Why do Social Identities Matter?. The Philosopher (107), 3. Retrieved from:

University of Memphis Urban-Serving Research Mission (2019). Module 2: Privilege within Group Dynamics.  Retrieved from:

Interaction Institute for Social Change (2011). Personal Privilege Profile. Retrieved from:

Uehlinger, Christa. Intercultural Competence, But What is It?. Sietar Switzerland. Retrieved from:

Video and Audio Resources

Defining Intercultural Competence. Louise Giesbrecht (2014). [Video]. YouTube. by NPR. Frame of Reference. (2016)  [Podcast]. Retrieved from: