Exploring Identity, Celebrating Difference

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Wednesday, April 10, 2024
By Binod Sundararajan, Malavika Sundararajan
Photo by iStock/Eduard Figueres
By facilitating safe discussions about personal identity, we create space where students learn to view human differences not as obstacles, but as benefits.
  • Human beings often predominantly define themselves based on one of four aspects of personal identity: body, mind, memory, or intellect.
  • In educational contexts, this means that students—and even faculty—can be so caught up in their own personal identities that their words and actions alienate those from marginalized communities.
  • Schools can integrate exercises into their workshops and courses that help individuals shift from being threatened by difference to appreciating the commonalities that all humans share.


“Invite people into your life who don’t look or act like you. You might find they challenge your assumptions and make you grow.”—Melody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments 

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” —Audre Lorde, author and poet

The insights above highlight the ideal of diversity that many higher education institutions are trying to reach, as well as the pervasive divisions that hinder their efforts. Many schools strive to make students feel welcomed, often with the help of champions from underrepresented communities. Unfortunately, those efforts can be undermined by the persistence of homophily on many campuses, in which people seek to associate with others like themselves, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Many theories explain the social reasons why human beings exhibit homophily, which include benefits such as increased social support and stronger ties to community. However, the phenomenon can create barriers for members of marginalized groups in many contexts, including higher education.

To foster educational environments where all students, faculty, and staff feel welcomed, educators must find ways to limit or remove approaches that intensify homophilic tendencies and marginalize those from diverse backgrounds. By doing so, they will help ensure inclusive and equitable access to quality education, which is among the commitments highlighted in the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Business schools can have a lasting, positive impact by helping the world achieve this goal. Whether by offering carefully designed workshops or implementing deep curricular changes, educators can design educational environments where everyone feels welcome, recognized, and valued.

Identity as Obstacle to Diversity

Given that people often exhibit an “inability to celebrate differences,” as Lorde puts it above, this will be a challenging task. For example, just consider the statements below, which the two of us have heard on our own campuses:

    “I am not sure how many of you got admission to this program. Many of you will probably fail this class.” (A professor to a first-year graduate class)

    “We don’t know your name, so maybe we can call you Dookus?” (A professor to a graduate student from a marginalized community)

    “These days all you need to do is to paint yourself brown or black and pretend to be gay, and you will get everything.” (A professor to a group of students)

    “Surprised you are here and not at home cooking.” (A male academic to a female academic)

    “I am a full professor, and she is only an associate professor. Even if [referring to her by first name, not her title] is in an administrative role, I am still her senior.” (A male professor to a graduate class, referring to a female colleague) 

    “I cannot work with that person because I cannot understand their accent or what they are saying. Not sure if they cheated their way into this program and their classes.” (A student from a privileged background about an international student)

    “I think they are just pretending to be First Nation. No one ever checks this, and they’ll sail through just because they are [using air quotes] ‘Indigenous.’” (A student from a privileged background about an Indigenous student)

    “I’ve worked so hard, but they said something about a mental health issue and did not complete the work. Now I must carry that load. We’ll all end up with the same marks, but they got through by doing nothing.” (A student about a teammate)

The people who uttered these statements had not considered perspectives other than their own; they failed to see the detrimental impact that their statements might have on others. Their words—which are rife with fear, disgust, anger, frustration, or jealousy—are deeply entangled in their own identities.

Personal identity and sense of self—otherwise known as the ego—are often shaped during the formative years of childhood. But that does not mean that our identities cannot be affected once childhood is over. Once our students are settled on campus and ready to learn, they can be encouraged to look beyond their personal identities and cultivate an understanding of other perspectives.

Teaching the Cognitive-Affective Component

When we view the world only through our personal identities, we tend to divide human experience into “me/mine” and “other”—often to the detriment of others. When we cling to our identities too strongly, we also can create problems for ourselves. These problems can come in the form of unhealthy attachments to desires or outcomes, as well as emotions such as anger and sorrow. 

On the other hand, when we acknowledge the power of the ego and take steps to rise above it, we can promote greater harmony in our relationships. On a spiritual level, Tattvavidananda, a Vedic teacher, puts it this way: “Transcending from local to universal consciousness of oneness helps one become free of the anxiety of being different from others and therefore feeling inadequate.”

The cognitive-affective component describes how our thoughts about ourselves and the world can cause us to form intentions about how we should behave.

Throughout their daily activities, people define themselves predominantly by one of four aspects of identity: body, mind, memory, or intellect:

  • Individuals who identify too heavily with the body are more likely to feel either inferior or superior to those who look different than they do, which can lead to feelings of resentment or beliefs that those who are different do not deserve the same advantages. In educational environments, this can instill in students a sense of fear or anxiety that drives them to spend less time on learning and more time on proving that they are better than others.
  • Those who identify with the mind or memory might not accept people with viewpoints and memories that are different from their own. (On a more positive note, the opposite can also be true—these individuals might also exhibit selfless behaviors, in which they take other viewpoints into account.)
  • Individuals who identify with the intellect often are not bound as tightly to preconceptions as others might be. That said, those who overintellectualize can be condescending toward those with body-, mind-, and memory-based identities.

Regardless of which aspect students identify with the most, we can show them that body, mind, memory, and intellect are interconnected parts of a whole, forming what we call the cognitive-affective component of the self. The cognitive-affective component describes how our thoughts about ourselves and the world can lead to pleasant and unpleasant feelings toward ourselves and others (as well as objects and situations). These thoughts can cause us to form intentions about how we should behave.

With this understanding, students realize that the four aspects of identity are simply tools that they can use to achieve goals—and that their own preferences and roles are accessories that they don over their main costumes. In other words, they learn that they and the other people they encounter are human beings first. They then can shift toward more inclusive points of view (see the table below).

The Impact of the Cognitive-Affective Component

An Individual’s Predominant Identification  Body Mind Memory Intellect
Positive Traits Physical abilities such as strength, stamina, flexibility, coordination, psychomotor skills, and sensory skills. Emotional intelligence, as well as perceptual, verbal, quantitative, and spatial understanding of the world. Ability to connect past to present conditions, as well as to recall people, skills, behaviors, and lessons learned. High levels of reasoning and decision-making ability, discernment, and dispassion.
Potential Negative Outcomes

Tendency to differentiate based on superficial features, obsess about physical needs and outward appearances, and feel inferior or superior to others based on physical appearance and abilities.

Obsession with personal likes and dislikes, which can lead to obsessive and addictive desires, as well as cycles of extreme emotion (such as those involving anger and sorrow). The frequency and intensity of such cycles—and the time it takes to return to equilibrium—can be extreme and unhealthy if not well-managed.

Attachment to memories, desire to relive them (particularly those that are traumatic), and an inability to forgive others or let go of past pain.

Tendency to rationalize wrong choices, be overly proud of intellectual prowess, and lack kindness or empathy—primarily toward those who identify with body, mind, and memory.

Mindsets that displace a negative focus (highlighting difference) with a positive focus (cultivating understanding and empathy) Understand that the body is only a vehicle that people can use to achieve their goals. While it is important to respect and take care of the body, people must learn not to obsess over their bodies or overemphasize physical differences between themselves and others.  

Understand that it is the nature of the mind to vacillate between likes and dislikes. To avoid becoming trapped in cycles of negative emotions, people must learn to be clear about their life goals and focus on emotions and preferences that support those goals. View desires as preferences, but do not let them become the basis for addictions.

Value memories as tools that help people assimilate knowledge, but gradually let go of hurtful and unhelpful memories. Recognize that good and bad times come for everyone and focus on the present needs of the mind.

Focus on one’s own life and responsibilities without interfering in the lives and choices of others. Maintain a healthy respect for the contributions of body, mind, and memories, while developing greater dispassion for all identities. Engage in ongoing activities dedicated to gradual self-improvement and personal growth.

Educators can embed these ideas across any management curriculum, or they can teach them as part of a class or workshop. Below, we describe several exercises that faculty use to integrate these concepts into curricula and ongoing workshops at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Programmatic Changes Around Difference

At Dalhousie University, ideas of equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and decolonization (EDIAD) are embedded across the entire MBA curriculum. Course syllabi list topics based on EDIAD concepts and the SDGs. Further, faculty incorporate into class discussions real-world cases related to topics such as how historically marginalized groups have been deprived of access to financing for entrepreneurial ventures or how accounting of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues can favor some societal groups more than others. 

Early in the program, MBA students take two courses related to EDIAD and ESG. These courses provide students with a foundation of knowledge that they can use throughout the rest of the program. In many courses, students engage in individual reflections on these topics and complete team assignments that offer more practical experience.

This includes Interdisciplinary Management, a first-year two-term course that introduces EDIAD concepts to students in Dalhousie’s Bachelor of Management program. Here, students learn about unconscious biases, inequitable access to knowledge and education, and the interconnectedness between EDIAD and the SDGs. 

The following short exercises (that emphasize anonymous responses) are used in several MBA classes and an online faculty workshop:

Exercise 1: Participants are presented with a list of inspirational quotes and then asked to complete a survey (using Google Forms) in which they note their favorites. Next, they are shown the quotes’ authors, who represent different cultures, religions, races, and nationalities. They are asked, “Would you select the same quotes, knowing this information?” Sometimes, students are given prompts to discuss whether humans share certain universal values regardless of backgrounds. By focusing on what humans have in common, students and faculty often can rise above perceived differences. 

Exercise 2: Participants are asked to add their fears on a shared Padlet virtual “bulletin board.” They also post elements to the board that they would like to change in their workplaces, classrooms, or school. After completing this exercise, they share ideas for creating environments where people feel free to express themselves in ways that do not cause harm to others or themselves. 

Participants appreciate gaining insights into how their own emotions arise from their lived experiences, and many note that they feel more comfortable working with people outside their own isolated groups.

Exercise 3: Using the interactive presentation platform Mentimeter, participants are asked to enter a word that describes what a happy workplace or welcoming space looks like to them, before discussing how the resulting word cloud clarifies their expectations on this topic. 

Exercise 4: Participants are provided a sheet of paper and asked to write, in a column provided on the lefthand side, the names or initials of their 10 most trusted friends and acquaintances, excluding family members. The paper has been folded to hide the eight columns to the right, each describing a personal attribute (gender, race or ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, education, having a visible or invisible disability, marital status, and social class). After writing down their 10 names, participants are instructed to unfold the paper to reveal the remaining columns and place checkmarks next to the attributes they believe most closely represent each person on their lists.

Most participants are surprised to see how homogeneous their “trusted 10” are. This exercise offers them insights into how homophily works in their own lives. They then can consider how they can go out of their comfort zones, overcome conscious and unconscious biases, and reach out to others different from themselves. 

A Shift From ‘One’ to ‘All’ 

Participants have said that they appreciate that these exercises provide them with anonymous platforms where they can express their concerns and ideas without being judged. They also appreciate the insights these activities provide into what others think about DEI, as well as into how their own emotions arise from their lived experiences, fears, biases, and attachments to certain individual, group, cultural, ethnic, or other identities. Best of all, many participants note that, after these conversations, they are likely to feel far more comfortable working with people outside their own isolated groups.

As educational leaders, we have a responsibility to provide time—whether during our classes, workshops, DEI fairs, festivals, or other activities—for students, faculty, and staff to process their emotions and thoughts about DEI. By giving them space to explore the cause of divisions and overcome fear and anxiety about difference, we set them up for far greater success in the workplace and in their lives. 

When our schools deliver training that supports this cognitive and emotional shift, we will graduate more students who no longer see difference as an obstacle. Rather, they will revere the interconnectedness among all people and communities.

Binod Sundararajan
Professor of Management, Departments of Leadership & Organizations and Marketing, Faculty of Management, Dalhousie University
Malavika Sundararajan
Associate Professor of Management, Anisfield School of Business, Ramapo College of New Jersey
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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