When Do People Reject an Identity That Was Once Important to Them?
Each of us can place ourselves into various categories based on characteristics like our gender, religion, occupation, age, and so forth. But only some of these groups are particularly important to how we see ourselves. When belonging to a group shapes our self-concept, social psychologists call this a social identity. Not everyone embraces particular social identities to the same degree, however. Sometimes people may even reject a social identity that was once important to them. People are especially likely to abandon an identity once considered important when that identity becomes “socially problematic.” For example, when an identity becomes associated with groups that are low in status, groups that have beliefs that are taboo, or groups that engage in harmful behavior, individuals are likely to want to distance themselves from such groups.
One example of a social identity that some people have come to view as undesirable is the sense of attachment some White people have with their racial group. For many White Americans, a strong racial identity may seem natural and normal. Research I conducted with Nathan Kalmoe and Kimberly Gross finds that at many points in time over the past decade, between 30 and 40 percent of White people have reported on national public opinion surveys that their racial identity is very or extremely important to them.
Across many years of public opinion survey data, these levels of racial identity among the White American population did not change very much. At least that was the case until immediately after the 2016 presidential election, when there was a considerable decline in the percentage of White people who reported strongly identifying with their racial group. This decline ranged from 8 to 17 percentage points across the surveys we examined.
The Need For Positive Self-Regard
Often we think of social identities as being long-held and resistant to change. But according to psychological theories about social identities (like social identity theory), group identities can also be incredibly dynamic—fluctuating in response to how they are viewed in the current political or social environment. Because social identities fulfill a need for us to see ourselves positively, people want to be associated with groups that they view favorably and that they believe are viewed favorably by others. When perceptions of public opinion about the group appear to change, individuals’ commitment to their group may decline. So what changed in the political environment to cause some White people to abandon their racial identity?
How Disgust Can Influence the Importance of a Social Identity
Over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, media attention around White racial identity grew considerably. Much of this coverage associated White identity politics with racial prejudice, White nationalism, and White supremacy. White identity and each of these troubling phenomena were also strongly tied to Donald Trump. We speculated that these associations, and in particular the strong negative emotional reactions some White people had toward Trump, may have led some White people to try to distance themselves from their racial identity.
There are a number of negative emotional reactions that individuals may have had toward Donald Trump, but we focused in particular on disgust. Disgust, which literally means “bad taste,” is a negative emotion like anger, sadness, or anxiety. But it is also a unique emotion in that it is associated with withdrawal and revulsion, which means that it may play a unique role in weakening group attachments. That is, when someone feels disgusted by something that is strongly associated with a group identity, they may be especially inclined to distance themselves from that identity.
Disgust can be evoked by physical experiences (“physical disgust”) or by situations, moral offenses, and injustices (“social disgust”). Trump’s value violations during the 2016 campaign may have elicited disgust among many Americans. Trump was credibly accused of sexual misconduct, he made offensive statements regarding religions, disabled people, prisoners of war, and of people of color. All of these behaviors may have generated feelings of disgust toward Trump. As a result, many White people who felt disgust may have chosen to distance themselves with a racial identity strongly associated with the object of their disgust.
Using national panel survey data, in which the same individuals were surveyed twice—once before the 2016 presidential election and once after—we were able to examine which factors were associated with some White people’s decision to disavow their racial identity. We found that relative to any other emotional reaction a person had toward Trump, the most important factor in whether a person reported lower levels of White identity after the election was the whether the person felt disgusted with Trump.
Our findings provide important evidence that individuals possessing strong social identities may respond to social and political contexts by becoming less attached to a group identity when that identity loses social value. Importantly, our work highlights the especially unique role of disgust, which may be particularly effective at pushing people away from their social identities.
For Further Reading
Jardina, A., Kalmoe, N. P., & Gross, K. (2020). Disavowing white identity: How social distancing can change social identities. Political Psychology, 42(4), 619–636. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12717
Jardina, A. (2019). White identity politics. Cambridge University Press.
Ashley Jardina is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University. She studies racial attitudes, group identities, and their political consequences.