“Among the oppressed… the will to power appears as the will to freedom” (Ng, 1980: 40) [emphasis added].

In paying homage to Friedrich Nietzsche’s, The Will to Power, Ng (1980) describes how subordinate groups have the ability to free themselves from the figurative ‘governing grip’ of a dominant group through self-construal, or the act of social creative construction of one’s identity. This notion of being able to have a fluid identity is extrapolated from several identity theories, including Social Identity Theory (hereafter SIT) and its subset theory of social categorizations. Although subordinate groups may exercise what appears to be a sense of agency from hierarchical constraints through identity construction and re-categorization, existing literature dismisses the difficulty in escaping assumed identities imposed on them by more dominant groups (Mitchell, 2010; Hopkins & Greenwood, 2013). It also dismisses a low-status group’s attempt to preserve their identity, despite negative perceptions from the high-status groups. Conflict within the subordinate groups about identity construction provides a subset of challenges as it relates to the third-party gaze of more domineering groups, thus positioning self-construal as a false sense of agency and becoming the basis for their struggle amidst what this paper labels as voyeuristic oppression. This creative construction may provide psychological comfort in the short term for the group who has low status and power in relation to the high-power group, yet it scarcely questions the existing social hierarchy (Yzerbyt & Demoulin, 2010). Group categorization of identity may not necessarily be pressurized nor inclined to submit to a superordinate group to create a positive representation, as SIT suggests.

This paper extrapolates theories on social behaviour as it relates to intergroup relations of status and power, including concepts from Social Identity Theory. It demonstrates how Social Identity Theory highlights a false sense of agency in identity construction among low-status groups against dominant outgroups, while also ignoring the impact of third-party voyeurism that further constrains and oppresses the notion of self-construal among subordinate groups. It also dismisses the desire for subordinate groups to solidify their identity despite negative perceptions from the superordinate group. To conclude, future considerations for research will be drawn upon to offer potential examinations in the pursuit of a balance between hierarchical institutions and subordinate communities.


Social Identity Theory was developed by Tajfel and Turner (1986) as a way to explain intergroup relations. The theory provides insight into how an individual’s identity and status is created in relation to ingroup belonging from the outgroup, whether differences in status were obtained in a legitimate manner, and how fluid the ingroup’s identity is in relation to the outgroup. This self-construal process in SIT is what is known as social categorization, where individuals account for the fluidity of their identity by recategorizing and shifting aspects of their selves to other cultures depending on the context. Although these theories tend to highlight identities as typically polarizing entities and binary opposites (Howarth et al., 2013), cultural identities can yield and adopt additional characteristics of other groups, including attitudes, beliefs and rituals. Relatable theories of SIT, including Identity Process Theory and Optimal Distinctiveness Theory, delineate how groups can simultaneously maintain a stable identity while adapting to other cultural aspects over time in order to satisfy opposing needs for sameness with ingroups and develop distinctions from outgroups (Brewer et al., 1991; Brewer, M.B. et al., 1996). For example, Zárate (2010) introduces the concept of cultural inertia, where individuals have a desire to either evade or assume cultural change. The dominant, native group maintains their identity, and the subordinate outgroup may renounce aspects of their group identity to adopt a new one. Because of this, subordinate groups can also be seen in a positive light (Zárate, 2010). In this sense, it is more useful to think about identity holistically as opposed to seeing multiple identities as separate units. Thus, the seemingly dichotomous framework of cultural identities, as Kitayama & Cohen (2007) and Tajfel (1981) argue, is more fluid and context-dependent in nature. It is this tension between fixity and flexibility that makes intergroup relations a complex relationship that is difficult to define (Reicher, 2004).


The following section outlines how native, dominant, high-status groups constrain the management of a positive identity among subordinate, low-status groups. Using SIT as a critical frame of reference, it examines how dominant groups appropriate a third-party gaze (or what this paper deems as ‘voyeuristic oppression’) that affects identity development among minorities. It further investigates how self-categorization may not necessarily be pressurized nor inclined to submit to a superordinate group to create a positive representation, as SIT suggests.


The Mexican Americans identity in the face of Mexican nationals and white America


In order to reduce intergroup bias and manage cultural contact, cultural subgroup identities can be maintained within a greater cultural framework (Gaertner et al., 2000; Hewstone & Brown, 1986; Hornsey & Hogg, 2000, as cited by Zárate, 2010). Although individuals and groups seek to massage their identities in fostering a sense of belonging or separateness from other groups, positive and negative effects have been examined through this malleability. For instance, Zárate (2010) discusses how Mexican Americans establish and maintain a positive and distinct identity from Mexican Nationals and White Americans in order to avoid potential threats to their group’s distinct identity. While Mexican Americans select certain characteristics from Mexican and American cultures, they simultaneously attempt to re-categorize and create a distinctive subgroup that separates them from other LatinX communities and white nationalism. This reflects Brown’s (2000) and Tajfel and Turner’s (1986) observation that there is a need for groups to differentiate themselves from their ingroup when similarities exist between them.

While the above example highlights how Mexican Americans maintain certain aspects of their culture and dispose of other aspects to create a divergent subgroup in relation to the dominant outgroup, the treatment of this subgroup by the dominant American national identity continues to preserve a framework that identifies Mexican Americans as a group of low-status individuals. While SIT stresses the importance of attaining a positive sense of identity within the ingroup, such as assimilating to native cultural practices (Brown, 2000), such categorizations can still be rejected as a result of voyeuristic oppression. According to research conducted by Kohut et al. (2006), there continues to be a perception of native, white Americans towards Mexican Americans as threats to traditional American values, especially if they do not assimilate to the dominant, collective identity (Johnson et al., 1997, as cited by Esses et al., 2001). This notion of third-party voyeurism is not accounted for in SIT; while the theory suggests that social representation can still be rejected amongst the dominant group, it dismisses the larger issue of the pressure from the third-party gaze among a group’s re-categorization. While the idea of having a fluid identity may propose an illusion to escape the constrictions that dominant groups pose on subordinate ones, it may encapsulate a lack of stability with regards to the ingroup and outgroup, which can further perpetuate alienation and ambiguity of one’s socio-economic status. Additionally, it emphasizes the influential power of systemic and institutionalized ideologies over a group’s ability to attempt to re-categorize itself within a larger socio-cultural framework of the dominant, native ingroup.

The use of the hijab among Muslim women in western nations

Vygotsky (1978), Foucault (1982) and Reicher (2004) address the need for individuals and groups to self-categorize to express how they want others to see them. This is often expressed through what the authors as well as Gillespie (2009) call semiotic mediation and symbolic medium. Gillespie argues that groups can embrace their differences, so as long as there is a “mutual understanding of that difference” (2009: 37). Mutual understanding may be difficult for high-power groups, however, as power is often associated with difficulty in considering others’ perceptions (Galinsky et al., 2006). Individuals need to be conscious and take responsibility to shift their personal perspectives and ideals and embrace differences. Howarth et al. further denote that it is this pursuit of “unique and definable identity that fuels… our maintenance of cultural borders and boundaries – real and symbolic” (2014: 3).

Hopkins & Greenwood (2013) explore this idea of meta-perspectives and identity performance through semiotic mediation among the experience of British Muslim women wearing the hijab (a head scarf that covers a woman’s hair) in the United Kingdom. Although there are multiple reasons for wearing the hijab, it predominantly reflects Qur’anic beliefs and practices (Hopkins & Greenwood, 2013). In addressing this tension between multiple meanings, Muslim women have become reflexive and aware of third-party perceptions as they relate to white, British nationalism. The challenge for these women is asserting their categorization amongst others’ assumptions within their community and controlling the narrative of their own individuality towards the outgroup. This presents both an internal and external challenge between the ingroup, British Muslim women wearing a hijab, and the outgroup, or white British nationalism. Hopkins and Greenwood demonstrate the “psychological significance of visibility of a Muslim audience” (2013: 441) when Muslims feel pleasure in wearing their hijab to confirm their belonging to the community and their group membership. Tension accumulates with an inability to escape stereotypes and public anxieties of Muslims from outgroups, particularly in the U.K. and in the context of Islamophobia (Modood, 2003). Doosje et al. acknowledge this challenge through the “ongoing debate concerning their national history which implies that belonging to a particular group is likely to evoke emotional response even when the individuals involved bear no personal responsibility for their group’s actions” (1998: 872).  For example, non-Muslims may interpret hijab-wearing women as a threat based on outgroup perceptions of the hijab, making the Muslim community vulnerable to mis-categorisations via Islamophobic stereotypes, including terrorism (Haddad, 2007; Williamson & Khiabany, 2010, as cited by Hopkins and Greenwood, 2013). Despite Islamophobic representations of Muslim religion, the hijab’s meaning differs between communities and power structures (Haddad, 2007). As an individual asserts her identity to the ingroup, outgroup social hierarchies penalize her through stereotypes based on what she chooses to wear. Developing fluid identities as an attempt to escape harmful stereotypes and identity binaries thus presents a false sense of agency in the wake of a third-party gaze.

Furthermore, the pursuit of representing an individual’s or group’s identity, in this instance, seems to override the need to positively express self-identification or self-categorization, which SIT overlooks. The inability to escape Muslim stereotypes and Islamophobia and the symbolic representation of wearing a hijab to characterise one’s (and a group’s) identity is appropriated despite negative consequences from the dominant ingroup. Bleich (2009) for example, highlights how Muslims were perceived as low-status groups that often experience racism and discrimination in France and Britain. Thus, opposing SIT’s stance, outgroups, such as ethno-racial outsiders within a native and dominant society, may still attempt to pursue and maintain their group’s identity despite it being negatively represented. Semiotic mediation can thus be perceived as perhaps a consideration with regards to SIT as strengthened by an inclusion of understanding for both self-presentation of identity (through symbols, like the hijab) and the gaze of others, and how this recognizes and misrecognizes an individual’s or group’s belonging to a social category, thus either granting or denying them the right to resources and spaces on the basis of inclusion and exclusion. Despite some ethno-racialized subgroups wanting to seek a positive identity within a more dominant group, it is not always applicable to subgroups who wish to preserve their cultural identities despite its negative interpretation from a third-party gaze. This example further suggests that outgroups are willing to pursue what may appear to be a negative identity to uphold their own personal beliefs as individuals and group representation.

Representations of Blackness amidst white nationalism


The ability to create distinct subgroup identities within a larger community presents individuals with the freedom to protect intragroup cultural practices from outgroup influences, while simultaneously presenting a second set of challenges to identity. Not only may subordinate groups attempt to maintain a positive identity in relation to national identities because of their categorization as a low-status group (Tajfel & Turner, 1986; Brown, 2000), they also impose a secondary layer of maintenance in strengthening their subgroup identity within their own cultural framework. An example of such a cultural phenomenon exists within the African diaspora in the United States as it relates to skin tone. Bayton and Muldrow (1968), as cited by Maddox et al., found that black individuals with a lighter skin tone were perceived as having higher “social mobility, sociability and emotional stability than dark-skinned Blacks” (2012: 251) because institutions value whiteness. Moreover, the authors discovered that skin tone applied to Black individuals within society: more negative stereotypes were attributed to dark-skinned individuals than light-skin (Maddox et al., 2012). Howarth et al. (2014) also observed the practice of bleaching one’s skin to feel a sense of belonging to a community that holds a higher status and to an extent, power (i.e. white communities).

In this example, intergroup prejudices among the African diaspora between light and dark-skin individuals perpetuate the challenge of third-party perceptions and status. As Cunningham notes, black individuals with light skin “encounter prejudice from the dominant culture but also experience a subdued rejection from its own community” (2010: 375). This study bolsters the notion that while individuals and groups may feel they have the freedom to choose and change their identity to maintain their culture, dominant institutional frameworks of the outgroup (i.e. white community) offer a false sense of agency as it relates to intragroup relations of the low-status group. In this regard, the dominant group surrounding white nationalism not only poses a threat to the low-status group of black individuals, but further perpetuates a negative intragroup sentiment between light-skin and dark-skin individuals. This highlights the saliency of third-party voyeurism and the powerful effects it has on intragroup relations, which SIT does not account for. It further implies that identity may not be as fluid as the theory appears to suggest.

A similar history is elucidated in Brazil in the early 1900s when the population praised white skin over dark skin. In Nobles’s work in Shades of Citizenship (2000), Brazil adopted skin colour categorizations to strengthen an elite racist philosophy to minimize the black population and increase white supremacy. However, Brazil later adopted the practice of racial miscegenation, a mixed-race society that allowed Brazilians to classify themselves as brown; individuals with a lighter or darker skin colour could self-identify with one group, while other groups could categorize themselves as belonging to another group (Mitchell, 2010). In this sense, Brazilians were able to change their identity preference through skin colour based on social contexts under the gaze of a white, colonial mandate. However, it was the prerogative of the dominant outgroup to implement such cultural practices. To substantiate this point, Howarth et al. argue that “social structures and institutionalised ideologies shape cultural identities and acculturation practices” (2013: 22). The Brazilian government mandated a false sense of belonging in intragroup relations in order to cement white nationalism, thus further reifying the strength of voyeuristic oppression from high-status groups over low-status ones.

Another example is the issue of the American police force and their brutal crimes against the black community (Chaney & Robinson, 2015). The authors found that the murder of unarmed black men and women strengthened white supremacy in America. This premise is based on the history of black individuals as slaves during the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States, and the presumption that black communities are criminal and sub-human (Chaney & Robinson, 2015). Their study showcases the lack of trust in the police to protect black communities and reinforces a power dynamic between a low-status (and low-power), subordinate group (black individuals) and a high-power superordinate group (white individuals in the police force).

While this example may be further explained by Social Dominance Theory (SDT), facets of the theory can be addressed with SIT. For example, minority groups can use their status to strengthen their community and influence the dominant ingroup to help their less dominant outgroup. SIT does not explain the notion of what Jost et al. mention as a “prevalence of outgroup favoritism among members of low-status groups” (2004: 881). For example, the powerful dialogue surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality has garnered support from groups with high-status and power structures among white communities. Showing Up for Racial Justice is an American organization that encourages white individuals and groups to become allies to black individuals and communities. While this demonstrates both the influence subordinate groups have to superordinate ones, and the consideration that high-status to balance power dynamics between communities, it further exemplifies how subordinate groups (i.e. black individuals) attempt to solidify their identity in the face of subjugation (i.e. white racist individuals), despite the negative representations drawn from voyeuristic oppression.


The examples of which subordinate groups maintain their group identity, despite potential negative perceptions from the superordinate ones, are not always possible. Voyeuristic oppression perhaps can shed light on why some ethno-racial outgroups are unable to maintain a positive identity within the dominant ingroup, which is not addressed in Social Identity Theory. It may also be observed as extremely problematic in that while identity creation can be fluid and malleable in some respects, group self-categorization and representation may only be supported when it is accepted among the superordinate group. Of course, this cannot be the case, as numerous historical examples defeats this conception, including the peaceful co-existence of Arab Jews, Arab Christians and Arab Muslim in Palestine prior to World War II. Conversely, however, the use of voyeuristic oppression presently threatens Palestine and Israel’s current conflict as it relates to colonial empowerment.

Despite some ethno-racialized subgroups wanting to seek a positive identity within a more dominant group, it is not always applicable to subgroups who wish to preserve their cultural identities despite its negative interpretation from a third-party gaze. Outgroups are willing to pursue what may appear to be a negative identity to uphold their own personal beliefs as individuals and group representation. While this paper briefly addresses the use of semiotic mediation and the importance of a mutual understanding between intergroup differences, perhaps this aspect should be considered as advocacy for more open and frequent intergroup dialogue, as opposed to mere symbolic representation of one’s group identity. As it relates to SIT, intergroup dynamics are strengthened by an inclusion of understanding for both self-presentation of identity and the gaze of others, how these are interpreted as they are intended to or not, and either granting or denying them the right to be included or excluded.


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