What Nicki Minaj can teach you about social identities

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

Social identity theory is based on two assumptions:

  1. We define ourselves as both an individual (our individual identity) and as a member of meaningful groups (our social identity)

  2. We really want to have a positive identity so we will do anything we can to make it feel like our ingroups (to which we belong) are superior to other related outgroups (groups which are similar to ours but to which we do not belong)

Basically, if we feel that the groups we belong to have high-status we feel great: less stressed and less depressed. And, guess what, the reverse is also true: being in a low-status group is associated with a greater risk of all types of mental disorder including stress and depression.

But you can't have a situation where every group is on top. So what do you do when your group seems to have low-status? Like being a Coldplay fan or something.

First of all your options will depend on two things:

  1. The permeability of your group

  2. The security of the hierarchy that your group sits in


Permeability refers to whether or not you think you can get out of your low-status group and into a higher-status one. So you might think that impermeability is bad - you're trapped in a low-status group which is affecting your wellbeing. But it's more complicated than that. The thing is, impermeability leads to a stronger shared social identity. This makes sense - when you know you're all in the same boat and none of you can get off, you're going to band together. What's more, strongly identifying with a group, even when it's a low-status one, enhances wellbeing.

So, wait - being in a low-status group is bad for you ...and good for you?

Well, yes, and here's how it works. Being in a low-status group, where you suffer discrimination and stigma - that feels bad. Let's say you're from a poor family who live in a poor area. Sometimes you want to distance yourself from that social identity. You try not to mix too much with other people from the group because they remind you of the shame and stigma that goes with group membership.

But that's usually the worst thing you can do because you are in danger simply of alienating yourself. You don't get the support from the other group members who are experiencing similar disadvantage, and you don't identify with the people outside your group who can't really relate to your experiences.

What works better is when you identify more strongly with your group, however down-trodden it may be. Actively seek out others who face similar discrimination and disadvantage, contribute to creating a sense of community in your group, support others and receive support from them in return. This is what leads to better mental health, even in the face of discrimination and disadvantage.

The Security of Intergroup Relations

Once your group has this strong sense of social identity it might start to look at the wider context and think about how the group inequalities could be challenged. This is where the perceived security of inter-group relations comes in. Three conditions are necessary for the low-status group to really get going on challenging the status quo:

  1. Your group must feel that the current situation is wrong

  2. Your group must be able to see how things could be better

  3. Your group must feel that there are realistic ways of changing things for the better

So then the question becomes, how does a low-status group start to lift up its chin and see how things could get better? The answer to that is: leadership. Not a leader to change everyone's mind, but a leader who articulates what everyone's already thinking. Someone with the practical skills and strategic insight to take existing feeling, ideas and beliefs and show everyone how they look as real, practical action. This is is when activism and social change are likely.

And finally, if number three is still looking sticky, maybe because the high-status group is very powerful and unwilling to give up any of that power, there's a further factor that can really help the low-status group - looking to the larger context. Gaining support from groups outside of their immediate context, such as appealing to people from neighbouring countries, or even far-off countries. This is why social media has had such an impact on social change.

But what if you just can't change things?

Even if all of the above options lead nowhere and your low-status group is still subjugated by an all powerful higher power - even here there are still options. Here are two of them.

The first of these is to re-frame the way you compare your low-status ingroup against the relevant outgroups. Let's say your ingroup is the football team you support. It gets relegated and is clearly worse at football than all of the clubs based nearby. You can't go about bragging about the football your team plays - you have to re-frame the comparison. Rather than talking about football, you emphasise the fact that your club has the most loyal fans, or toughest fans, or any other dimension on which you can realistically argue you are on the top.

The second option is to appropriate the tools of oppression used by the dominant group. If being black is the target, your group takes that very attribute and turns it into the thing about which you are most proud. As far back as the 1920s Marcus Garvey was campaigning and exhorting black Americans to embrace the idea that Black is Beautiful - long before it became a more mainstream slogan in the 1960s .

And language, as the key tool of oppression, can be similarly appropriated. If Queer or Bitch or N*gger is used to denigrate your group, take that word and turn it into a means of empowerment. Here, finally, is your lesson from Nicki Minaj because there are few people appropriate oppressive language with as much gusto as her. You'll find examples in almost every song she's ever been associated with, but Boss Ass Bitch (actually a PTAF song, but it's no coincidence that she did a cover of it) - that's as good an example as you'll find. Research it at your own risk...