Lecture Me! On naming and framing: Perceptions of racial group labels
Dr. Sonia Kang on the uncertainty around using correct and appropriate labels.

“Identity is how we make sense of who we are, as it relates to the social groups we are members of,” says Dr. Sonia Kang, associate professor of organizational behaviour and HR management, in her Lecture Me! talk. Dr. Kang is also a special advisor on anti-racism and equity at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), as well as a Canada research chair in identity, diversity, and inclusion within the department of management at UTM and at the Rotman School of Management. 

Lecture Me! is a series held in collaboration with the UTM Office of the Dean and the Experiential Education Unit and is hosted monthly by the Mississauga Library through Webex. In this series, UTM faculty give presentations to the Mississauga community about research being conducted at the campus. 

Dr. Kang is the first of six UTM faculty members to showcase their research in this year’s Lecture Me! series. Her recent research projects, completed with her PhD student Grusha Agarwal, explore the challenges and opportunities of identity, diversity, and inclusion. In her presentation, Dr. Kang speaks on the preferences and perceptions of racial group labels, as well as whether racial group labels accurately describe individuals. 

“Diversity is about creating spaces where there is good representation of people from all types of identities,” explains Dr. Kang on the topic of race and how people can feel uncomfortable when—for example—they are asked to report racial identity through workplace surveys and national censuses. “Racial group labels are used in informal and formal contexts,” she continues. 

Some of the racial group labels that are widespread and used are those pertaining to racialized, equity-seeking, and underrepresented minorities. Dr. Kang states that “although these labels are used widely, there is growing support for movements like Black Lives Matter and other movements that aim to dismantle systemic racism, especially anti-black and anti-Indigenous racism.” However, she adds that “there is no consensus on the correct or appropriate labels to use for racial minority groups.” This is a complex issue that factors into the decisions of how people feel and use labels.

The current literature that exists within this research does not yield a unified collective terminology lexicon to refer to racial minority groups. The terms that we use in Canada widely differ from the terminology used in the United States. Likewise, different situations and workplaces will also use different terminology when referring to racial minority groups. According to Dr. Kang, “terms used are very fluid and change from context to context. Individuals themselves can also be very fluid in the racial labels they apply to themselves and other people.”

Dr. Kang started her research by posing the question “What is your race?” She shares that people answer this question in many ways, and that we often think about race as a social construct. Race is not based on biological or physical differences, she observes. Rather, it is “based upon how we as a society ascribe different categories.” 

Dr. Kang’s study was broken down into four parts. First, Kang’s colleagues showed participants labels that are commonly used in census questions. They were then asked to self-identify with terms that might not be included in the current census. Additionally, participants were asked about their feelings and perceptions, the appropriateness and inclusivity of the terms that were used in various contexts, and how they perceived the negative stereotypes. They also generated their own racial group labels—ones which they felt the most comfortable with. Lastly, the respondents were asked about their confidence in using terms and labels for themselves and other races. 

Throughout the presentation, Dr. Kang emphasizes the importance of understanding why racial groups matter. She explains that labels influence our perceptions of ourselves and other people. Racial labels are socially constructed and might not match how an individual identifies—instead, they are complex and vary across people and groups. 

“This is a complicated problem. There needs to be a lot more work done to figure out the appropriate and inclusive labels to use and how we meet the needs of individuals, groups, and organizations, [as well as] what to do about the currently used labels that are negative stereotypes.”

Students, staff, and faculty interested in learning more about Dr. Sonia Kang’s Research can visit her website. The next Lecture Me! series, on October 4, 2021, will feature UTM anthropology professor Dr. Sarah Hillewaert, who will discuss the introduction and development of yoga and mindfulness in Eastern Africa. 

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