The Problem of Group Identity

To be an Amherst College student without a group is to walk around with no skin. It is to feel continuously vulnerable and overexposed to the elements. This overexposure is all consuming and exhausting. Participating in class, hellos to acquaintances — the most mundane tasks can seem daunting here. The stakes of being, the continuous scrutiny of our teachers and peers, can sometimes feel so incredibly high. “Did I say this thing right in class,” “I feel so awkward here,” “I just want a safe space” — very little anonymity or security exists for some on this campus.

This overexposure slowly chips away at us. The invisible gaze that comes with living in such an insulated and small environment takes a toll. From hyperactivity comes hyper-passivity. Exhaustion is a common phenomenon. It is the kind of fatigue that makes you want to say, “Shut up! I’m very tired and I just want to sleep!” — if you can speak at all. The desire to retreat and feel insulated is also common. To protect ourselves from this overstimulation we seek groups. But in exchange for safety and security we offer up chunks of ourselves. In giving up one form of overexposure for we gain another.

The security of groups comes at the cost of our individuality. People feel compelled to associate on the basis of commonalities as opposed to differences. There is an invisible wall that divides members of the group and the other. This bracketing often prevents meaningful social interactions. Conversations outside the confines of group members devolve to the level of the superficial. “How was your summer internship?” becomes “What courses are you doing this semester?” then, “How were midterms?” later, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving break?”, ad infinitum. Communication is monopolized by the concept of “us versus them.” Transparency is restricted to the I/we; personality is contained within the group. Access to the individual is lost to the outsider.

Intragroup communication promises a solution to feelings of isolation and exhaustion. But alas, this is a promise that is rarely fulfilled. Within the group, interactions also create a powerful new type of overexposure. This time there is no safe place. Overexposure becomes transparency. Transparency makes the human being glassy. It forces everything inward, transforming individuals into something a bit less than themselves. It is a smoothing. It leads to synchronization and uniformity. It eliminates otherness. Compulsive conformity comes from transparency. Group members dress the same, speak the same way, go to the same events. The smoothed out bits are thrown away and forgotten leaving the group member isolated and hyper-vulnerable. Why? Because what made that person unique often gets erased.

For these transparent students, the highest desire is to be recognized as an individual. It is to communicate outside the level of the group. Unfortunately, this student is not merely a student in a group but an embodiment of the group. In other words, X with his fullness is reduced to X, member of the lacrosse team; Y with her fullness is reduced to Y, member of the GlobeMed. X is a member of a Crossett suite and has practice 5 days a week. Y’s roommate is also in GlobeMed and has e-board meetings twice a week. We take group identity home with us and often times there is little escape from them.

These students that experience the brunt of total transparency can often feel like living phantoms. Ralph Ellison addresses this in the prologue to his book “Invisible Man.” He writes, “You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.”

Students wish to be seen for who they are and when they’re not they strike out. They strike out through depression and social anxiety. They strike out through physical and social isolation. They feel invisible within their groups. They feel like phantoms although they are continuously exposed to others. It is no wonder then that so many of us are so lonely despite the fact that so many of us are in continuously surrounded by others in groups.

The problem of group identity is often more acute for low-income students and students of color for our bodies were never ours in the first place. Many of us are at war not only within group structures on campus to retain individuality, but also with the world itself. For many of us the stakes of our defining categories are significantly greater. These categories, unlike the more superficial ones on our campus, “black,” “Latin@” “first-generation American,” can mean the difference between poverty and success, life and death. These problems, the feeling of being a phantom, invisibility in a group, loneliness in numbers, is compounded for these types of students comprising other identities on campus.

Loneliness comes from students’ inability to interact with each other above the superficial level mandated by Amherst group dynamics. The logic of “us versus them” dominates the campus culture. It also comes from the fact that campus culture attempts to contain the fullness of students and reduce that fullness to a series of labels. Labels like “football,” “Frisbee,” “Zumbyes” or “mock trial” can significantly limit who one can interact with, where one can sit at dinner and where one lives.

To that kid in a rut, lonely but surrounded on all sides, I say challenge the group structure and don’t despair. Makes friends outside your comfort zone. Sit somewhere different. Don’t make plans with your group for Val: Go alone and you’ll be surprised at who you may wind up sitting with. Find a close friend, inside the group or outside it, and truly share a part of yourself. If someone asks, “how was your day?” occasionally be fully honest and it might compel a response above the superficial “Mine was OK too — I two papers to write last night.” Strive to not be contained. You are so much more than a label.

At the institutional level, I’m not exactly sure how to deal with this problem. I don’t think that it can be managed with administrative interference. Institutionally maintained groups such as orientation squads and first-year seminars are created on the basis of difference and have a tendency of fizzling out fairly quickly. Self-maintained groups such as sports teams, room groups and theme houses, on the other hand, are organized on the basis of sameness and have significantly greater staying power.

Neither type, in my opinion, does a terribly good job of staving off loneliness. Extra-institutional groups that are self-maintained and organize on the basis of difference may be a solution. They combine the best aspects of the two types of groups that I outlined above – difference and agency. These groups provide freedom from institutional control and give members a sense of agency in the direction of the group, increasing the stake that individuals have to see the group thrive. The emphasis on difference over sameness, on the other hand, may prevent the smoothing out process that homogenizes students and makes them transparent. Increased agency and difference may just allow groups to survive long enough for meaningful person-to-person interactions.

One thing is for sure: The stakes of group formation are way too high on this campus. Being a part of a strong group can be a make or break a campus experience when it shouldn’t have to. The individual, not the group, should be the locus of interpersonal interaction at Amherst College. There must be something that we can do to reduce the power that group identity has on this campus. Groups provide modest safety and security against the elements but campus life cannot solely be dominated by them. There must be balance. Groups promise freedom but in our haste to bolster superficial campus identities we often neglect the plight of the individual in the group, the student who wants to be seen as a whole person, not merely as a gear in a machine.