All-Star Facilitator Series

Marked vs. Unmarked Identities with Deborah Tannen

Sam Killermann

All-Star Facilitator Series

This is an one of the many lessons in our All-Star Facilitator Series, designed to help social justice educators improve their skills. Click here to see the rest of the posts, or if you have an idea for a lesson get involved. Note: this series spun off into our book, Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation — where we expand on some of these lessons, and include others.

There are a select few essays I would ever say were responsible for individually shifting the way I think about something. Contrary to what Buzzfeed claims, it takes more than a list of animated .gifs to blow my mind. But Deborah Tannen’s ‘93 essay originally titled “Marked Women, Unmarked Men” is one of those essays.

It changed the way that I think about identity in general, as well as the way I think about the composition of a group in a training setting. I’ll talk through a few of those highlights below, but first I want you to read the piece.


Some Questions You Can Reflect On

What I took away from this piece and what you can take away from it are likely not one-in-the-same. Before you read why I like this piece so much, here are some questions you can ask yourself as you read/reread the piece that might lead to you having some big mental shift that in a super cool direction that mine didn’t shift. Just don’t rub it in my face.

  1. Have I ever been in a situation like this, making observations like the ones Tannen made? What did it feel like? Was it comfortable? Uncomfortable? Eye-opening? Redundant?
  2. In which situations are my identities marked? When are they not? How does this make me feel? Is this something I can or do avoid?
  3. When do I find myself marking other people’s identities? How does it affect how I interact with them? The questions I ask them? The ways I approach conversation? The assumptions I make?
  4. Why is the idea of marked vs. unmarked identities important to social justice training? In which ways can this inform how I interact with groups? How I lead trainings? The ways I facilitate conversations amongst group members? How can this change the ways I approach conversations about identity?

A Few of My Big Takeaways

Why do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

  1. The first time I read this essay was the first time I ever thought about identities as being sometimes-invisible, sometimes-salient. Hidden identities affect the ways we interact and understand people as much as the prominent ones, and when an identity is hidden or prominent changes based on who else is around and what’s going on. It forced me to reflect on the many times my [usually dominant] identities go unmarked, and the [usually friction-y] times I’ve experienced being the marked identity.
  2. It made me realize that the only time my identities are marked are when that identity is in the minority. I’m not conscious of being a man unless I’m surrounded by women; not white unless I’m surrounded by people of color; not straight unless I’m surrounded by people who are queer; not poor unless I’m surrounded by middle-to-upper-class people. Most of the time, as a person of many privileged identities, I’m fortunate enough to just be Sam.
  3. It made me realize that I generally notice aspects of other peoples’ identities when they are in the minority. If everyone in my group is a man but one person, that person has a gender. And it matters. Ditto if everyone is White but one person. That person has a race. Ditto a class. Ditto a religion. I realized how good I am at playing the Sesame Street “Which one of these is not like the other” game, and how quickly that factored into how I saw the “other” in the group.
  4. I now understand the importance of marking all identities, if we are going to have a conversation about social justice. Dominant group identities and target group identities are both identities. White is a race. Man is a gender. Straight is a sexuality. It’s a dangerous [and super normal] way of thinking to treat dominant identities as the default, and others as variations of that default. And in social justice trainings, it’s a perfect time to start the conversation of naming (marking, making salient) all identities that affect a person’s lived experience.