In-groups and Out-groups

A week or so ago, I was out at a bar for a friend’s birthday, and at one point ended up having a conversation that went something like this (not verbatim):

Me: …Yeah, there are clearly several different groups here. I wasn’t sure it was the right place when I first got here.

Friend: Haha. Yeah. The group in the back is…

Me: Older, yeah? Like an older crowd?

Friend: Yeah.

Me: But the group by the bar…they’re more, uh, like us.

Friend: Yes. …“Young Asian people”, yes?

Me: Mm. “Young Asian people, self excepted”.

Friend: Oh, well, when I think of young Asian people, I think of you!

Me: … Theatre Rice! (raises fist triumphantly)

That was the end of that part of the conversation, but it was an interesting moment and I marked it for later.


I’ve written about this kind of thing before…quite a bit, actually. Obviously my views on these kinds of things have shifted over the years (to the point where some of the earlier posts make me cringe), but they’ve all been part of my thought processes and I’ve continued to find these experiences interesting. This particular experience felt strikingly like a moment from the movie American Revolutionary, which tells the story of activist Grace Lee Boggs:

…[She] eventually ending up very much in [the civil rights movement]: accepted by the other leaders, and using the word “we”, though without trying to pretend that she was African-American or had faced the same struggles.

But [an] interesting moment was when a fellow revolutionary leader who was African-American (and whose name I sadly forgot, because it was only about half-way through the movie) said something like, “We didn’t think of her as Chinese-American. She was just…Grace!”

My original post goes on to talk about my feelings about that, and then there’s a follow-up on that same section a few days later in “Paint, Part 2”, responding to a friend’s thoughts on what I had said. This time, though, I got to experience it actually happening.

The conclusion I came to was that “young Asian people” for this particular friend was really code for “the group I identify with”, their in-group. We had just been talking about a group that neither of us identified with (the “older” people near the back); we’re now contrasting them with a different group; and we’re identifying with that second group.

This is hardly a quirk of this particular friend. Here’s a less charged example: I (and likely many of my friends, including this one) have considered “new college grad” as part of my identity, and have to deal with the realization that it’s less and less true. And groups usually have exceptions—in a group of “singles in their mid-20s”, there could easily be an “…except for Morgan and Li”.

So I’m just in my friend’s in-group, most of whom fit a particular description, and the description becomes shorthand for the group in my friend’s mind…to the point where it’s not really a contradiction for me to be in that group. I’m not their “white friend”; I’m just a friend.1

I don’t have any meaningful conclusions to draw here today. Again I don’t want to call out this particular friend, because I don’t think this is unusual. But it was an interesting moment.

Past experiences:

  • “Thoughts on American Revolutionary”, in which I meander through thoughts about the film.
  • “Paint, Part 2”, which includes follow-up discussion on American Revolutionary. There’s also a little abstract vignette that’s the sequel to “Paint”, a short poem that fits in this general topic.
  • “Asian”, another experience surrounding an offhand comment involving “Asian” as a group.
  • “Thinking in Color”, involving when race is and isn’t perceived. This is an old one, and I don’t really like my past self’s analysis any more, but the experience was still interesting. “Asian” corrects that somewhat.
  • A future blog post will talk about my tendency to think about my ideal world rather than how to improve the real world when it comes to social issues (one of the problems with “Thinking in Color”).
  1. In this case the context in which we met probably also plays a part: we were both involved in our college performance group Theatre Rice (tagline “Modern Asian-American Theater”). So I was a minor outlier in that situation, and then I can easily be grouped with all the other Theatre Rice alums, adding weight to “young Asian people”. ↩︎

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