The Shadow in the Background: The Construction, Performance, and Entrapment of Identities

Date of Award

Spring 2015

Document Type


First Advisor

Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez


The purpose of this paper is to examine the ways that both former gang members and current police officers create and perform their respective identities. These two groups have historically viewed each other in an oppositional way. Typically, gang members commit a crime, and the police arrest the gang members so as to maintain social order. However, I believe that beyond notions of justice and order, there are deeper issues when it comes to identity construction and performance of both gang members and police officers. Gang members carry their identity where ever they go, going so far as to purposefully tattoo their gang affiliation on their bodies. Police officers, it is commonly understood, relinquish their identity when they take off their uniforms. I have found, though, that this oppositional dichotomy is not reality. I argue that police officers are prisoners to their identities in the same ways that gang members are confined in their own constructed identities. From the brutalities of the 1960s, to Rodney King and Ferguson, the increasing militarization of police forces has only added to the entrapping nature of identity construction for the modern police officer. In my research, I have found that both gang members and police officers create an identity that they cannot shake off because it becomes who they are, not simply a small piece of who they are. This militarization has led to increasingly disproportionate responses from police officers against the offenses of gang members. This solidifies the oppositional nature of the two groups. The social structures at play strengthen their constructed identities. Using one-on-one interviews with both respective groups provides me with the opportunity to tell both sides of the story—stories that so often go neglected, stories of being trapped and lost in an identity—an identity spun out of control.


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