Being the same and different: Personal identity versus Board identity.

Darren Franklin is a Doctoral Research Associate at Henley Business School, sponsored by Trustees Unlimited. He is researching identity and Ethnic Minority representation on UK Charity Boards.

“I recently watched Boarders, a BBC Three comedy drama. The programme is about five underprivileged Black students from inner-city London who win scholarships to an elite Boarding School. While it was entertaining and comedic in value, there are serious undertones surrounding race and identity. The identity theme resonated as it aligns with my research on Ethnic Minority representation on UK Charity Boards.

How do you maintain your identity while trying to fit in with the Group? What are the tensions and contradictions between Self and Group?

Daniel Lawrence Taylor, the creator of the series, is quoted in the Guardian as saying “When Black people are in White institutions, we deal with it in very different ways. That’s what I wanted to do with the characters.” “When you put them in these environments, how do they survive? Some try to assimilate. Some rebel against it. Some play it to their advantage.” Let’s have a brief look at the characters:


Leah comes across as a confrontational, pro-Black individual, who needs to maintain her identity as a strong young Black woman. She is sometimes unaware of the impact that her views and behaviours have on others. She has applied to the school for the opportunity that it will provide, recognising that to change the system she must have a “seat at the table.” Leah makes little attempt to assimilate into the culture or attempt to broaden her social circle from those who are like herself.


Femi comes from a Nigerian family and arrives at the school wearing full African cultural attire. His parents are very proud of his heritage however Femi is probably the opposite of Leah. He distances himself from the other scholarship students, attempting to fit in. This includes drinking alcohol and joining his roommate’s group, The Rascals, and we see him running naked through the school as part of a ritual with the rest of the group.


Although Jaheim applied for the scholarship, he initially seemed the most reluctant to want to go to the school. He’s the only character who we see maintaining contact with his friends back home and the only character whose friends come to visit him. Jaheim has an internal conflict between maintaining where he has come from, keeping the friends he grew up with and learning the school’s culture. Demonstrating that he won’t be pushed about results in him being bullied.


Toby is the joker of the group. Everyone thinks that he is a drug dealer, fulfilling the stereotype of Black people being drug dealers. This ‘identity’ along with his skills as a DJ makes it a little easier to fit in, and the White students are more accepting of him. He is seen as cool. Toby’s behaviour, as described by one of the other scholarship students, is a ‘front’. His comedic attributes seek to serve as a way of fitting in, hiding his skills and intelligence (he speaks 3 languages and is learning Japanese).


Omar is excited about going to Boarding School because of the opportunity and the facilities – art studios, libraries, and a theatre. He is the academic of the group and appears to be the one who is taking the studying seriously. It appears that Omar wants to keep his head down and use the opportunity to further himself.

Personal identity versus Group identity

The characters in Boarders face conflict and tensions between their identities and the group identity of the school, manifesting in challenges in the management and navigation of those pressures. Marilyn Brewer’s (1991) research on the social self, focused on the tensions between the individual’s needs for uniqueness and individualisation against the needs for validation and similarity. The first needs of uniqueness and individualisation are about being yourself, your self-concept, and differentiating yourself from others. The second needs of validation and similarity are about assimilation and inclusion, the desire to be part of the group, and a sense of belonging. As individuals, we all face these tensions and attempt to achieve a balance to satisfy these conflicting needs. Brewer (1991) called this Optimal Distinctiveness, being the same and different.

Figure 1 The Optimal Distinctiveness Model. The conflicting needs of individuals. Reprinted from Brewer (1991).

We can see from the characters in Boarders that they face those tensions and attempt to manage them with varying levels of success. Take the context to the Charity Board, or any team in general, and its group dynamics.

Can you identify with the characters in Boarders?
Are you conflicted with maintaining your identity while being part of the bigger team?
Do you have individuals on the Board (team) that take on the personas of the Boarder’s characters?
Which personas can you identify with, and which do you see on your Board or members of your team?

  • Leah – assertive, strong sense of identity, gravitating to those who are like herself.
  • Femi – desperate to fit in and be part of the group.
  • Jaheim – assimilate, hide your identity of who you are and where you come from.
  • Toby – provide an identity stereotype to fit in, masking true skill and ability.
  • Omar – accept the status quo. Keep your head down and do what you need to do.

Optimal Distinctiveness is a dynamic process where individuals continuously try to reconcile conformity against differentiation, about being yourself yet needing to be part of the group. There are tensions in this dynamic and levels of complexity. Trying to adapt, manage, and maintain personal and group identifies with the development of strategies employed to cope with these tensions. Leonardelli et al (2010), developed the work of Brewer (1991) highlighting that those conflicting needs can also change depending on the situation, culture and individual.

Implications for diversity and inclusion

Charity Boards are made up of a group of people who bring their individuality, unique perspectives and lived experiences to help the Charity achieve its aims and objectives. What happens when the individuals on the Board forego their identities in their desire to fit in and be part of the group? Is there a danger of groupthink, or worse, they adopt the persona of Leah, attracted to and gravitating towards those who are like themselves.

The implications are that the Board potentially do not welcome diverse characteristics or, worse still, is not inclusive. This has ramifications for recruitment, decision-making and representation. Optimal Distinctiveness can be challenging, managing the conflicts and tension between the Self and the Group, however, as individuals, we must recognise this tension and work on it from both perspectives.

This is a continuum, and we need to constantly adjust to find a balance. It is a dynamic process and should be viewed as a journey of personal development. As Board Trustees we need to be authentic in our approach and true to ourselves, contributing our uniqueness from all perspectives of age, gender, ethnicity, class, education etc., therefore offering a balanced outlook and delivering value to the Charity.”

Join Darren at the next in-person event, ‘Being the same and different: the tensions of maintaining personal identity and being part of the Board identity,‘ on Wednesday, 22 May 2024, from 09:00 – 10:00 BST at the RSA. Explore how these insights apply to real-world board scenarios, fostering a more inclusive and effective governance culture.

Book your free place here: TrusteeTime Event

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