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The Tilford Group

Ethnic Identity Development

What is Ethnic Identity?

Extent to which one identifies with a particular ethnic group(s). Refers to one's sense of belonging to an ethnic group and the part of one's thinking perceptions, feelings, and behavior that is due to ethnic group membership. Ethnic identity is separate from one's personal identity as an individual, although the two may reciprocally influence each other. There are four major components of ethnic identity (JS Phinney, Journal of Adolescent Research, 1992):

  • Ethnic Awareness - understanding of one's own and other groups.
  • Ethnic Self-Identification - label used for one's own group.
  • Ethnic Attitudes - feelings about own and other groups.
  • Ethnic Behaviors - behavior patterns specific to an ethnic group.

A good contemporary article that updates Phinney, 1992 and studies Ethnic Identity in adolescent groups in the USA is Rodriguez et al. "National and Racial-Ethnic Identification: What It Means to Be American Among Early Adolescents".

Reflection Questions

  • What have you learned about your ethnicity from your family, friends, society, media, etc.?
  • What thoughts, feelings, and behaviors have been associated with your experiences when ethnicity was salient?
  • If you cannot think of an experience where ethnicity was salient, does this still say something about your cultural background?
  • *See what others said in response to these questions

Experiencing Changes in Identity

  • Think of a time when you have experienced growth and changed as a person.
  • Sometimes, people simply refer to these experiences as growing up. Our experiences in relationships as well as our successes and failures often change us as people.

Some Examples of Changes in Identity

These are some categories of how a person's identity may be formed.

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Class
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Education
  • Religion/Spirituality

Experiencing Discrimination

  • Think of a time when you have experienced discrimination.
  • When discrimination occurs, cultural differences are at the forefront of our experience. No experience is too small or too big. Try to write down the experience before evaluating it.

Examples of Some Groups that Have Experienced Discrimination in the USA.

  • African American
  • European American
  • American Indian
  • Latino/a American
  • Arab American and other Muslim groups
  • Multiracial American
  • Asian American

Cultural Short Story

  • Now that you have thought about some categories and stages of ethnic identity development, it's your turn. Write your own cultural short story. Include a few of the experiences that have been integral to your development. What types of thoughts and feelings did you experience as you wrote your story?

Cross-Cultural Experience Activity

  • 1. Write about an experience in which you were uncomfortable interacting with a person or group of people with a different cultural background.
  • 2. Write about an experience in which you took a risk of being in an uncomfortable situation and were glad that you did so.

Ethnic Identity Self-Assessment

  • The Multigroup ethnic Identity Measure (JS Phinney, Journal of Adolescent Research, 1992) is another helpful tool in exploring ethnic identity that is self-administered and self-scored.
  • *The scoring is simple. Items 1, 2, 4, 8, 10 indicate Ethnic Identity Exploration. Items 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12 indicate Ethnic Identity Commitment.
  • Exploration is concerned with initiating learning and thinking about one's ethnic identity. Commitment is concerned with feelings and attitudes about one's ethnic identity. What did you learn about exploration of and commitment to your ethnic identity?

Behavioral Indicators of Ethnic Identity Development

Similar to how we began this path, ethnic identity development is a complex process. However, behavioral indicators are one of the best ways to think about the evolution of your ethnic identity.

  • 1. I am more accepting and confident in expressing my ethnic identity development to others. I consider myself a good model for others.
  • 2. I do my own research and frequently ask my family questions to learn more about my ethnic identity.
  • 3. I am more willing to speak up about issues of race and ethnicity when it is important, even if I am uncomfortable. This includes family, friends, school, work, etc. I more openly express disagreement with racist comments, jokes or actions.
  • 4. I have learned more about the complex relationships between my own and other ethnic groups. I am confronting discriminatory remarks and behavior more often.
  • 5. I am aware of how the media impacts the ethnic identity of myself and others, and actively work against this influence.
  • 6. I actively work against ideologies of colorblindness that minimize cultural difference.

Intersectionality and the Cultural Self

We have purposely focused on ethnic identity because some people tend to ignore the importance of this aspect of identity. However, many other aspects of our identity interact with ethnicity

  • Other potentially salient cultural identities include socioeconomic status of parents and/or self, family role (parent, wife husband, daughter, son, brother, sister), sports involvement (fan, athlete, intramural player), religious/spiritual involvement, music and arts involvement, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, age, disability, gifted, Greek system, mental health, physical health, etc.
  • Write a short paragraph how the other aspects of your cultural identity that are salient and how they interact with your ethnic background.

Allan Eason, former faculty member in American Ethnic Studies