Ethnic Identity: Definition and Significance

This entry provides an overview of the concept of ethnic identity, with a focus on its relevance for ethnic minority adolescents' academic development. Researchers and educators increasingly have recognized the important role of race-related beliefs and experiences in the academic achievement of ethnic minority children and adolescents. Various explanations have been offered to explain ethnic minority achievement and underachievement, and most implicate the role of youths' ethnic identity beliefs, or their self-constructed definitions of the relevance and meanings associated with being a member of their ethnic group. Ethnic minority groups face many social and structural risks and challenges in the United States, and a stronger identification with an ethnic minority identity has been related to perceiving more ethnic group barriers and discrimination and having a higher awareness of group stigma and stereotypes. Because of this, some have suggested that a stronger ethnic group identity necessarily places youth at risk for decreased academic engagement. However, there is more support from emerging theory and research that a strong, positive sense of racial identity relates to more positive achievement values and may help adolescents maintain positive academic motivation and engagement when they perceive group barriers or have negative race-related experiences. The literature reviewed in this entry suggests a number of implications for education. One is that schools can play important roles in supporting youths' development of a positive sense of ethnic identity. Furthermore, moving away from a “colorblind” approach and recognizing youths' distinct ethnic identities as potential assets can improve schools' and educators' abilities to create truly inclusive settings.

Ethnic Identity: Definition and Significance

During adolescence, individuals begin to construct a general sense of their identity, or their personal definitions of who they are, what is important to them, and appropriate ways to think and behave. During this period, youth also differentiate their various social identities, the self-constructed definitions of who they are in relation to the social groups to which they belong. A sense of ethnic identity becomes salient for many ethnic minority adolescents as they explore the significance of their ethnic group membership in defining who they are (Spencer & Markstrom-Adams, 1990; Phinney, 1990). Ethnic identity has multiple components, including individuals' views of the importance of their ethnic group to their self-definitions, the meanings they attach to their ethnic group, and their thinking about how their ethnic group affects their position in society. Thus, ethnic identities are descriptive (e.g., “I am a Mexican American”; “I am an African American”), affective (“I feel positively about being an African American”; “I think others regard my ethnic group positively”), as well as prescriptive (“I know how Chinese Americans act”; “I know how African Americans act”). Adolescents' understandings of the meanings of their social identities influence their adaptations and responses within domains in which those identities are salient. Because race and ethnicity often are salient in the domain of education, adolescents' ethnic identities may be particularly relevant in shaping how youth interpret and respond to their social and classroom contexts at school.

Ethnic Identity During Adolescence

Relative to younger children, adolescents have more highly developed cognitive abilities related to understanding themselves and their experiences in more complex, abstract, and indirect ways, and this period also involves intensification of particular social-cognitive attributes, e.g., heightened awareness of how they are viewed by others. Thus, they become more cognizant of the relevance of race and ethnicity in society and have a higher likelihood of perceiving experiences in terms of race and ethnicity (Spencer, Dupree, & Hartmann, 1997).

In addition to individual differences in social cognition, cultural, structural, and social influences during adolescence may affect the development of ethnic identity beliefs. Information youth appraise from interactions in their primary social contexts influences how they develop understandings of themselves in relation to the social groups to which they belong (Harter, 1990; Spencer, Dupree, & Hartmann, 1997). Adolescents' ethnic identity beliefs derive in large part from their understanding and internalization of socialization messages they receive from their families and communities about their ethnic group's history and values (Hughes & Chen, 1999). Other important influences on ethnic identity development include the social and economic opportunities and constraints youth perceive as available to members of their group in their families and communities. Finally, adolescents' increased exposure to personal and societal racism (Garcia Coll et al., 1996; Greene, Way, & Pahl, 2006) influences their ethnic identity development.

Ethnic Identity and Ethnic Minority Academic Achievement

Academic engagement requires linking one's personal identity to the roles of student and learner (Garcia & Pintrich, 1994), showing sustained curiosity and interest in class, and displaying intense efforts in learning tasks (Connell, Spencer, & Aber, 1994; Skinner & Belmont, 1993). Adolescents' academic engagement has been linked to social identities that are made salient in the academic domain (Garcia & Pintrich, 1994). The academic domain is one in which race often is salient for many ethnic minority adolescents. For instance, entry into secondary schools is associated with increased racial cleavage, social comparison, and heightened salience of racial and ethnic stereotypes (Fisher, Wallace, & Fenton, 2000). Thus, it is likely that minority adolescents' levels of academic engagement are influenced, in part, by their ethnic identity beliefs. Theory and research suggests that ethnic identity may serve as a risk factor for lower academic motivation and achievement as well as promote academic motivation and achievement. The risk and promotion approaches are described below.

Racial Identity as an Academic Risk Factor Approach

Within several well-known theoretical models, ethnic minority identity has been posited to place individuals at risk for decreased academic engagement through the influence of their heightened awareness of the negative status of their racial group in society (e.g., Aronson, 2002; Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Fordham, 1988; Mick-elson, 1990; Steinberg, Dornbusch, & Brown, 1992). The Cultural-Ecological framework of ethnic minority achievement offered by Fordham and Ogbu (1986), for instance, asserts that because African American populations immigrated to the United States under conditions of oppression and opportunity constraint, they developed a collective group identity that rejects institutions that are dominated by the oppressive mainstream culture, including the American educational system. As a consequence, youth's identification with a Black identity came to entail a rejection of a pro-achievement orientation, including attitudes and behaviors associated with being successful in school.

Fordham (1988) expanded on this framework, positing that sustained school success for high-achieving African American students entails minimizing their connectedness to their racial identity in exchange for mainstream attitudes and values that are better aligned with an academic identity, a process termed as becoming “race-less.” A similar theme within educational research is the notion that having a “colorblind” perspective is the best way to ameliorate racial group differences in achievement. Within the education field, the majority of teachers are white, from backgrounds that differ from those of their students of color, and often have had limited multicultural training (Ford & Harris, 1996). A common ideology among teachers entering their professions and classrooms is that it is best to simply not see race or racial group differences at all but view students only as individuals (Markus, Steele, & Steele, 2000; Rousseau & Tate, 2003). However, the underlying presumption is that minority youth must de-emphasize their ethnic/cultural backgrounds in order to develop a positive academic identity and emphasize thinking and acting in ways more consistent with White middle-class norms (Delpit, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 1995; McAllister & Irvine, 2000).

Other theoretical perspectives viewing ethnic identity as a risk factor for achievement have focused on the stigma associated with identifying with an ethnic minority group in the United States. This work suggests that African American and Hispanic youth disidentify with school and academics because the academic domain is one in which their ethnic group is regarded negatively (e.g., Crocker & Major, 1989; Osborne, 1997). While this coping strategy is theorized to protect individuals' self-concept from the negative impact of perceiving group-based discrimination and devaluation, it inhibits the motivational attitudes and behaviors that lead to good school performance. Similarly, stereotype threat theory posits that African American students' academic underperformance result from fears or apprehensions around supporting racial stereotypes related to intellectual ability, and, over time, these threat experiences lead to less personal identification with academics and engagement in the learning process (Aronson, 2002; Steele, 1997). Implicit across these perspectives is that individuals who perceive societal discrimination or stigma for their ethnic group disengage with the educational process, and those who emphasize their ethnic minority identity are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of this discrimination and stigma on academic engagement.

Limitations of the Ethnic Identity as Risk Approach 

A major limitation of the ethnic identity-as-risk approach to understanding ethnic minority academic achievement is that there is very little empirical evidence in support of the major assertions of the approach. First, there have been few studies directly assessing the relationship between ethnic identity attitudes and academic engagement in African Americans. The few studies that have been used to support the approach do not directly address the question of whether identifying with one's race and perceiving racial barriers explains individual differences in African American students' levels of academic engagement. For instance, in the widely cited ethnographic study of urban African American high school students (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986), although low-achieving students perceived particular behaviors associated with school success—e.g., spending time in library studying, reading and writing poetry, being on time—as inconsistent with their personal identities, students were not asked about their racial identities nor did the youth mention ethnicity or race when discussing their academic identities (e.g., youth connected pro-achievement behaviors to being a nerd or “brainiac,” not necessarily as being inconsistent with a Black identity).

Other evidence used in support of the risk approach include studies showing smaller associations between African American adolescents' self-concept and their academic grade performance relative to other ethnic groups (e.g., Demo & Parker, 1987; Osborne, 1997) and lower academic task performance for ethnic minority college students for whom racial stereotypes are made salient (e.g., Steele & Aronson, 1995). None of these studies, however, directly assessed youths' ethnic identity beliefs and thus are unable to fully demonstrate the presumed links between ethnic identity and academic engagement.

Ethnic Identity as Promoting Academic Achievement

Although the identity-as-risk approach has received a great deal of attention, ethnic minority identity also has been conceptualized as an important psychologically protective set of beliefs that individuals have developed to buffer against the impact of racial discrimination and stigmatized status (e.g., Cross, Helms, & Parham, 1998). Researchers have begun to conceptualize racial/ethnic identity as an important resilience resource in the normative development of African American youth (e.g., Cross et al., 1999; Spencer, Cunningham, & Swanson, 1995; Spencer et al., 1997). This view of ethnic identity, while recognizing the significant challenges that confront African American youth, also acknowledges the fact that many youth are resilient in the face of those challenges. An approach that views a strong, positive sense of ethnic identity as promoting achievement is consistent with a historical view of both Black and Hispanic immigrant communities that recognizes that because the groups were denied opportunities for education and advancement (during and after slavery for African Americans) or came to the United States because of the lack of opportunities in their countries of national origin (for many Hispanic and Asian American groups), they often placed a stronger emphasis on the importance of learning and education as the primary route to mobility (Chavous, et al., 2003).

Thus, ethnic identity can relate to a meaning-making process that affords members of historically oppressed ethnic minority groups an opportunity to define their racial membership in such a way that academic success can be seen as valuable despite structural- and individual-level barriers (such as stigma and racial discrimination) to academic success. For instance, findings from a study by Altschul, Oyserman, and Bybee (2006) indicate that African American middle school students who felt more connected to their Black identity and who linked their Black identity to a value for achievement were more academically motivated and performed better than youth who identified less with their ethnic group and who didn't view academic achievement as connected to their ethnic group identity. Chavous and colleagues (2003) also found that African American high school students who had a strong ethnic group identity accompanied by group pride and awareness of societal discrimination had more positive academic attitudes and showed higher academic persistence and postsecondary educational attainment than youth who de-emphasized their ethnic identities, felt less group pride, and who were less conscious of the potential for bias against their group.

Also, there is growing evidence that having a strong, positive sense of ethnic identity may protect minority adolescents from the negative psychological and academic impacts of perceiving ethnic group barriers or experiencing interpersonal discrimination based on their ethnic group. For instance, in a 2006 study, Sellers and colleagues found that Black youth having an ethnic identity characterized by feelings of strong group connection and group pride showed more positive psychological well being when experiencing racial discrimination compared to those adolescents with less strong feelings of connection to and positive attitudes about their ethnic group. Wong and colleagues in their 2003 study found that African American adolescents who held a strong connection to and pride in being Blacks were protected from the negative impact on academic attitudes and performance of experiencing racial discrimination at school relative to those with less of a strong, positive connection with their ethnic group.

Implications for Schools and Educators

Although ethnic identity may be influenced by and reflect the languages, customs, cultural values, and experiences deriving from youths' homes and communities, there is evidence that school settings can play important roles in youths' ethnic identity development. Researchers find that ethnic minority adolescents frequently report experiences related to race and ethnicity within their school settings (e.g., Fisher et al., 2000; Rosenbloom & Way, 2004; Wong et al., 2003). In particular, the secondary school context provides classroom and social structures that can result in heightened racial salience and more awareness of racial group differences, including stereotypes. For instance, entry into secondary schooling is associated with more ethnic cleavage in classes and peer social groups. Teachers and class curricula often emphasize social comparison more than in elementary grades, resulting in more attention to group differences in achievement and performance (Seid-man, Allen, Aber, Mitchell, & Feinman, 1994).

At school, ethnic minority adolescents are likely to have White teachers from middle-class backgrounds, even in urban schools, and teachers in general are unlikely to have received extensive training in multicultural education (Ford & Harris, 1996). Additionally, ethnic minority youth report racially biased treatment within the classroom and peer contexts at school as common occurrences, e.g., perceiving that they received poor grades or evaluations from teachers and other adults at school or harsher discipline due to race, and social exclusion or harassment due to race (Fisher et al., 2000; Romero & Roberts, 1998). Thus, schools may contribute to youths' development of ethnic identities and the extent to which youth perceive their group identity as consistent with schooling and achievement.

Teacher training practices are not necessarily designed to equip teachers to work in multicultural class settings (Delpit, 1995; Irvine, 1986; Ladson-Billings, 1995). This will continue to be a problem as the ethnic minority population continues to rise in the United States. As noted, a perspective prevalent among educators and in professional training of teachers is the “colorblind” ideology (Delpit, 1995; Markus, Steele, & Steele, 2000). However, ethnic identity research presents growing evidence that such a perspective does not relate to positive academic outcomes for ethnic minority youth and in fact may lead to increased cultural tensions and miscommunications. The research concerning the positive influences of a strong, positive ethnic identity on youth achievement outcomes suggest that the colorblind approach (or a de-emphasis on group membership and emphasis on conforming to mainstream values) may hinder teachers from seeing the needs of their ethnic minority students and may result in students not being acknowledged in ways that facilitate their achievement. Furthermore, while teachers may not be formally trained in theory and research related to race and education, many teachers enter their classrooms with some familiarity of the most prevalent perspectives on race in education. Unfortunately, they are most likely to be familiar with the notion that certain ethnic minority youth and their families devalue educational achievement and define their ethnic identity as inconsistent with achievement (or “acting White”), while the values of other youth and families include embracing education. Such misinformation may lead to making erroneous attributions and conclusions when students show lower performance and experience academic difficulty.

Thus, school practitioners must receive training about the development of youth from multicultural backgrounds. This training should not only acknowledge the unique risks associated with membership in ethnic minority groups in the United States but also consider how youths' ethnic identities can serve as cultural assets in relation to their achievement and how to use this information to create inclusive classroom contexts for all students. Without such training, it is likely that teaching approaches and practices will be based on popular views of common sense approaches not supported by empirical research. Additionally teachers should be mindful of endorsing their own ethnic identity beliefs in the class contexts they create.


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