Ethnic Identity and Adolescence

by Carmen Guanipa-Ho Ph.D.
San Diego State University
San Diego, California


Jose A. Guanipa M.D.
Francisco de Miranda University

[ Introduction | Search for Identity | Developing Ethnic Identity |
Barriers | Conclusion and Recommendations ]

The importance of ethnic identity in coping with a variety of life situations, particularly those of a stressful nature, has been a major focus of current literature. While identity development is a complex task for all adolescents; it is particularly complicated for adolescents belonging to ethnic groups. Adolescents, due to their membership both in an ethnic group and in the mainstream culture(s), face an extra problem with identity. Thus, the adolescent is caught between his parents' ethnic beliefs and values, and that of the mainstream society. This causes extra stress, which adds to the already existing conflict of adolescent self-identity. For this reason, very often we may find adolescents with more than one ethnic identity. This constitutes a way of assuming different roles of the self according to the situation they are in. For some adolescents this is OK, they can handle themselves in each circumstance, and they can develop a integrative ethnic identity. In other words, they are able to see themselves as multicultural and feel very proud of it. But, for some adolescents this may be a complex task, especially those with family difficulties, i.e. poverty, social problems, acculturation problem of their own or their parents. Troubled adolescents may not have yet committed to a definition of identity, and they may not yet have explored all of the identity options or alternatives. In order for the culturally different adolescent to achieve a stable self-identity, he or she must integrate the racial or ethnic identities with a personal identity (Rosenthal & Feldman, 1992). Adolescents today must be allowed to develop a multicultural identity that is composed of multicultural identifications.

Search for Indentity
Defining your own identity is a very important developmental task for any adolescent. From a psychosocial point of view, striving for a unified and integrated sense of self may facilitate the definition of personal goals and the sense of direction. It may also promote the constructive integration into society. For culturally different adolescents the complications of identity formation may arise as a product of skin color, language differences, behavioral patterns, cultural values and norms, social stereotypes, parents' misconceptions, and fears (Beale Spencer & Markstrom-Adams, 1989). For instance, the issues of an accent may be more salient for some ethnic groups than it is to others. The maintenance of accent stereotypes and accent bias may produce the possibility of developing a unique identity formation process for monoracial or multiracial adolescents.

The search for identity is a pervasive theme in our society. Social scientists use the term "identity" in a variety of ways to explain an assortment of phenomena. Some vocabularies such as: identity crisis, finding yourself, self-actualization, etc. are used for the search for identity (Baumeister, 1986). For the purpose of this paper, Identity is "an internalized, self-selected concept based on experiences inside the family and outside of the family." We form our identity by selecting values, beliefs, and concepts that better define our sense of self. (Adams, Gullotta, and Montemayor, 1992, p.2). Ethnicity refers to a specific characteristics of shared unique cultural tradition, and an heritage that persists across generations. Ethnic identification is defined as a real awareness of self within a specific group, which is followed by a great sense of respect and pride, and it constitutes a base for the development of a healthy self-concept. (DeVos & Romanucci-Ross, 1982). Identity cannot be separated from the culture(s) which build and structure it. The identity of the individual develops and crystallizes across one's lifespan, beginning with a young child's awareness of significant others and an initial sense of self and extending to the older adults' summation, integration and evaluation of ones life accomplishments (Erikson, 1963). Identity, then, is a broad term which describes the general aspects of the individual's total personality - that is, the establishment, assimilation, or integration of, for example, societal norms, values, beliefs, and standards. Identity is determined by the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and environmental characteristics, and interactions of significant components of an individual's unique world (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).

Developing Ethnic Identity
Adolescence may be an emotional turbulent phase of life, due in part to the physical and mental changes in an individual. Adolescence is a stage, which is also associated with considerable changes in self. Both Eric Erikson (1968) and Peter Blos (1962, 1979) recognized adolescence as a major life stage for identity formation, and individual development within a social context. They argued that adolescents must receive community acceptance for their behavior. Erikson spoke of the role of intergenerational socialization where society must provide for a mutual trustworthiness to assure self-chosen values and interests. Achieving a sense of identity is a fundamental task for adolescents. The clear sense of personal identity constitute an aspect of optimal psychological functioning (Erikson, 1968).

The development of your ethnic identity is a complex, continuous, process related to many factors. Depending on one's self-identity one may be predisposed to feel in a certain way, and to respond favorably or unfavorably to certain life events. This means that negative feelings toward self may predispose one's attitude towards coping with problems. When one studies identity it is important to relate it to other aspects of personality or the self-system, such as self-concept, self-esteem, self-motivation, cultural-self, self-aspirations, physical-self, etc. Self-identity is multifaceted, and it is more so in culturally different adolescents, as a consequence of their own ethnic and cultural attitudes, beliefs, preferences, and behaviors.

Ethnic self-identity is the integration of ethnicity or race into one's self-concept or self-image. It is the full recognition of one's ethnicity(ies), and the subsequent self-identity that flows from the values, ways, and styles of that ethnic background(s), instead of from the self-concept based on the opinion and prejudices of the larger society towards that ethnic group. Ethnic identity is an identity that develops from within, instead of an image that is impose by society stereotypes. However, it is important to say that the stereotypes that large society places on ethnic groups can be a great contribution to the adolescents' sense of pride or shame about their own ethnicity, and can be a great source for adolescents' ethnic identity conflicts (Maldonado,1975). Rotheran & Phinney (1987) define ethnic identity as "one 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" (p. 13). Ethnic identity also is related to your capacity to empower yourself and represent your ethnicity(ies) in the most constructive way.

Ethnic identity formation is a very complex process. It involves an interaction of contextual and developmental factors. For example, the family is a major force in this process. The family provides its children with their first experience as members of a particular ethnic group. There is evidence to suggest that parents' involvement in the ethnic community is directly related to an adolescent's stable sense of ethnic identity (Rosenthal & Feldman, 1992). In the same way parents who have difficulties with the process of acculturation and their own ethnic identity may facilitate adolescents' conflicts.

Ethnic identity is essential to the psychological functioning of the individual. The issues of ethnic identity has been very important because of the changing demographics, including birth rates and increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees throughout the world. It is said that by the year 2000, minority youth will constitute more than 30% of the 15-25 year olds in the United States and Canada.

The individual's self-identity and ethnic identity have been demonstrated in the literature to be highly influential on one's behavior and thus to be directly related to the personality and state of mental health. Those people who are able to have a clear self-identity tend to act accordingly. Those who have a highly deviant self-identity tend to behave in deviant ways (Guanipa-Ho & Talley, 1991).

In culturally different adolescents, the possibility of obtaining a positive identity outcome may be affected by prejudice, discrimination, immigration or replacement (loss of significant others, loss of country, uncertainty, instability), socio-economic reality, institutional barriers, acculturation (children and parents), personal impotence, societal inconsistency and conflicts, and developmental factors.

Culturally different adolescents need help to achieve a firm sense of self (mono-dimensional/multi-dimensional), before they can integrate or develop an inclusive and general sense of self. Adolescents and adults must move from a singular sense of self to a mature identity of integration and inclusion. Adolescents and everyone else have to learn that when one is unable to extend themselves into a mature engagement with and inclusion of others (races, cultures, ideologies, groups), they are in danger of suffering one of the most difficult mental illness "Self-absorption" and "Self-Blocking" (Erikson, 1964,p. 130). This prevents them from developing and growing. We need to develop a mature, relational and inclusive identity which implies developing our capacity to accept (not just tolerate), and respect other's uniqueness.

We must learn to recognize and accept that what is adequate to one's adolescent identity system may be inadequate to someone else. We need to be aware that the particular lens of our own culture and our position in it, imparts a bias from which there is no escape. Consequently, we must admit that there is a relationship between depth of understanding of our own bias, and our ability to voluntarily or unimposingly listen and help those who do not share our own cultural point of view (Hoare, 1991). We have to accept that we are all different and that each of us has something special to contribute. Our differences are a gift which allows us to grow and learn to become healthier.

Conclusion and Recommendations
We would like to finish by presenting some recommendations that may help in the prevention of identity conflicts in culturally different adolescents:
  1. Use community services. Through education and active inclusion of adolescents in the community center, we can help them to find a constructive place to identify with.
  2. Encourage parents to continue being a channel or bridge between the child and their ethnic culture. The school system and others organizations (churches, etc.) must coherently support these parents by providing training, services, and opportunities for parents to clarify some of their fears and misconceptions.
  3. Educate parents in using the services available for them. They should have access to services that can help them to clarify their own ethnic identity conflicts. This will be a way to guarantee their effectiveness in being a cultural transmitter and a good role model for their children.
  4. Dismantle obstacles which encourage negative conceptualization of culturally different adolescents, and do not allow space for the development of a positive sense of self or constructive identity outcomes.
  5. Psychologists, teachers, and other professions must be trained to work more effectively with culturally different individuals, and must educate themselves about each culture they work with.
  6. Develop and implement strategies to allow culturally different adolescents to achieve vocational training which will prevent them from living in a socio-economical alienation.
  7. Promote the ethnic-identity of children in the early stages of life. Schools must develop programs to achieve this objective.
  8. Be aware of your own ethnic identity and the stereotypes you have about others. We also have to be willing to mature and develop a sense of respect, flexibility, inclusion and relatedness to other.
  9. Develop further research in this area. Comparative studies will help professionals to develop new alternatives to effectively work with this population.
We can conclude that ethnic identity conflicts are multi-dimensional, and many factors can contribute to successful resolution. However, we cannot wait until society and the political system change. We all have a part in this and we must start now with each our own contributions. Parents need help in building the bridge between cultures. Society needs to work on the development of a more inclusive and accepting style when dealing with culturally different adolescents. Adolescents must feel free to have more than one ethnic identity. The integration of the strengths of each culture will allow these adolescents to provide their best contribution to this society of ours.

If you have questions or comments, you can visit the website, Amigos and send your questions or comments to us.

[ Amigos | Dr. Carmen Guanipa ]


Last revised September, 1998. Copyright Dr. Carmen Guanipa, 1998.