Unexamined Ethnic Identity Essay

This page will review the following theories:

  • Breton, Isajiw, Kalbach, & Reitz Components of Ethnic Identity
  • Berry’s Process of Acculturation Model
  • Phinney’s Model of Ethnic Identity Development
  • Torres’s Model of Hispanic Identity Development
  • Guardia and Evans (2003)
  • Ethnic Identity of Asians in the United States
  • Ethnic Identity of Native American/Asian Americans
  • Ethnic Identity of African Americans/Black

Ethnic identity is often used interchangeably with racial identity. However, an individual’s ethnicity is more than just his or her heritage. Ethnicity is the culture, beliefs and values of one’s heritage (Phinney, 1995)

Breton, Isajiw, Kalbach & Reitz (1990)

  • Established ethnic identity into internal and external components
    • External or Internal –
      • An individual exudes a specific identity through language, media depictions, and friendship circles or individual assumes an ethnic identity through self-images, loyalty to ethnic group, attachment to group through a variety of avenues

Berry’s Process of Acculturation Model (1984, 1993)

  • Acculturation
    • ways individuals of different ethnicities relate and assibilate to the dominate culture
  • Four Strategies:
    • Assimilate
      • Individual identifies strictly with dominate culture and abandons his or her own ethnicity
    • Marginalize
      • Individual conjures he or her own identity separate from his or her own ethnicity or dominate ethnicity
    • Separate
      • Individual identifies with his or her own ethnicity with no regard to any other ethnicity, especially the dominate culture
    • Integrate
      • Individual identifies with his or her own ethnicity, as well as, understands infusion of dominate ethnicity into the holistic identity

Phinney’s Model of Ethnic Identity Development (1995)

  • Three Stage Model:
    • Stage 1: Unexamined Ethnic Identity
      • Individuals fall into two categories based upon the influence or knowledge of the existence of ethnicity
      • Diffusion – An individual has not encountered ethnicity as an issue or topic, ethnicity is not an issue of contention
      • Foreclosure – An individual as collected information about ethnicity from family and peers and succumbs to information without interact with individuals of the ethnic group
  • Stage 2: Ethnic Identity Search/Moratorium
    • Individuals encounters cause him or her to look into their own ethnicity, as well as, become aware of ethnicity
    • Individuals continue to seek more information and a multitude of emotions during exploration
  • Stage 3: Ethnic Identity Achievement
    • Individuals are suggested to have a positive, bicultural identity
    • Individuals are informed about their own ethnicity but are aware and appreciative of all ethnicities

Torres’s Model of Hispanic Identity Development (2003)

  • Model look speaks specifically to college students
  • In the first two years, there are three influences:
    • Environment Where They Grew Up –
      • Individuals are more socialized into the Hispanic culture depending on the community he or she grew up in; the more Hispanic influences the stronger the ethnic identity
    • Family Influence and Generational Status –
      • As individuals are more and more removed from the first-generation, the more acculturated and assimilated into the dominate culture
    • Self-perception and Status in Society –
      • An individuals sense of privilege as a Latino is based upon the extent to which stereotypes about the Latino culture are believed
      • Individuals will go through two processes when experiencing conflict in current environment
    • Cultural Dissonance –
      • An individuals realization of their perception of a Latino identity and how other’s expect from a person who identifies as Latino
    • Changes in Relationships
      • An individuals clash with current peer groups’ values of a Latino

Ethnic Identity of Asians in the United States (Evans et al., 2010)

  • Asian Americans are the most ethnically diverse racial group in the United States
  • Overgeneralizations of the ethnic identity development around Asian American is widespread, but there is too little information to offer a concrete model
  • South Asians tend to put more emphasis on the role of ethnic identification

Ethnic Identity of Native American/Asian Americans (Evans et al. 2010)

  • An individual who identifies within this culture is expected to identify with the dominant culture based on historical events

Ethnic Identity of African Americans/Black

  • Due to historical events, many backs in the United States were rid of their culture and a model for ethnic development is nonexistent
  • Ethnic Identity can be views in two models:
    • Caribbean Cultural Identity
      • An individual will fall into two categories:
      • Bricolage – Reexamination of all cultural influences from the Caribbean to form one culture
      • Creaolization – Taking pieces from each separate culture to create an new culture
  • Womenist Identity
    • Women who identify within the Black culture have specific and distinction characteristics
      • Women move from conforming to social expectations to defining her own strong, healthy identity
      • Women go through a similar avenue as Adulthood Nigrescence within Cross – Fhagan-Smith’s Black Identity Model

Acculturation, ethnic identity, where does the intersection take place?

Although ethnic identity is important there is a reason Evans et al. (2010) integrated the concept of acculturation into the ethnic identity chapter. At each institution the may be a different dominate culture on campuses, depending on the constituency of the university. Acculturation is meant to bring a cohesion among campuses and understand that as members of the community, each student has a shared community and as such integrate their ethnicities into the campus. This can be done through programming, campus organizations and institutional policies reflecting integration and thought behind acculturation. At most institutions, this is reflective through mission statements and values.

This page was written and created by Michelle Robinson. Please use the comment section below to ask questions, provide reflection, discussion and/or feedback. To contact directly about this page, please see Michelle Robinson at microbi23@gmail.com.

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Identity development, the growth of a strong and stable sense of self across a range of identity dimensions, is central to adolescent development [1]. While we have many types of identities (religious, cultural, and national, to name a few), ethnic and racial identities are an important part of how we see ourselves and how others see us.

Ethnic and racial identities, of course, are not adopted solely by minority populations. Everyone develops a sense of ethnic and racial identity.

Visit Toolkit: Identity Development for resources. Learn more about Adolescent Development.

Ethnicity and Race

Ethnicity and race refer to different dimensions of our identities.

Ethnicity refers to the idea that one is a member of a particular cultural, national, or racial group that may share some of the following elements: culture, religion, race, language, or place of origin. Two people can share the same race but have different ethnicities. For example, among two black individuals one may be African-American and another may be African-Caribbean.

Race is a social construction that refers to characteristics possessed by individuals and groups. The meaning of race is not fixed; it is related to a particular social, historical, and geographic context. The way races are classified changes in the public mind over time; for example, at one time racial classifications were based on ethnicity or nationality, religion, or minority language groups. Today, by contrast, society classifies people into different races primarily based on skin color.

Certain ethnic and racial identities may also confer privilege.

What is Ethnic and Racial Identity?

Ethnic and racial identities are important for many young people, particularly those who are members of minority groups. These dimensions of the self may instill feelings of:
  • Belonging to a particular group or groups
  • Identification with that group; shared commitment and values
Ethnic identity develops in adolescence and is passed from one generation to the next through customs, traditions, language, religious practice, and cultural values. Our ethnic and racial identities are also influenced by the popular media, literature, and current events.

Ethnic identity may play a larger role among minority youth because they experience the contrasting and dominant culture of the majority ethnic group. Youth who belong to the majority ethnic culture may not even recognize or acknowledge their ethnic identity [2].

Stages in Ethnic Identity Development

Drawing on research by Erik Erikson and James Marcia, among others [3, 4], developmental psychologist Jean S. Phinney has proposed a three-stage model for adolescent ethnic identity development [2]. These stages do not correspond to specific ages, but can occur at any time during early to late adolescence. Individuals may spend their entire lives at a particular stage of ethnic identity development [2, 5].
  • Unexamined (or diffused) ethnic identity: During this stage, the adolescent does not consider the personal meaning of ethnic identity. Adolescents can easily transition to adulthood without forming a sense of ethnic identity, particularly if they are members of the dominant culture.
  • Moratorium: During this stage, the adolescent actively searches for the meaning of his or her own ethnicity. This may involve researching ethnic group history, learning the language, and participating in cultural activities. Exploration of ethnicity is often triggered by an incident or event, such as a significant world event that is related to the ethnic group, or the death of an elderly family member.
  • Achieved: After a period of exploration, the adolescent now feels secure in his or her sense of ethnic identity. Ethnic identity now becomes an important dimension of self-identity.

Racial Identity Statuses

The classic model of racial identity development was developed by psychologist William Cross. Cross was careful to argue that his model refers to identity statuses rather than stages, because stages imply a linear progression of steps which may not occur for all adolescents [6]. The four identity statuses may occur at any time during adolescence.
  • Pre-encounter: At this point, the adolescent may not be consciously aware of her race and how it may affect her life.
  • Encounter: The adolescent has an encounter that provokes thought about the role of racial identification in his life. This may be a negative or positive experience related to race. For minority adolescents, this experience is often a negative one in which they experience racism for the first time.
  • Immersion: After an encounter that forces the adolescent to confront racial identity, a period of exploration, similar to Phinney's moratorium for ethnic identity development, follows. The adolescent may search for information about racial identity, and will also learn about racial identity through interaction with peers of the same race.

    Psychologist Beverly Tatum argues that it is important for racial minority youth to learn the meaning of their racial identity and be with others who share their experiences. Rather than seeing this as self-segregation, Tatum points out that this can teach them to cope as a member of a racial minority within a dominant culture [7].

  • Internalization and Commitment: At this point, the adolescent has developed a secure sense of racial identity and is comfortable socializing both within and outside the racial group he or she identifies with.


[1]  The content on this page is condensed from the ACT for Youth online presentation Adolescent Ethnic and Racial Identity Development by Alana Butler, Cornell University.
[2]  Phinney, J. S. (1989). Stages of ethnic identity development in minority group adolescents. Journal of Early Adolescence, 9, 34-49.
[3]  Erikson, E.H. (1970). Reflections on the dissent of contemporary youth, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 51, 11-22.
[4]  Marcia, J. E., (1966), Development and validation of ego identity status, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3, pp. 551-558.
[5]  Phinney, J. (1990). Ethnic identity in adolescents and adults: A review of research. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 499-514.
[6]  Cross, W. (1978). The Thomas and Cross models of psychological nigrescence: A literature review. Journal of Black Psychology, 4, 13-31.
[7]  Tatum, B. (2003). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: A psychologist explains the development of racial identity. New York: Basic Books
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