Ethnic Identity Formation in Adolescents

According to one theory, there are three important phases of ethnic identity formation: a phase where ethnic identity is not explored or considered important; a phase where individuals begin to explore their ethnic roots; and a phase where ethnicity takes an important place in the individual’s self-concept. The theory argues that a strong sense of ethnic identity can be very beneficial, leading to greater school achievement, greater self-esteem, and stronger family and social relationships.

The theory does not really address the problem of active resistance to ethnic identity formation, nor does it really explain what constitutes an “ethnic identity” or a sense of one. It generally seems over-simplified to me. Nevertheless, the idea that we go through different stages of recognition of our cultural background seems clear when I look at my students.

Because of my college’s highly diverse population, I often include texts in my courses that explore the immigrant and second-generation experience. The conflicts children and adolescents feel about their “ethnic identity” provide a rich terrain for fiction. One story I love is “Simple Recipes” by Madeleine Thien, in which a Malaysian-Canadian child, who bonds with her father while he teaches her “simple recipes” from traditional Malaysian and Chinese cooking, watches as her slightly older brother rejects everything Malaysian, spitting out the carefully prepared fish and rice and calling his father a “chink.”

This story generally leads to discussions about how many students reacted in similar, if sometimes less dramatic, ways when they were young teenagers, seeing their cultural heritage as an obstacle to be overcome in their quest to be “normal.” Students sometimes say that they now regret their younger resistance to their language, culture and traditions, and that now that they are older they are making an effort to reconnect with these things, suggesting that they have reached the third phase of ethnic identity formation despite the difficulties they encountered in the second.

I feel this is a delicate terrain to tread with students, but I think the same rule applies that I’ve discussed in the last few posts: recognize them and the place they’ve arrived at.

I have colleagues, for example, who do not call students by the “Anglicized” versions of their names, even when they request it. Although I understand and agree with this basic position – of course it would be nice if we could all fully embrace the things that set us a little apart from others and make us unique – I feel it’s more respectful to call students what they ask to be called, and not tell them, “You’ll be Panagiotis and proud of it, whether you like it or not.” I had a student named Pierre Thien in my class one semester; on his introductory info sheet, next to “Name you would like me to call you by,” he wrote: “Pierre or Thien, whichever you prefer.” During the first couple of weeks, I called him “Thien,” but he hesitated before responding, seemed confused and embarrassed, and a couple of times didn’t realize he was the one being addressed. I reverted to “Pierre,” and the problem was cleared up. If faced with the same issue now, I’d ask him a second time which he preferred, and I’d respect his wishes.

In this, as in all other things, I think it’s important to meet students where they are, and respect their process of coming into the selves they want to be.

(This post was adapted from an analytical response to the following text:

Kail, R., Cavanaugh, J. C., & Ateah, C. A. (2006) Emerging Adulthood (Canadian ed.) Custom Edition of Human Development: A Life-Span View. Scarborough, Ont.: Thomson Custom Publishing.

I wrote the original analysis for an MEd course.)


2 thoughts on “Ethnic Identity Formation in Adolescents

  1. an interesting post. i think the push-pull that younger people experience with their cultural roots is also found in their connexions to social-subcultures (as in, they may become ardent punks, or beatheads or whatever) because it offers a different set of often fixed rules and proscribed actions that allow for a masking of some things that may come naturally – in this case, an ethno-cultural perspective. however as years go by, sometimes these ethno-cultural traditions find their way into the sub-cultural memes, and we get richer, more interesting hybrids because of it (such as a south-east asian hip hopper, or sikh punks, etc.).
    if nothing else, providing the students with a range of perspectives on ethnic identity (via literature, discussion, etc.) will provide tools for later years, as nearly everyone re-examines their identity in some way with time. so perhaps the literature in question won’t necessarily be well-received now, but may inspire the students in later years.


  2. McEnroe: I absolutely agree – and I find that this age (17-20) is really when they start to be ready to examine these issues in all sorts of ways, if they weren’t ready before. (It’s important to note, though, that many students have already started thinking about questions of cultural identity, or are totally accepting of and proud of their cultural roots.) I find that texts that deal with these issues are among those that students appreciate the most.


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