Ethnic Identity: Definition and Development

Lesson Transcript
Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

Ethnic identity refers to the group with which an individual identifies. Explore the definition and development of ethnic identity and learn about ethnicity, identity crisis, and acceptance of ethnic identity. Updated: 11/09/2021


If you have ever filled out a questionnaire or survey, you have likely been asked your ethnic identity. More specifically, what box do you check on those surveys? African American? Caucasian? Asian? Hispanic? Native American? Biracial? Other? These are all commonly seen examples of ethnic identities, but this list certainly does not encompass all the possibilities.

Ethnic identity refers to the ethnic group with which an individual most closely associates. Identifying one's ethnic identity is not as simple as checking a box according to one's skin color. On the contrary, ethnic identity is a complex and multifaceted part of the development of an individual.

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:46 Ethnicity and Identity
  • 1:57 Identity Crisis
  • 2:46 Acceptance
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Ethnicity and Identity

Think back on your school years. How did you describe yourself in elementary school? How about middle school and high school? What about your friends? Did they change as you grew and matured? The answers to these questions likely form the foundation for your ethnic identity.

Babies and very young children have very little, if any, knowledge or awareness of ethnic identity. As children grow and mature, they begin to search for ways to identify themselves. They want to understand who they are and where they fit in to society. Ethnicity is a very important aspect of who we are as human beings. Ethnicity refers to physical attributes and cultural traits as well. For example, one may be Asian, but also Chinese or Hispanic. Therefore, ethnic identity is a broad and important part of overall identity development.

Most psychologists agree that identity development is a major task during adolescence. This may explain why teens are more likely to try on new hats, so to speak, or try new things. They are striving to figure out who they are and where they belong. That is identity.

Identity Crisis

One's ethnicity is a very important aspect of identity development. We want to be able to relate to all the parts of who we are. The tricky part comes when adolescents look around and do not see anyone else that looks like them. This can create what psychologists refer to as an identity crisis, which is when a person is not able to figure out where we belong in society or who we truly are.

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Additional Activities

Ethnic Identity Activities

Activity 1:

Imagine that you are a 14-year-old high school freshman. You are in a military family, and move every three or so years. As a 14-year-old just about to begin high school, you moved yet again. You walk into school on your first day and notice that you are significantly in the minority where your race is concerned. You see a handful of students who are your own ethnicity, but that is all. How would you feel? What would you do? How could you strive to fit in? Would you identify more fully with your own ethnicity, or try to assimilate into the dominant culture? Write two or three paragraphs on your thoughts, feelings, and actions as a new student at this school.

Activity 2:

Write down your ethnic identity on a piece of paper. Write ten adjectives describing that ethnicity below that. What do you notice about these adjectives? Are they positive? Negative? Neutral? From where does your viewpoint come? Your family? Your peers? Society at large? Are these adjectives consistent with how you view yourself personally? Is there anything you would want to change? If so, how could you do so? After your list, write a paragraph addressing these questions.

Activity 3:

Write a journal entry reflecting on how your own ethnic identity has changed over your lifetime. What did you think about your ethnicity when you were in elementary school? How did it change when you were in high school? If you are or have been in college, did higher education change your views? How do you think your ethnic identity might change in the future? You could also choose an adult whom you respect and ask if you can interview him or her for this project.

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