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Ethnic Identity: Definition and Development

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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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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: 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.

The term ethnic identity refers to the group with which an individual identifies. This lesson will discuss ethnic identity and the way it emerges and changes throughout the lifespan.

Definition

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.

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.

Let's assume that Trevor is the only Latino male in a high school of all Caucasian students. Usually, it is much easier to make friends when you have things in common, especially in high school where teens frequently group themselves in cliques. Clearly, Trevor is in a tough spot. He may struggle to fit in. He may even try to change his appearance or behaviors to more closely resemble those of the other students.

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