Influence of Culture, Race & Ethnicity on Self-Image

Instructor: Gaines Arnold

Gaines has a Master of Science in Education with a focus in counseling.

This lesson looks at how an individual's culture, race and/or ethnicity affect their self-image. The different terms (ethnicity, race and culture) are defined and discussed. How different cultures view the self and other issues related to the topic are also discussed.

Being the New Kid

In the small Midwestern town that Lee had moved to with his parents, the school year started in the middle of August. Lee was used to a few more weeks of summer, but he had a bigger concern. This was his first day in the second grade, and he was a stranger to his classmates. He wasn't sure that they would accept him. His mother, who had emigrated from China with Lee's father shortly before Lee was born, told him to show respect and it would be returned to him. So, Lee stood back and watched the other children as they played and only politely responded if asked a direct question.

Lee's teacher, after observing him for a few days, worried that he would have trouble acclimating to his new surroundings. She asked him if he wanted to play with the other children and when he said, 'Yes please,' she guided him toward the game. Lee still stood back. The teacher talked to the school counselor and found out that maybe shyness wasn't the issue.

What are Cultural Differences?

Lee was raised in a very different environment than many American children. It was even more problematic that his teachers were not as aware of cultural differences in the Midwest as they had been in Lee's old school in San Francisco. Because he was raised in an Asian household by immigrant parents, Lee had a difficult time adjusting to the different norms he experienced when away from home.

Like Lee, many cultures dictate that a person act differently than is familiar to people who live in Western European cultures. Western culture values the individual who is self-determined and has an advanced image of self. In many other cultures (including most of those on originating on the continents of Asia and Africa as well as Native American), the group is what matters and individuality is not as valued.

Although race, which some anthropologists believe is a false concept, has something to do with how people see themselves, ethnicity is a more defining concept. According to Webster's dictionary, ethnicity is a social group bounded by an individual culture, religion, race, nationality, etc. This distinction is very important when discussing effects to self-image.

What Constitutes Self-Image?

All people have certain beliefs about self which depend in large part on experience, but are also influenced by personality and innate qualities. Self-image is, simply put, how someone views their own person. Since this is a fluid concept, it can be greatly influenced by internal and external sources among which are race, ethnicity and culture.

Do Race, Ethnicity or Culture Affect Self-Image?

The simple answer is yes, but it is actually a very complicated issue that has generated a great deal of empirical (or observational) research. There are three recognized races - Mongoloid, Negroid and Caucasoid - that people identify with, but there are many different ethnicities and cultures. In general, people identify more strongly with a smaller group than the very general concept of their race. However, within the context of culture, race can mean a great deal.

When people of one race are minorities within the majority culture of another race, it can have a telling effect upon self-image. The best example may be the struggles people of African ancestry and Asian ancestry have faced in predominantly Caucasian cultures. People of African and Asian ancestry were used as chattel slaves, and viewed as less than human at one time which still causes some self-image issues even in modern times.

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