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Ethnic and Racial Identity Development

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 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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