Ethnicity: How We Form Our Self-Identity


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Both white and black children preferred white dolls in 1939. Image by phaewilk.

Both white and black children preferred white dolls in 1939. Image by phaewilk.

Humans share 99.9% of their genome, a concept popularized by Bill Clinton in his 2000 State of the Union Address.

Social scientists now view race and ethnicity as cultural constructs, based on our own self-identification, rather than on biological factors.

But when do children develop a sense of ethnicity? How is that self-identification influenced by the broader social context?  Psychologists through the decades have mapped an intriguing set of findings.

The History of Research into Ethnic Identity

Social scientists have studied the formation of ethnic identity since 1939, when African-American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, both PhDs, found that black children formed a racial identity by age four.

The husband and wife team measured the children’s choice of line drawings.  At age four, the children were likely to indicate the drawing of a black child was more like themselves than a drawing featuring a white child.

Black Dolls vs. White Dolls

In 1947 Clark and Clark conducted their most memorable research, sometimes referred to as the “doll study,” in which they found that both black and white children preferred to play with white dolls and reported finding the white dolls more attractive.

In 1970 Joseph Hraba and Geoffrey Grant conducted the study again.  In that era, both black and white children preferred playing with dolls that matched their own race. Scientists cite cultural changes toward greater integration of African Americans as the reason for the shift.  Reflecting the language of the black power movement, the 1970 study was titled “Black is Beautiful: A Reexamination of Racial Preference and Identification.”

In the twenty-first century, social scientists have also conducted research on changes in ethnic identities in the face of multi-culturalism.

(Click the CC under the video for English subtitles in this video demonstrating the doll experiment with modern children.)

Research on Identity in the Twenty-first Century

A meta-analysis of 184 studies completed by Timothy Smith and colleagues has identified ethnic identity as a positive factor in wellbeing.  Smith summarizes the findings as follows: “Studies correlating ethnic identity with self-esteem and positive well-being yielded average effect sizes twice as large as those from studies correlating ethnic identity with personal distress or mental health symptoms. Ethnic identity was thus more strongly related to positive well-being than to compromised well-being.”

Other researchers have looked at the changing nature of ethnic identity throughout adolescence. In a study published in 2010, Lisa Kaing and colleagues studied the identity formation of  American adolescents of Asian, Latin American and European backbrounds during the high school years.  Researchers followed 541 children over a four year period during which time they observed “substantial fluctuation in ethnic identity.” Factors influencing the children’s ethnic identity were related to family, peers and how central the concept of ethnicity was to the child.

In measures of the search for meaning, the study found  students of “Asian American backgrounds reported significantly higher exploration compared to both Latin and European American adolescents.”  Kaing notes that students who “reported greater search for meaning reported lower self-esteem, less daily happiness, and more daily distress.” Ethnic identity formation may be particularly important for Asian American youth.

Kiang found a strong ethnic identity is associated with a sense of meaning. She writes, “fostering ethnic identity with an eye towards promoting adolescents’ deeper sense of meaning in life could perhaps provide the most favorable outcomes, both psychologically and academically.” What does this mean for a society that long promoted itself as a melting pot of cultures?

Melting Pot or Salad Bowl?

Overall, research is pointing to the positive impact of forming a strong ethnic identity in adolescence and maintaining a pride in one’s self-identified ethnic group.  While at first glance, this may seem contrary to the needs of a society that considers itself a “melting pot,” others have suggested that a better metaphor might be society as a “salad bowl” with distinct, but intact, cultures adding to the mix.

The salad bowl concept may be  important for both personal identity and for the future of business.  Danny Sullivan, a journalist specializing in marketing, puts it this way, “I believe in diversity, not assimilation.”

Ethnic identity protects against adverse outcomes. Image by krystle

Ethnic identity protects against adverse outcomes. Image by krystle

Implications for Parents and Educators

Parents and educators who emphasize the cultural traditions of their families and students while teaching them that they bring a unique flavor to the ‘salad bowl’ of society are most likely to encourage a sense of belonging, meaning, and pride.

A strong self-identity protects against depression and other adverse outcomes such as poor grades.  Maintaining ethnic identity allows everyone to enjoy the spread on the table that is possible in a  modern multi-cultural society.

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