Ethnic Identity

Ethnic identity, broadly defined, is a dynamic and multidimensional construct that represents the part of one’s self-concept that is derived from a sense of belonging and commitment to a particular ethnic group. Other key components of ethnic identity include self-identification, the importance of ethnicity in one’s life, ethnic group affiliation, positive feelings and attitudes toward one’s ethnic group, and the belief that others view one’s ethnic group favorably. Ethnic identity also is manifest in a shared sense of identity, values, attitudes, heritage, and lineage with other members of the ethnic group, as well as in individual and collective engagement in the language, customs, and traditions of the ethnic group.

Historical Perspectives

The conceptualization and operationalization of ethnic identity have undergone numerous changes over the years. Historically, ethnic identity was defined according to membership in a given ethnic group, whether ascribed by the individual or by others. Early definitions also focused heavily on ethnic group preferences and attitudes. For example, the famous doll studies by Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie P. Clark in the late 1940s revealed that African American girls were more likely to assign positive attributes to white dolls, not black dolls. However, early methods of studying ethnic identity often conflated notions of ethnicity and ethnic identity, privileged the opinion of others over the individual, and conceptualized ethnic identity as a relatively static construct. The dynamic process of ethnic identity development and its multidimensional nature were largely overlooked.

Ethnic identity is now conceptualized within the framework of Henri Tajfel’s social identity theory, which postulates that people have an innate need to belong, and identification with a group contributes to a positive overall self-concept and sense of well-being. But, as the Clark and Clark doll studies revealed, membership in a devalued ethnic group can lead people to distance themselves from their ethnic group or to report a greater preference for the dominant group. An alternative strategy when excluded or threatened by another group is for people to identify more strongly with their ethnic group, develop a sense of ethnic pride, and emphasize the distinctiveness of their own group. This perspective of ethnic identity places a greater emphasis on personal agency and a subjective sense of self, as well as psychological and emotional affiliation with an ethnic group.

There remains an ongoing debate over the similarities and differences between ethnic identity and racial identity. Although the two constructs share much in common (e.g., both ethnic identity and racial identity are types of social identities), racial identity is believed to emerge based on experiences with racism and oppression due to phenotypic differences, such as skin color or facial features. Ethnic identity, by contrast, is believed to develop from a more basic need to belong and identify with similar others. Although prejudices and cultural pressures are significant in understanding ethnic identity, the primary emphasis is not on oppression and sociopolitical stratification as it is in the case of racial identity.

Various developmental models have emerged to explain the formation of ethnic identity. In general, these models propose that one’s ethnic identity initially starts as an unexamined aspect of one’s self that eventually becomes examined. The individual subsequently goes through a period of exploration of and immersion into the group’s beliefs, traditions, and behaviors until the process concludes with ethnic identity achievement and clarity. One problem with these stage models, however, is that they imply that individuals go through a fairly predictable trajectory of ethnic identity development. It is more likely the case that people cycle through these different aspects of identity negotiation depending on personal circumstances and the social context.

More recently, a multidimensional perspective of ethnic identity has emerged, which challenges the idea of ethnic identity as a single, unitary construct. Most scholars agree that ethnic identity includes cognitive, affective, and behavioral components, including self-identification, salience and centrality of ethnicity in one’s life, a sense of belonging and affiliation, private regard (e.g., positive affect toward one’s group), public regard (e.g., perceived favorability of one’s group), and interest and participation in ethnic-specific activities. It is thought that these different aspects of ethnic identity are accessible, salient, or central to the individual based on the moment or situation. Thus, the nature and manifestation of ethnic identity can be viewed as context dependent. For example, a person may suddenly develop strong ethnic group pride with the public success of another ethnic group member. Furthermore, specific aspects of ethnic identity may have unique or differential effects on the psychological functioning of individuals, depending on the circumstances. Pride in one’s ethnic group, for instance, tends to be related to self-esteem, but it may be associated with lower self-esteem when a person experiences greater discrimination because of individual sensitivity to rejection.

Influences on Ethnic Identity

Prominent variables influencing ethnic identity include ethnic socialization, acculturation, and discrimination. Parents play a particularly important role in children’s ethnic identity development through engaging in ethnic socialization—a process of teaching children about their ethnicity and the experiences they may have with the broader society because of their ethnic group membership. For example, immigrant parents may speak to children in their native language, eat ethnic-specific foods, celebrate cultural holidays and traditions, and socialize with other ethnic group members. Moreover, parents may make an earnest effort to teach the history and to instill the values of their culture to their children. These direct and indirect ethnic socialization experiences gradually become internalized by children and help to shape their ethnic identities.

For those individuals who belong to an ethnic group within a larger, ethnically diverse society, acculturation processes also impact ethnic identity. Acculturation refers to a process of change in one’s cultural attitudes, values, and behaviors that result from contact with another culture or society. Level of acculturation, in turn, is believed to affect how individuals relate to their own group as a subgroup of the larger society, thereby influencing quality and degree of ethnic identification. A unidimensional model of acculturation proposes that ethnic group identification is inversely related to adaptation to the mainstream culture. To illustrate, a Mexican immigrant to the United States who retains a strong sense of ethnic identity as a Mexican would have weak ties to American culture in this model; on the other hand, high levels of acculturation to American culture would be associated with a weakened ethnic identity as a Mexican. By contrast, a bidimensional model of acculturation proposes that identification with one’s traditional or ethnic culture is independent of one’s identification with the other culture, allowing for biculturalism—identification and awareness of oneself as a member of multiple ethnic or cultural groups. Both models have received empirical support, although there is increasing evidence in support of the bidimensional model. The implication of each model is that the development of ethnic identity does not necessarily occur in cultural isolation.

The association between ethnic identity and discrimination or bias against one’s ethnic group is a complex one. On the one hand, when confronted with discrimination, people may increase or decrease their level of ethnic identification to maintain a positive self-concept and well-being. On the other hand, ethnic identity affects perceptions of discrimination or victimization as well. Some scholars have found that a stronger ethnic identity heightens sensitivity to personal discrimination, whereas others have found that individuals are motivated to minimize perceptions of bias against one’s ethnic group, possibly to preserve a positive self-concept and well-being. This bidirectional association between ethnic identity and discrimination highlights the dynamic social processes that underlie issues of ethnicity and race.

Future Directions

The concept of ethnic identity has been of increasing interest to counseling research and theory, particularly for how it relates to psychological functioning and interpersonal relationships. The different perspectives of ethnic identity (e.g., ethnic identity as a unitary vs. multidimensional construct, or as a static state vs. a multistage developmental process) lend to the challenge of understanding how ethnic identity relates to such issues of psychological functioning as self-esteem, well-being, or mental illness. Future efforts to uncover the exact mechanisms through which ethnic identity affects psychological adjustment will allow for the better integration and utilization of ethnic identity in clinical interventions and in prevention strategies promoting optimal development.


  1. Ashmore, R. D., Deaux, K., & McLaughlin-Volpe, T. (2004). An organizing framework for collective identity: Articulation and significance of multidimensionality. Psychological Bulletin, 30(1), 80-114.
  2. Clark, K. P., & Clark, M. P. (1947). Racial identification and preference in Negro children. In T. M. Newcomb & E. L. Hartley (Eds.), Readings in social psychology (pp. 169-178). New York: Henry Holt.
  3. Helms, J. E. (1995). An update of Helms’ White and people of color racial identity models. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, & L. A. Suzuki (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (pp. 181-191). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Phinney, J. S. (1990). Ethnic identity in adolescents and adults: Review of research. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 499-514.
  5. Tajfel, H. (1978). Social identity and intergroup relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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