Ethnicity refers to a social group category defined by the shared historical, national, social, political, and cultural heritage of a people. Ethnicity includes a reference to shared ancestry, language, customs, traditions, and similar physical characteristics among a group of people. In addition, ethnicity tends to be informed by the social group’s particular geographic area. For example, in the United States, an individual may be racially classified as Black because he or she is associated with the social, political, and economic experiences, in addition to similar physical characteristics, of that social group, but be ethnically classified as Jamaican because he or she shares the historical, national, social, political, and cultural heritage with others from the Caribbean country of Jamaica. Ethnicity is assumed to have broad implications for how individuals understand themselves and experience the world around them. Therefore, ethnicity is thought to shape individuals’ experiences of psychological well-being.

Given the connection between ethnicity, culture, and psychological well-being, ethnicity is a significant variable to explore in cross-cultural counseling situations. Social group categories provide reservoirs for meaning and context for individual and shared group experiences. Therefore, knowing an individual’s ethnicity can provide a counselor with a framework for understanding the individual from a particular cultural perspective.

Race versus Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are often, erroneously, used interchangeably in public discourse and in scholarly and research literature. Oftentimes in the United States, ethnicity is used as a euphemism for race because the former tends to connote a more positive conception than race, which tends to be a politically charged construct. However, to be precise, race and ethnicity, though interrelated, are distinct constructs. Ethnicity is informed by an individual’s race but represents a specific aspect of his or her cultural experience. Whereas race represents a limited number of social groups (e.g., Black, White, or Asian) based upon the varying social, political, and economic needs of society, ethnicity represents a larger number of specific and unique social groups (e.g., Haitian, Irish, or Japanese) based upon the historical culture of a people.

When considering culture, one must take into account the values, customs, traditions, attitudes, social norms, and patterns of interaction of a people. Given the complexity and array of the components of culture, considering broad racial categories only restricts the nuanced experiences of said culture. Therefore, ethnicity allows for greater distinction within broad racial categories such that significant but subtle differences between various subgroups are recognized. Consider the racial group Asian, which encompasses individuals representing more than 25 different ethnic groups with distinct social, political, and economic histories. With this vast array of ethnicities, knowing that someone is Asian provides very little information when compared with knowing that someone is Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, or Pakistani.


Even though ethnicity allows for greater distinction among groups of people, counselors must also remain aware of within-group differences among members of ethnicities. Counselors consider how the individual understands his or her own ethnicity in relation to his or her sense of self. Ethnic identity is one way to think about those within-group differences. Whereas ethnicity refers to the social group category, ethnic identity refers to an individual’s sense of belongingness or connection to his or her ethnic group. In this sense, ethnic identity includes the degree to which an individual adheres to the attitudes and values, upholds the customs and traditions, and perceives the world from a perspective that is consistent with his or her ethnicity. This means that a Jamaican person who espouses attitudes and values, participates in cultural activities, and experiences the world in a manner that is consistent with other Jamaicans is said to have a positive ethnic identity as Jamaican. This may be contrasted against a Jamaican individual who does not participate in Jamaican cultural activities, perhaps espouses attitudes and values that differ from those of other Jamaicans, and experiences the world in a manner that is inconsistent with other Jamaicans—this individual can be described as having a less positive ethnic identity.

Furthermore, it is assumed that ethnic identity has implications for self-esteem in that an individual’s affiliation with a particular group influences the degree to which he or she may incorporate aspects of that group identity into his or her self-concept. Consequently, if an individual has a strong sense of connection with a social group he or she is more likely to incorporate the positive and negative characteristics associated with that group into his or her personal identity. Using the Jamaican example, if the individual has a strong Jamaican identity, then it is highly likely that the group concept and esteem of that ethnicity will have an influence on his or her personal concept and esteem.

In the context of the United States, considering an individual’s specific ethnicity, the social and political history and current status of that group, and the individual’s immigration status has implications for the relevance of ethnicity for a person. It also has influence on the sense of esteem associated with an ethnicity. For example, the social status of an individual’s ethnicity may be different in the United States than in his or her home culture, which may have implications for the individual’s ethnic identity. Therefore, in addition to being aware of a client’s ethnicity, counselors should also consider the individual’s level of ethnic identity. The processes of enculturation and acculturation are useful concepts to explore when considering ethnicity in the counseling relationship.

Enculturation and Acculturation

No culture exists in isolation from others. This is most evident in the United States for racial and ethnic groups where multiple groups live parallel in a broader societal context. The constructs of encultura-tion and acculturation describe the processes that allow cultures to remain distinct while simultaneously existing in the context of other cultures.

Enculturation and acculturation are processes that explain the degree to which ethnicities retain, or relinquish, aspects of their culture when they are located in the context of a broader culture. Specifically, enculturation refers to the process through which members of an ethnicity learn about, and come to appreciate, the various aspects of their culture, including values, customs, traditions, attitudes, social norms, and patterns of interaction. Acculturation refers to the process through which members of an ethnicity learn about the differences between, and boundaries around, aspects of their culture and those of the broader, host culture.

Enculturation and acculturation are dynamic, adaptive processes that have a profound influence on ethnic groups and their individual members. This is to say that the degree of enculturation and acculturation for different ethnicities may be different depending on several factors, including (a) immigration status (i.e., personal choice or refugee status), (b) intensity of cultural exposure (i.e., degree/type of ethnic socialization to home or host culture), (c) experiences with prejudice and discrimination, and (d) the numerical balance between the home culture and the host culture. Counselors are encouraged to consider each of these factors as an influence on an individual’s ethnic identity. This is to say that there are likely many within-group differences for individual members of an ethnicity based upon these factors that may be masked if one were to only look at the ethnic group broadly.

Implications for Counseling

There is an extensive literature in the counseling field examining ethnicity and (a) individual psychological health, (b) its influence on the counseling relationship, (c) processes affecting identity development, (d) an individual’s experience with discrimination, (e) relevant counseling issues for specific ethnicities, and (f) relevant counseling interventions for specific ethnicities. Generally speaking, researchers and counselors agree that knowledge of a client’s ethnicity, among other aspects of his or her cultural background, is critical in providing effective and ethical counseling services. Competent and effective counselors should always consider these aspects of their own and their clients’ backgrounds. Ethnicity and, subsequently, ethnic identity are integral aspects of individuals’ life experiences and their psychological well-being. In providing counseling services, counselors must strive to find a balance between knowledge of a client’s ethnicity, understanding the relevance of his or her ethnicity, and considering other important individual aspects of the client.


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