Definition, Development and Examples of Ethnic Identity

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A 10x10 collage of 100 distinct faces, representing a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and nationalities, all from various walks of life.
A 10×10 collage of 100 distinct faces, representing a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and nationalities, all from various walks of life.

What is ethnic identity?

Ethnic identity refers to the many different ways that culture and ethnicity are experienced and displayed by individuals. It does not have a fixed meaning but is an individual’s experience of oneself. For example, an individual may identify with where they were born (e.g., black American) or where they immigrated from (e.g., African immigrant).

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Ethnic identity can be described as the individual’s knowledge of and identification with his/her culture and ethnicity. It encompasses what one is, who one is, where he/she comes from, how he/she acts to others, and his/her sense of belonging to a group that shares common goals and values. Ethnic identity is an important basis for self-concept development, other-regard development, group membership development, and group definition.

How does one get an ethnic identity, and does it matter

In many ways, ethnic identity can be traced back to early childhood, as we learn our cultural attributes and native language. The kinds of cultural attributes we may identify with include our ethnicity (e.g., whose ancestors were it?) or religion (e.g., the belief system of that group?), the neighborhood one was raised in, the foods one ate, what it is like to be around certain people in the neighborhood, and so on. In other words, ethnic identity can be the basis of a minority group’s self-concept. Behaviors such as juvenile delinquency can be understood with understanding of ethic identity.

Ethnic identity or ethnicity does not have to define a culture, but it does have to be part of that culture for a person to develop ethnic identity. Minority groups may not have access to their cultures and languages if they do not feel connected to those cultures or languages.

Why is ethnic identity important?

1. Understanding ethnic identity enables us to understand cultural conflicts and adjust our behaviors to fit in.

2. Developing a healthy ethnic identity is important so that one can develop self-esteem and respect for others.

3. A positive sense of self is vital when coping positively with life’s challenges, especially in the face of prejudice or discrimination.

4. Ethnic identity is useful in understanding ourselves, others, and the world; it shapes our social relationships and how we see the world as a whole.

5. Ethnic identity can be important in developing a sense of belonging, self-esteem, and healthy relationships with other people.

6. An individual’s life satisfaction, health, language, and culture are all influenced by ethnic identity.

Reasons why some groups have stronger ethnic identities than others

Some groups (e.g., Philippines, Asian Indians, Chinese, Jews, Koreans, Russian, Cambodians, Cubans, Hmong ) have been more successful in retaining their language and cultural traditions than others (e.g., African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodian Genocide).

In the case of African Americans in the U.S., their language and cultural traditions were forcefully taken away by the white majority, and their cultures became less relevant for everyday life. In the case of all the other groups mentioned above, their cultural traditions, languages, and values are still alive and relevant, which means more opportunities to learn and retain the culture.

Components of ethnic identity

Ethnic identity is made up of various elements. They include: 

1. The cognitive

This is the part of our ethnic identity that we can think about or discuss. It is made up of our knowledge about the culture and how we feel about it.

2. The affective

This is the part of our ethnic identity that we have feelings or emotions about. It includes pride, love, happiness, and sadness about our ethnic group.

3. The Behavioral

This is what we DO. It is more than just an idea or a thought, it is how we show our ethnic identity to the world through various behaviors.

What are the challenges of maintaining ethnic identity bilingualism?

Because ethnic identity results from our culture and language, it is more difficult for minorities to maintain their ethnic identities in a situation where they do not have access to their cultures and languages. In addition, minority groups’ maintenance of ethnic identities when they can learn more about their culture depends on where they live (e.g., in Azalea City or Orange Grove).

How does immigration status impact ethnic identity?

Immigrants who come to the United States, either legally or illegally, may experience a sense of cultural loss, and loss of language and culture. Immigration status can also make it difficult for immigrant communities to retain their ethnic identities.

How does ethnicity affect self-actualization?

Ethnic identity is important in helping an individual to realize his/her full potential and to achieve healthy psychological development. It does this by helping an individual become integrally connected with his/her ethnic group and culture.

Ethnic identity plays a powerful role in shaping one-self perception, which influences other-perception. Research has shown that individuals accurately perceive themselves as members of their ethnic group. However, what is more important is the perception that others have of you as a member of your ethnic group.

Ethnic identity impacts the development of one-self perception by influencing the images we have of ourselves and others have of us. Furthermore, research has shown that non-members may have negative perceptions for individuals who may identify themselves with a particular ethnic group, which damages their self-perception.

The development of one’s ethnic identity is influenced by his or her attitudes towards it. Under most circumstances, individuals would like to be recognized and treated as members of particular ethnic groups.

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Categories: History