Immigrant, American

Brief reflections on identity and terminology in youth.

Posted Aug 17, 2018

Source: rrodrickbeiler/iStockphoto

When you think of an American, what—or who—comes to mind?

I recently listened to a podcast in which celebrity author, TV host, and restaurateur Eddie Huang discussed the challenges of growing up Asian in America. There are many aspects of the interview that resonated with me, both as a scholar and a child of immigrants.

What struck me most about his comments were the complex ways Huang has navigated racism and xenophobia throughout his life as an ethnic minority and child of Taiwanese immigrants. Critical of being perceived as a "model minority," Huang forged his identity in the spaces between acceptance and rejection by others. Paradoxically, his love of hip hop made him not Asian "enough" even as he was racially bullied on the playground for being Asian.

Belonging neither here nor there, Huang's experiences illustrate what it feels like for many children of immigrants, as Latino, Asian, and Black youth in many research studies, including my own, report being treated unfairly, socially excluded, or held to different expectations due to their ethnicity or race. Young people also know that such treatment reflects a larger societal milieu in which being black and brown is devalued. Numerous scholars—a sampling of whom are referenced below—have found that such experiences undermine the mental health and academic engagement of youth of color, many of whom are children of immigrants. Indeed, exposure to discrimination is among the greatest challenges youth experience in acculturating to the U.S.

American vs. Americanized

Listening to Huang's reflections led me to reflect on my own upbringing as the child of Costa Rican immigrants. For most of my childhood we lived in Queens, which was then and still remains among the most ethnically diverse urban areas in the U.S., and my neighborhood was a place where I had friends and classmates from quite literally all over the world. Up to that point, the kids I grew up with—White ethnic (Greek, Turkish, Jewish), Latino (Colombian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian), and Asian (Filipino, Korean, Chinese)—were what I knew of America. It was simple: By virtue of citizenship, I was American and they were, too, and having an immigrant heritage was just part of the American-ness equation.

It was only when we moved to south Florida that I first heard someone use "American" as something that did not quite apply to me.

Moving to a neighborhood with many White residents with no apparent immigrant heritage and going to school with their children made me acutely aware of the difference between being technically American by birth and being "Americanized." To many immigrant parents, including my own, the rights and privileges afforded to the former label were desirable, to be sure. But—whether right or wrong—being "Americanized" was viewed as anathema to the values and traits these parents hoped to inculcate in their children. By simply observing peers' and adults' behaviors in schools, many immigrant youth also eventually learn what researchers have shown: People of color cannot freely claim "Americanness," because for many, "American" = White.

Immigrant America is a place of acceptance and rejection—you are foreign and not foreign at the same time. Moreover, the more foreign you appear to others, the more likely it is that you will be exposed to blatant racism and social exclusion. As they grow up, U.S.-born children of immigrants must develop their own definition of what it is to be an American, one that is expansive enough to fit their complicated experiences within this society. And they must do so as adults in even the highest ranks freely and openly derogate the Latin American, African, and Asian countries from which their parents and grandparents migrated.


Ahmed S. R., Kia-Keating M., Tsai K. H. (2011). A structural model of racial discrimination, acculturative stress, and cultural resources among Arab American adolescents. American Journal of Community Psychology, 48, 181-192. doi:10.1007/s10464-011- 9424-3

Benner A. D., Graham S. (2011). Latino adolescents’ experiences of discrimination across the first 2 years of high school: Correlates of influence on educational outcomes. Child Development, 82, 508-519.

Benner, A. D., & Kim, S. Y. (2009). Experiences of discrimination among Chinese American adolescents and the consequences for socioemotional and academic development. Developmental Psychology, 45, 1682–1694. doi:10.1037/ a0016119

Devos, T., & Banaji, M. R. (2005). American = White? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(3), 447-466.

Lee, S. J. (1996). Unraveling the model minority stereotype: Listening to Asian American youth. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Niwa, E. Y., Way, N., & Hughes, D.L. (2014). Trajectories of ethnic-racial discrimination among ethnically diverse early adolescents: Associations with psychological and social adjustment. Child Development, 85(6), 2339-2354. doi:10.111/cdev.12310

Qin, D., Way, N., & Mukerjee, P. (2008). The other side of the model minority story: The familial and peer challenges faced by Chinese American adolescents. Youth & Society, 39(4), 480-506. doi: 10.1177/0044118X08314233

Rivas-Drake, D., Hughes, D., & Way, N. (2009). A preliminary analysis of associations among ethnic-racial socialization, ethnic discrimination, and ethnic identity among diverse urban sixth graders. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 19(3), 558-584.

Rivas-Drake, D., Hughes, D., & Way, N. (2008). A closer look at peer discrimination, ethnic identity, and psychological well-being among urban Chinese American sixth graders. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37(1), 12-21.

Sirin, S., Ryce, P., Gupta, T., & Rogers-Sirin, L. (2013). The role of acculturative stress on mental health symptoms for immigrant adolescents: A longitudinal investigation. Developmental Psychology, 49(4), 736-748.  

Thompson, T. L., Kiang, L., & Witkow, M. (2016). “You’re Asian; you’re supposed to be smart”: Adolescents’ experiences with the model minority stereotype and longitudinal links with identity. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 7(2), 108-119.