Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Deborah Rivas-Drake, Ph.D.

In the Same Boat? Developing Cross-Racial Coalitions

How do we develop a collective sense of identity to advance social justice?

Source: TAW4/istock

This post was co-authored with Josefina (Josi) Bañales. Josi is an expert on adolescents’ critical racial consciousness development, or youths’ development of beliefs, feelings, and actions toward racism. She is currently a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Michigan.

As we prepared to write this, Josi shared the following observation:

As a child who grew up in Brighton Park, a predominately Mexican neighborhood that is next to predominately Black neighborhoods on the Southside of Chicago, examples of Brown and Black solidarity and friendship were commonplace. These cross-racial connections happened in school hallways, the basketball court, and summer jobs at the Ford City movie theater. From these experiences, I was very much aware that Brown and Black people were united by space and need. However, it was not until my adolescent years that I began to question how the Latinx and Black communities were united by racial oppression.

During my teen years, a time when youth are searching for their sense of self, I was exploring and questioning my status as a Mexican American teenager in our racialized country. Meanwhile, it was inevitable for me to question how my racial experiences were strikingly related to those of my Black friends and neighbors. I thought to myself: Why were Latinx and Black people disproportionally overrepresented in jails and prisons in the United States? More likely than White people to be stopped by police officers? And more likely to attend underfunded schools? In addition to the cross-racial friendships I had already forged, realizing these similarities between my community—the Latinx community—and the Black community catalyzed my identity as a Person of Color.

Josi's reflections sparked a conversation about what it means to be a person of color in the U.S., and for Debbie, whether "being in the same boat" is a useful metaphor to capture this experience.

With the recent hate crimes in Kentucky and Pittsburgh as well as the racist and xenophobic rhetoric around the migrant/refugee caravan making its way to the U.S. border, we asked ourselves, "What does it mean to say we (Black and Brown people) are in the same boat?"

Systems of privilege and oppression allow people to live very different lives around the world and in the U.S. One way to work against behaviors and attitudes that "other" people from social groups with whom we don't identify might be to form a collective identity that includes them.

To be clear, being in the same boat could reflect at least two kinds of collective identity. One involves minimizing the role of oppression shared across people of color. For instance, collective identity might be rooted in humanist ideologies that acknowledge our shared humanity, or the idea that "we are all God's children." This view could very well serve as an effective method of self-preservation in a sea of indifference.

On the other hand, illuminating shared oppression and fostering empathy for the plights of other groups could lead to another, politicized kind of collective identity: one of shared resistance to such oppression. This one is rooted in the understanding that we as people are affected by systems of privilege and oppression, like xenophobia, that shape our life outcomes.

Studies with adolescent and college-aged youth show that a collective identity that acknowledges our differences and similarities can be used to mobilize people of different religious, racial/ethnic, and cultural backgrounds to fight against racism, antisemitism, xenophobia and other forms of injustice.

For example, in a study of Black adolescent boys in grades 7 to 10 in the Midwestern U.S., Josi and her colleagues find that those who believed that African Americans had similar experiences of racial oppression as other communities of color, while also feeling that being Black was an important and positive aspect of their self-concept, were likely to engage in prosocial behaviors that benefited their communities and schools.

Elan Hope, Micere Keels, and Myles Durkee recently examined participation in #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) and advocacy for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) among Black and Latinx students at five universities. They found that for Black students, being of immigrant heritage was an important factor in their efforts to advocate for DACA.

For Latinx students, being exposed to more microaggressions on their campus—such as being "singled out by police or security" or having their academic abilities questioned—was what predicted their involvement in BLM.

It may be that through such experiences, Black and Latinx youth might start to see themselves as People of Color—in the same boat—with each other, and ultimately, with other marginalized groups.

What is the first step to a collective sense of identity aimed at advancing social justice for all?

We know that as youth of color grow up in a society that devalues them, it is important that they develop a strong and positive sense of connection to the ethnic and racial groups to which they belong. Feeling "good, happy, and proud" to be a part of their racial/ethnic group and having a secure sense of their identities, then, seems to be an important first step.

But it takes more than having a strong sense of identity to prepare youth to build cross-racial coalitions that work to actively promote social justice for all members. In a time where hate crimes and racist and xenophobic rhetoric are arguably increasing, we must consider not only our identities but also our position in the boat.

We need to ask our youth and ourselves: How are we connected to the people most marginalized in society? How are our advantages related to others’ disadvantages, and vice versa?

Developing a strong collective identity—as people who are responsible for the well-being of others—is one way to own our position in the boat and, ultimately, steer it in the direction of social justice.


Hope, E. C., Keels, M., & Durkee, M. I. (.2016) Participation in Black Lives Matter and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals: Modern activism among Black and Latino college students. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(3), 203–215.

Lozada, F. T., Jagers, R. J., Smith, C. D., Bañales, J., & Hope, E. C. (2017). Prosocial behaviors of Black adolescent boys: An application of a sociopolitical development theory. Journal of Black Psychology, 43(5), 493–516.

Rivas-Drake, D., Syed, M., Umaña-Taylor, A. J., Markstrom, C., French, S., Schwartz, S. J., Lee, R. M., & ERI Study Group. (2014). Feeling good, happy, and proud: A meta-analysis of positive ethnic-racial affect and adjustment among diverse youth. Child Development, 85(1), 77-102.

Sellers, R. M., Smith, M. A., Shelton, J. N., Rowley, S. A., & Chavous, T. M. (1998). Multidimensional model of racial identity: A reconceptualization of African American racial identity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2(1), 18-39.