Identities Aren't Going Away, Nor Should They

Youth can feel good about who they are without being racist.

Posted Mar 17, 2019

This is the second post of a three-part series. Read part one here.

With recent commentaries on identity politics, heated discussions about the racial and ethnic ancestry of our politicians (e.g., here, here, and here), and the many examples of racism and xenophobia on display across the news—I won't link to avoid re-traumatization, but we encounter them daily, don't we?—identity issues have lately been front and center in the public consciousness. Given what I do, I can't help but think about the fact that identity is not static and evolves over the course of people's lives. And although the process begins in infancy (yes), we should all be keenly aware that a lot of important changes in ethnic-racial identity—what it means and how it shapes youths' worlds—take place in adolescence.

Indeed, among adolescents of color having a positive ethnic-racial identity is often linked to better socio-emotional and academic adjustment. So, supporting young people's greater understanding of their identities is important.

But is it possible to do so without perpetuating racial divides? And where do White youth fit into the picture?

Breaking Down Boundaries

At first glance, it seems counterintuitive to think that having a secure and positive ethnic-racial identity can help us navigate difference more effectively. But intergroup relations theorist Gordon Allport himself noted more than sixty years ago that identifying with an in-group does not require hostility toward out-groups:

One’s own family is an in-group, and by definition all other families on the street are out-groups, but seldom do they clash. A hundred ethnic groups compose America, and while serious conflict occasionally occurs, the majority rub along in peace. One knows that one’s lodge has distinctive characteristics that mark it off from all others, but one does not necessarily despise the others.

Contemporary studies actually help support the idea reflected in Allport’s comment as well. Jean Phinney, for instance, found that adolescents from Latino, Black, Asian, and White ethnic groups who had developed a stronger and more positive sense of ethnic-racial identity tended to also say they were more interested in learning about and befriending people of groups other than their own. In our own work, we found that African American, White, Latino, Asian American, and Multiracial middle school boys who were more secure in their sense of ethnic-racial identity at the end of the school year were more likely to befriend more diverse kids the following school year.

Bridging “Us” and “Them”: A Few Pathways to Consider

So why might youth who have a clearer sense of their own ethnic-racial background and identity be more interested and open to diversity? And why might they be better prepared to engage productively with people who are different from them, compared to youth who are less informed about their ethnic-racial background? We propose a few reasons.

According to Erik Erikson, exploring and understanding one’s identity is essential for developing a strong sense of self, feeling more confident in making decisions, and having a generally strong sense of self-assurance. When youth have this sense of self-assuredness with respect to their ethnic-racial background and identity, they are better able to manage challenging situations that involve their ethnic-racial background, such as ethnic-racial discrimination. The greater self-confidence enables youth to feel comfortable enough to let themselves be vulnerable in relationships with others, which, according to Erikson, is essential in forming intimate relationships with others.

So, to put it simply, the more comfortable individuals are in their own skin, the more capacity they will have to engage in a productive manner with others. They will not have as many hang-ups or insecurities about ethnic-racial issues, because they will have explored these topics and understand where they stand on these issues. This lets them approach relationships with out-group members with a strong personal foundation, one that’s more conducive to developing genuine friendships across difference because they are open and interested in exploring each other’s differences. Linda Strauss and William Cross refer to this process as identity bridging. They describe bridging as “the identity activity that makes possible…[an] intimate and deeply felt friendship with a person from another group.”

  • A More Flexible Understanding of Identity

Another reason that individuals with a more developed ethnic-racial identity may be more comfortable with cross-group interactions is that they may have a more flexible understanding of their ethnic-racial identity as one component of the person they are. They may consider their ethnic-racial identity as an important part of their self-concept while also understanding that they belong to multiple social groups. This more complex definition of themselves as members of multiple social spheres enables them to navigate diverse environments more easily. In a study of seventh graders in California that didn’t look specifically at ethnic-racial identity, Casey Knifsend and Jaana Juvonen found that adolescents who were involved in multiple social circles in school that didn’t overlap were less apprehensive about, and perceived more benefits from, associating with other students from different ethnic-racial groups. By engaging in peer groups that were comprised of different types of people, these students were likely gaining practical skills in how to navigate across difference.

  • An Orientation toward Social Justice

As part of the process of ethnic-racial identity formation, people can develop an identity that is enmeshed with their beliefs about social injustice. Some scholars refer to this as one’s sociopolitical orientation. This orientation can sometimes spontaneously emerge as youth are engaging in the identity exploration process. That is, for some, development of one’s ethnic-racial identity can also entail a parallel increase in awareness of ethnic-racial injustice, or as Roderick Watts and his colleagues state, people may embark on “a journey from a place of relative uninformed in-action on the social forces that affect our lives to one of sustained, informed, and strategic action” to challenge injustices. For youth from ethnic-racial minority groups, in particular, increased awareness of ethnic and racial injustice is thought to be a beneficial component of their understanding of race and ethnicity and its role in who they are and can become in a sociopolitical context that often limits their life chances.

Concern for racial justice is also essential for unpacking how ethnic-racial identity development for members of the majority group can facilitate, rather than hinder, positive contact with groups who are socially and politically marginalized. For members of the majority group, the development of a sociopolitical orientation must involve an understanding of the social injustices that members of minority groups experience. Recent work by Hema Selvanathan, Pirathat Techakesari, Linda Tropp, and Fiona Barlow provides a good illustration of this process. They found that Whites who felt angry about the racial injustices that Black people face were more willing to “attend demonstrations, protests, or rallies against racial injustice; attend meetings or workshops on racial issues; write letters to public officials or other people of influence to protest against racial injustice; vote for political candidates who support racial equality; [and] sign a petition to support racial justice.”

Our Responsibility

Youth will be in different places of awareness, interest, and understanding of their ethnic-racial identity. Our job as authority figures in youths’ lives is to equip them with competencies that help them navigate their respective social milieus. By supporting the process of identity development, we can help youth become aware of their tendencies to categorize along the lines of race and ethnicity, recognize the biases (oftentimes unintended) that bleed into their day-to-day interactions and friendship choices, develop empathy for others, and instill a sense of the injustices others face.

Ultimately, we must help youth not only feel good about who they are and comfortable interacting across difference but also actively work toward dismantling racism as they are growing up.

This contains excerpts (edited for length and clarity) from the book, Below the Surface: Talking With Teens about Race, Ethnicity, and Identity (2019, Princeton University Press), co-authored with long-time collaborator, Adriana Umaña-Taylor, Ph.D., Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Knifsend, C., & Juvonen, J. (2012). The role of social identity complexity in inter-group attitudes among young adolescents. Social Development, 22, 623–640.

Oyserman, D. (2008). Racial-ethnic self-schemas: Multidimensional identity-based motivation. Journal of Personality, 42(5), 1186–1198.

Phinney, J. S., Jacoby, B., & Silva, C. (2007). Positive intergroup attitudes: The role of ethnic identity. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 31, 478–490.

Rivas-Drake, D., & Umaña-Taylor, A., (2019). Below the surface: Talking with teens about race, ethnicity, and identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rivas-Drake, D., Umaña-Taylor, A., Schaefer, D., & Medina, M. (2017). Ethnic-racial identity    and friendships in early adolescence. Child Development, 88(3), 710–724.

Selvanathan, H. P., Techakesari, P., Tropp, L. R., & Barlow, F. K. (2018). Whites for racial justice: How contact with Black Americans predicts support for collective action among White Americans. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21(6), 893-912.

Strauss, L. C., & Cross, W. E. (2005). Transacting Black identity: A two-week daily-diary study. In J. Eccles & C. Chatman (Eds.), Navigating the future: Social identity, coping, and life tasks. New York, NY: Russell Sage.

Umaña-Taylor, A. J. (2016). A post-racial society in which ethnic-racial discrimination still exists and has significant consequences for youths’ adjustment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(2), 111–118.

Watts, R. J., Williams, N. C., & Jagers, R. J. (2003). Sociopolitical development. American Journal of Community Psychology, 31, 185–194.