Exploring Ethnic-Racial Identity

New research reveals long-lasting, positive effects of giving adolescents opportunities and tools to explore their backgrounds

February 23, 2018
A photo of a hand holding old pictures of a family

By the time they get to high school, students can likely list half a dozen times they’ve created an “All About Me” collage, showing family or cultural backgrounds, as a way for classmates and teachers to get to know one another. But with a different framing and a more structured approach, these types of projects can have a significant personal impact as well.

A body of research has shown the benefits of young people actively exploring their personal backgrounds — and a critical piece of that puzzle is probing ethnic-racial identity. A new study finds that when teens are given structured, facilitated opportunities to explore their ethnic-racial identity, the academic, emotional, and social payoffs can be long-lasting.

A Curriculum to Explore Identity

In the new study, adolescent development expert Adriana Umaña-Taylor examined the impact of the Identity Project, a curriculum she co-developed with her students to equip teens of any ethnic or racial background — white or black, Latino or Asian, Native American or Middle Eastern — with tools and strategies to explore their ethnic-racial identity. The curriculum is eight weeks long, with one hour-long session per week.

The Identity Project gives young people the agency to explore their backgrounds on their own — a key part of the adolescent developmental process — so that they can draw individual conclusions about who they are and how their background has shaped them.

Unlike most other race-based identity curricula, the Identity Project focuses on the exploration of identity — not pride or affirmation. Other programs, says Umaña-Taylor, present facts about ethnic or racial groups, or encourage youth to feel good about their backgrounds. The Identity Project gives young people the agency to explore their backgrounds on their own — a key part of the adolescent developmental process — so that they can draw individual conclusions about who they are and how their background has shaped them.

For example, in one activity, students create a family tree that traces where their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were born and how they culturally identify. Unlike in other family tree projects, which often focus on biology, a main goal of this activity is for students to discuss together how they believe they have been raised and socialized. In another activity, students create a poster of pictures representing their ethnic heritage and culture. Here, the objective is not just to explain their background to their classmates, but to examine what different aspects of that heritage symbolize to them personally.

Long-Lasting Effects

Previous studies have indicated the Identity Project is effective at giving youth a greater sense of clarity about their ethnic-racial identity. In this new study, Umaña-Taylor, along with Olga Kornienko, Sarah Douglass Bayless, and Kimberly A. Updegraff, looked at whether that impact persisted a year after students had participated in the program, and whether it extended to other academic and social-emotional realms.

The researchers examined 218 adolescents, mostly in ninth grade, at a public high school in the southwestern United States. It was a diverse group: 24 percent of students were black, 30 percent Latino, three percent Asian American, six percent Native American, and 31 percent white. About a quarter of these students were low-income, and seven percent were immigrants. Students were split into in two groups: half participated in the Identity Project, while the other half participated in lessons on career training and education finance.

“The single most important thing is for teachers to not adopt a color-blind ideology, which essentially says that we’re all the same, and we really shouldn’t focus on the differences that exist between or among us."

One year after the program, the researchers found, the students who had participated in the Identity Project had lower depressive symptoms, higher self-esteem, better grades, and a higher sense of global identity cohesion as a result of the increases in ethnic-racial identity exploration that the Identity Project produced.

Takeaways for Teachers

  • Strong identity formation during adolescence can provide an essential foundation for the self-exploration we do throughout our lives, the researchers say. People who have explored their identity are better equipped to have positive relationships with others and a positive self-concept. Ethnic-racial identity exploration is a particularly salient part of that process — especially in the United States, where issues of race can dominate news cycles and pervade our daily lives.
  • With a formal process to help teenagers unpack and understand their racial identities, students will be better prepared to face challenges across the board — not just ones of racism and privilege, both also those related to academic and professional success, and social-emotional wellbeing. These conversations around personal ethnic-racial identity can tie into other classroom conversations about race that shed light on inequality, bridge racial divides, and empower marginalized students.
  • Even without a formal curriculum, teachers can simply acknowledge race in their classrooms. In contrast to the norms that were prevalent when many of today’s educators and leaders were younger, “the single most important thing is for teachers to not adopt a color-blind ideology, which essentially says that we’re all the same, and we really shouldn’t focus on the differences that exist between or among us,” says Umaña-Taylor.  “The idea that we’re more similar than we are different invalidates the real experiences that adolescents have, whether they’re experiencing discrimination themselves or whether they’re experiencing it vicariously by seeing it happen to somebody else.”

“One of the most important things that teachers can do is make a space in their classrooms for adolescents to be able to have conversations and recognize that there are differences,” she says. “It’s important to not try to gloss over differences, and to actually have real conversations about the differences that do exist.”

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Diversity and Inclusion K-12 Social-Emotional Wellbeing

Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.