Developing a Racial Identity
Exploring the question, “Who am I?” can be one of the most exciting features of adolescence. Youth build their personal identity based, in part, on messages they receive from others about who they are in the present, and who they can or should be in the future. Seeing how other teens “like them” act in school or are represented in popular media can also shape how youth see themselves.
While youth are figuring out their personal identity, they are also developing an understanding of themselves in relation to different social groups. One social identity that often becomes important in adolescence is race. Many youths spend time thinking about what it means for them to be a member of a particular racial or ethnic group. This may be especially relevant for youth of color, as others often view themselves in “racial” terms. But white youth can also have experiences that cause them to think about what race means to them.
Trends in Racial Identity Development
While experiences vary greatly across individual teens, there are some general trends in how young people develop their racial identities.
Early Adolescence (ages 11-14):
- Tweens and young teens may become more sensitive to experiences where race is made an issue; likewise, specific encounters (e.g., a comment by a peer, a post on social media) may prompt them to think more about their own race.
- Teens may increasingly become aware of race and racial group differences, especially if they make school transitions that expose them to peers from more diverse backgrounds.
- As social “cliques” become more prominent, friendships may change and some youth may choose to spend more time with peers who share their racial or ethnic background.
Middle Adolescence (ages 14-18):
- As cognitive abilities (how you think) become more complex, teens can begin to reflect on what their race or ethnicity means to them and start looking for information and experiences to explore further.
- Some teens may involve themselves in friend groups, hobbies, or online activities to be around other teens from their same racial background.
- Teens this age are typically aware of stereotypes –both positive and negative– associated with their racial group. This can make them more vulnerable to “stereotype threat,” when concerns about living up (or down) to group stereotypes may interfere with performance, like on a test at school.
Late Adolescence (ages 18-24):
- Older teens may relate more strongly to the collective experiences and needs of their group and seek opportunities to build connections and engage in collective action.
- As youth become more confident in what their race means to them, they may actively seek opportunities to interact with people from racial backgrounds different than their own.
- While older teens may feel a strong sense of commitment to their racial or ethnic identity, with new experiences they may continue to revisit and redefine it and understand it in relation to other important aspects of their identity.
Communicating About Racial and Ethnic Identity Development
Parents and caregivers play an important role in supporting teens as they explore their racial or ethnic identity. Adolescence is a great time to foster a sense of cultural pride in teens and to challenge stereotypes about their own and other racial groups. This can be difficult — society frequently portrays some racial groups as heroes and leaders and others as victims, foreigners, or lawbreakers. Have open conversations with teens about the harm in such stereotypes — and provide evidence to counter them. This encourages open-mindedness about the value of diversity and can inspire young people to stand up and push back when they witness or experience racial injustice.
It is also important to convey that race, ethnicity, and culture can be a valuable source of pride for many people. If your family has important cultural traditions, explain them and celebrate them. Help your teens learn about and value difference and diversity so they are prepared to engage with others who may view the world differently than they do.
While instilling cultural pride is important, being realistic about the realities and consequences of racial stereotypes is another consideration. For instance, if you are a parent of a Black, Latino, Native American, or other teens who may be disproportionately targeted by the police, you may need to engage in conversations with your teen about what to do during a police encounter.
Here are some important “shoulds” when it comes to supporting teens’ racial identity development.
- You should promote cultural pride.
- You should dispel racial stereotypes.
- You should prepare your child for potential biases.
There are also a couple of things you should not do.
- You should not avoid conversations about race with your child. While it may not be a comfortable subject for you, especially if you have not had many chances to talk about race, it is important to give your teens opportunities to talk about it. Your teen may be more comfortable making mistakes with you or asking questions to you than they will be in other circumstances. We should have the tough conversations in our homes precisely because they’re tougher to have outside of our homes.
- You should not encourage teens to be “colorblind.” Yes, we are all human and share many commonalities. But the reality is that we live in a society where race matters. Recognizing and acknowledging race does not make you prejudiced or biased. In contrast, pretending differences do not exist may actually make it harder for teens to engage in meaningful relationships with people from different backgrounds and to recognize instances of racial bias.
Treat Teens as Experts
You know your children well, and they know themselves even better. At this particular moment, race may not be an important part of their identity — athletics, hobbies, or academics may be more central to how they currently define themselves. This is normal and ok. Honor this. Don’t push them to make race a defining feature of how they see themselves. Instead, be prepared to engage in conversations when the topic of race comes up. Expose them to people from different backgrounds and life experiences. Prepare them to recognize racial stereotypes and related injustices. As you do, your teens will learn to develop a healthy sense of self both broadly, and within the context of their unique racial or cultural identities.
This article was contributed by Joanna Lee Williams, PhD, Associate Professor, The University of Virginia Curry School of Education.