Promoting Racial and Cultural Pride in Teens
Racial and Cultural Identity
Here’s a challenge: Scroll through your social media feeds. How many posts, memes or articles do you see about race? How many about racism? If your accounts are anything like mine, on any given day, you’ll likely find at least a few – headlines, photos, and videos all commanding our attention, encouraging us to comment, like, and share. Our teens are seeing these messages, too. And many are beginning to explore how race fits into their identity.
Dr. Joanna Lee Williams, Associate Professor at University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development and Associate Director of Research for the Young Women Leaders Program, a mentoring initiative for girls in middle school, thinks adolescence is an ideal time for youth to begin exploring their racial or ethnic identity.
Williams’ research focuses on youth development through the lens of race and ethnicity. She explores the many ways teens grow to understand their heritage and how learning about themselves positively shapes their behavior and beliefs. To Professor Williams, this isn’t fluff. She argues students who are encouraged to embrace and explore their ethnic identity may actually perform better in school. I found our conversation especially insightful, and we remain so grateful she’s an affiliate faculty member at CPTC.
Allison Gilbert: You say embracing racial or ethnic heritage is connected to students doing well in school. How does this understanding affect teens of color?
Joanna Lee Williams: There is great value in encouraging teens of color to embrace their heritage. Feeling good about and connected to your ethnic group is positively associated with school performance, mental well-being, and good physical health. Teens of color might not always experience welcoming or affirming spaces in school. They may face stereotypes about their academic abilities, they may not see people like them represented in school materials, or they may experience disproportionately harsh discipline. Feeling a sense of pride in and/or a strong connection to one’s ethnic background gives teens a source from which to draw strength. This can be an important asset in the face of adversity.
AG: Let’s dig into this a little deeper. In what way does understanding ethnic identity prepare adolescents to cope with discrimination and other types of adversity?
JLW: Cultural pride can provide teens with motivation to succeed and help them persevere in the face of obstacles. Ethnic group connections may also provide teenagers with opportunities to cope, by sharing with others who can relate to their experiences. And finally, teens who feel good about their ethnic heritage may have greater capacity to respond to discrimination in ways that are more constructive.
All of this being said, having a strong sense of ethnic identity can be a double-edged sword for teens. If race or ethnicity is a very deeply rooted part of their identity, they may be more attuned to instances of discrimination – both explicit encounters and ones that may be more subtle.
AG: When teens embrace their ethnic identity, how do their peers, teachers, and school communities generally respond?
JLW: Developing a strong sense of ethnic identity is a process; it’s not something that happens overnight. As part of this process, teens of color may be drawn to peers who share their heritage. These peer groups can be affirming. When this happens in diverse schools, adults or other peers may think these teens are intentionally segregating themselves. This perspective overlooks the benefits that come with “same-ethnic” friendships. When teens can reflect on what their ethnic heritage means to them and integrate this understanding as a meaningful part of their identity, they often become more comfortable interacting with peers from other ethnic groups.
AG: What role do schools play in all of this? Should they even have a role?
JLW: Yes! Schools play an important role in supporting ethnic identity exploration and pride. They can work to ensure students’ identities are affirmed through educational programming that reflects varied cultures. They can challenge stereotypes linking ethnic groups to particular academic outcomes. And encourage school staff to examine how implicit biases may unintentionally impact relationships with students. Like all students, teens of color need to be able to trust that adults and peers in their school will treat them fairly.
AG: As Associate Director of Research for the Young Women Leaders Program, you study what helps girls in middle school thrive. What should parents keep in mind?
JLW: Young teens are often striving for balance – balance between developing increasing independence and maintaining stable, trusting connections with parents. Navigating this middle ground can be challenging, but it helps if parents recognize it’s a normal part of growing up.
Middle school students are in the midst of a dynamic set of changes. As a result of puberty, their bodies are changing, often quite dramatically. Areas of their brain that help them control their emotions and make calm decisions are still actively developing, and they tend to be very sensitive to social feedback. On top of that, moving from elementary to middle school can be a big transition that involves navigating a much more complex setting. As a parent, it is important to acknowledge these changes can be hard to manage – just imagine if you had to go through puberty or middle school again! Knowing to expect ups-and-downs can prepare parents to stay calm when their teen seems upset, aloof, or defiant.
We also know that a combination of parental warmth and firmness benefits tweens across a variety of ethnic groups and family structures. Warmth includes recognizing what’s important to your teen. Firmness includes both support and monitoring. Support means providing just enough help so teens can meet challenges on their own, while monitoring means knowing what’s going on in their lives. Just because teens are older than they once were, their need for a safe and loving environment does not go away.
AG: What do you plan to research next? What’s most pressing to you right now?
JLW: I am really interested in middle school students and their social relationships, especially in ethnically diverse schools. One of the things we don’t know enough about is how teen friendships across racial and ethnic lines can support (or get in the way of) equal access to school resources. We often target teachers and curricula to address these challenges, but we may be underestimating how social relationships come into play.
Beyond examining students’ social relationships, I have an ongoing commitment to push for changes in school systems that help promote equality and access to resources among all students. I’m also invested in making sure schools are more responsive to the developmental needs of adolescents. Adolescence is a period that is rich with opportunity and it’s critical we invest in youth by creating supportive settings that match their strengths and capabilities.