Finding a Place to Be: Ethnic Identity Exploration of Asian Americans

By Tse, Lucy | Adolescence, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Finding a Place to Be: Ethnic Identity Exploration of Asian Americans

Tse, Lucy, Adolescence

Many members of ethnic minorities (EMs) in the United States experience more than one culture when growing up, and face the challenge of incorporating those diverse influences into their identity. EMs that are of a different race from the dominant group ("visible minorities") may face the additional challenge of stigmatized or subordinate status (Fishman, 1991). Membership in these relatively low-status groups may have negative consequences for self-evaluation.

Tajfel and Turner (1979) have identified strategies that EMs use to cope with low group status. One strategy is to join a more positively valued group and, in the process, shed the marks of ethnic group membership, such as language and lifestyle. For visible minorities, however, this tactic may have only limited success, since their physical characteristics signal their ethnicity. A second strategy is to develop a more positive ethnic orientation. Studies examining ethnic minority experiences in the U.S. have found that more than one strategy may be chosen over a lifetime. Several researchers (e.g., Phinney, 1989; Atkinson, Morten, & Sue, 1989) have documented a general progression, with the first strategy attempted earlier in life and the second strategy adopted later.

Although there are some differences in the proposed models of ethnic identity development, the process appears to follow a common pattern consisting of four main stages (Tse, 1998, in press-a). In stage 1, ethnic unawareness, EMs are unaware of their minority status, usually because of limited contact with other ethnic groups. This is typically a relatively short period that takes place before EMs attend school. As they come into contact with other ethnic groups and become aware of their minority status, EMs move into stage 2, ethnic ambivalence/evasion. This stage usually occurs in childhood and adolescence and is characterized by feelings of ambivalence toward the ethnic group. EMs in this stage may distance themselves from their own group and adopt the norms and behaviors of the dominant group. Stage 3, ethnic emergence, usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood, when EMs realize that joining the dominant group is not wholly possible (at least to the extent desired) and, therefore, an ineffective approach to achieving a better self-image. For this reason, they experiment with alternate group associations, and many look to the ethnic homeland group for acceptance. Finally, EMs enter stage 4, ethnic identity incorporation, in which they join the ethnic minority American group (e.g., Asian Americans, Chicanos) and resolve many of their ethnic identity conflicts. (Based on the literature, the developmental path is hypothesized to end at stage 4, but it is possible that ethnic identity continues to evolve.)

The present study focused on the second half of this four-stage process: ethnic emergence and ethnic identity incorporation. The nature of these stages and the specific ways in which they manifest themselves in the lives of EMs are described.


Ethnic emergence has been described by several researchers as an extended period of identity exploration - occurring primarily during adolescence and early adulthood - where EMs no longer believe acceptance by the dominant group is possible or desirable. Left, in a sense, without a group, EMs look for a new ethnic identity and this search becomes a prominent part of their lives. Phinney and Tarver (1988), in an interview study of 24 African American adolescents, found that some, even at ages 12-14, had begun to engage in exploration regarding their ethnicity. The adolescents expressed interest in finding out about their ethnic heritage, and some were actively doing so by talking with family and friends about ethnic issues, reading books on the subject, and thinking about the effects of ethnicity on their lives. Similar types of exploration were found in another study by Phinney (1989), which examined the identity development of 64 U.

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