An Exercise in Ethnic Identity Awareness

Article excerpt

Ethnic identity encompasses self-concept and self-identification, a sense of belonging, and positive and negative attitudes toward one's ethnic group. The author describes an exercise that introduces and facilitates awareness of the concept of ethnic identity by illustrating, with real-life experiences and examples, the multidimensionality of ethnic identity.

The concept of ethnic identity has been defined by Tajfel (1981) as "that part of an individual's self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership" (p. 255). Other definitions emphasize the cultural aspects of ethnic identity that include language, behavior, values, and knowledge of ethnic group history (Phinney, 1990). Thus, ethnic identity is a broad, multidimensional construct that, according to Phinney (1990), encompasses self-identification, a sense of belonging, positive and negative attitudes toward one's ethnic group, and ethnic involvement or social participation and cultural practices. Ethnic identity development has also been proposed to follow a set of proposed stages (e.g., Atkinson, Morten, & Sue, 1983; Cross, 1978; Phinney, 1989) in which individuals progress through a series of levels, from unexamined ethnic identity or preference for the dominant culture through a period of exploration or seeking to understand the meaning of ethnicity for oneself to a level of high commitment to one's ethnic group. Although ethnic identity seems to be a meaningful issue for most members of racial/ethnic minorities, empirical evidence suggests that this concept lacks salience for assimilated White Americans (Phinney, 1989). Therefore, various models of ethnic identity have been proposed for different ethnic groups, emphasizing certain components of identity over other components. For example, knowledge or use of the Spanish language tends to be a defining characteristic in the ethnic identity of Chicano/Latino populations, whereas political activity is more associated with African Americans (Phinney, 1990).

A positive sense of ethnic identity has generally been linked to high levels of self-esteem, self-concept, and psychological adjustment (Phinney, 1990, 1991). In addition, studies in the field of counseling have demonstrated that preferences for counselor characteristics (e.g., Helms & Carter, 1991) and attitudes toward conventional counseling services (e.g., Price & McNeill, 1992) vary according to level of ethnic identity. Consequently, it seems that the understanding of ethnic identity is a central component in the assessment of psychological functioning in racial/ ethnic minority groups. Furthermore, as Atkinson and Thompson (1992) pointed out, important within-group differences, such as ethnic identity or level of acculturation, need to be accounted for in future cross-cultural counseling research.

The purpose of the exercise that I present in this article is to introduce and facilitate awareness of the concept of ethnic identity by illustrating the complexity and multidimensionality of ethnic identity through real-life experiences and examples. As a part of a graduate-level course, Counseling Diverse Populations, that I teach, this exercise establishes a foundation for later in-depth examination of theoretical models of and empirical research on ethnic identity. Emphasis is on the influence of this important within-group variable on the psychological functioning of ethnic minority populations, methods of assessment, and preferences for counselor characteristics and interventions. Students enrolled in the course are generally in their second year of master's- or doctoral-level study and have completed prerequisite course work in basic counseling theories, assessment, and intervention. They are also enrolled in their second semester of supervised practicum. Because the graduate programs at Washington State University infuse issues of diversity into all courses, students have had previous introductory exposure to the influence of sociocultural variables on the counseling process. …