Bridging Identities among Ethnic Minority Youth
in Schools. ERIC Digest.
by Yeh, Christine J. - Drost, Christopher
Learning to bridge and negotiate contrasting cultural identities is
a fundamental concern for ethnic minority youth, especially since they
often hold very different cultural values, communication styles, and interpersonal
relationship norms (Carter, 1991) from those of the dominant white culture
(native born Americans). For students of mixed race, developing this competency
may be even more difficult because they are likely to embody cultural and
social norms of more than one ethnic group. But, regardless of whether
an individual claims a single or multiple ethnic heritage, many factors
determine identity and sense of self: race, ethnicity, gender, social class,
religion, generation, etc. It is essential for school professionals to
recognize students who have problems with conflicting identities and to
provide appropriate interventions, because unaddressed difficulties may
evolve into significant mental health problems, such as psychopathology,
depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem; social and relational concerns;
academic failure; and gang involvement (Inose & Yeh, 2001).
This digest examines the nature of multiple identities among ethnic
minority youth and the ways they bridge competing and conflicting messages
about cultural ways of being. It also discusses how the school environment
contributes to student internalization of various identities and how practitioners
may assist youth in developing positive multifaceted self-concepts that
contribute to their social-emotional development and self-esteem in school.
THE ROLE OF THE DOMINANT CULTURE IN SCHOOLS
Youth from culturally diverse backgrounds often face contrasting notions
of self because they must function in schools and educational systems that
are organized around the values and goals of the "dominant culture." The
dominant culture refers to that of the people who are either the greatest
in number or who have the most political and economic power. In the United
States, the dominant culture has been defined by white European Americans,
specifically those very few who have a great amount of power and wealth
(Helms, 1990). Students who are not from the dominant culture may be victim
to unspoken yet powerful stereotypes and messages about their development
and personal identity. Hence, they must learn to negotiate and bridge multiple,
and often competing, identities in the schools.
Racial and ethnic minority students must learn to operate successfully
in the dominant--white--system since they are evaluated based on its norms.
This means that children are expected to develop a sense of autonomy and
self-reliance and to accept that the individual is seen as the fundamental,
or most important, unit of society (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Such
understanding of the self as unique has clear implications for how children
are treated in school. Generally speaking, students from collectivistic
cultures (see Markus & Kitayama, 1991, for examples) must learn to
be assertive, independent, and confident to succeed in schools, but must
also be able to shift back to being relational, modest, passive, and family-oriented
in at home. Moreover, home and school contexts are only two of the multiple
settings in which students learn to operate across cultures. They must
also learn to shift and adapt to culture-based role expectation of peers,
elders, significant others, etc. (Markus, Mullally, & Kitayama, 1997).
Those who are unable to adapt to such competing and fluid role demands
are often alienated from society.
Students from diverse cultural backgrounds learn to adapt to Western
cultural norms in the school context in many ways. For example, teachers
help them identify internal, personal attributes that make each student
different and independent from the another. They emphasize positive attributes
in students (intelligence, control, maturity, success) in order to build
self-esteem. Teachers also help orient children to the future by asking
them to consider the questions of what will be, or what they could become
(future self). This developed sense of individuality, uniqueness, and freedom
of choice can be seen in children as early as preschool (Tobin, Wu, &
Minority group children have more difficulty internalizing these aspects
of the dominant culture. They show poorer school achievement and have substantially
higher dropout rates than majority children, at least in part because of
the incongruent expectations, motives, social behaviors, language, and
cognitive patterns that teachers and majority students may have.
IDENTITY FROM A NON-DOMINANT CULTURE
Student Attitudes Toward Achievement. Non-Western cultures may be characterized
by a strong orientation to family and community (Markus & Kitayama,
1991; Yeh & Hwang, 2000). Motivation for achievement may come from
a desire to gain access to others and to maintain affiliative ties with
peers rather than from a desire to attain personal or individual goals.
To negotiate competing cultural norms and values, students must learn
to be biculturally competent (LaFromboise, Coleman, & Gerton, 1993),
that is, they must integrate two cultures without feeling the tension between
the two. According to the alternation model of bicultural competence (LaFromboise
et al., 1993), individuals can adapt their behavior to a given social or
cultural context without having to commit to a specific cultural identity.
The ability to adjust across contexts and situations may include using
different languages, as well as different problem-solving, coping, interpersonal,
communication, and motivational styles of interaction.
A way for this orientation to be integrated into the curriculum would
be for teachers to introduce more team approaches in the classroom so that
children can work together and receive group rewards. Children might be
given rewards that enable them to socialize with their peers, or an individualized
activity can be paired with a group reward.
Counseling Concerns. Minority cultural values and beliefs, differences
in behaviors, language, and worldview, and past power experiences with
the dominant culture all influence the success or failure in negotiating
identities. For example, how discrepancies in one's sense of self are understood
by minority individuals and what is seen as "normal" by the dominant culture
may be quite different. The implications of this narrow view of "normality"
are that minority individuals are often dismissed or pathologized in comparison
to white school children, who are given more long-term support and guidance
in schools. Further, the way that students' "adjustment"--how they bridge
competing identities across settings and contexts--is evaluated in the
schools may predetermine an erroneous negative assessment. For example,
children may have identity conflicts and question the essence of who they
are at school, but function appropriately and effectively at home or vice
To help students make a positive social and cultural adjustment, school
professionals need an understanding of the students' cultural influences
and of the many ways that social and emotional problems which emerge in
school are perceived, evaluated, and treated around the world (Lutz, 1985).
Further, counselors should know the various ways that help is sought out
when a problem arises within the family. While children may need help in
negotiating their identity or in dealing with other problems, it is not
usual for them to seek support services independently; they are referred
by teachers and parents, if at all.
School personnel must recognize the level of ethnocentrism that influences
their evaluation of children, and facilitate positive change in a child
that does not involve stereotyping, overgeneralizing, or pathologizing
behavior that is inconsistent with sanctioned dominant culture. They also
need to realize that because ethnic minority youth must negotiate multiple
identities, their youth selves are shifting and fluid, rather than static
across home and school settings (Yeh, 2000). Finally, all school personnel
must recognize that culture may impact learning style, and consider the
social context in which the child is observed, rather than trying to understand
behaviors as unequivocal indicators of a child's individual personality
A comprehensive multicultural education curriculum can provide students
with rich and broad-based knowledge of the subjects covered, foster their
understanding and appreciation of ethnic diversity, and promote positive
interethnic relations. Multicultural educators need to tailor their curriculum
to the developmental level and interests of children and to understand
the different needs of majority and minority children. For example, in
early childhood young children have concrete thinking and require experiential
learning. Therefore, teachers can help them have personal experiences with
other groups, share foods, and learn about different customs and holidays.
Adolescents, with abstract thinking skills, can understand diversity through
film, literature, and television, and assess how these media contribute
to stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.
Majority children are more likely to be ethnocentric and less aware
of ethnic differences. Thus they need more accurate information about other
groups and an understanding of the value of diversity in enriching a society.
Minority children are typically already familiar with the majority culture,
while their own culture has been ignored or disparaged by the curriculum.
A better understanding of the strengths and achievements of their own culture
will increase their self-esteem.
Negotiating multiple, often contradictory, identities is a complex process
for culturally diverse school age children. Social, cultural, and political
factors unique to their backgrounds influence the process of identity development
and the extent to which youth relate to values of the dominant and family
cultures. Since identities are not solely dichotomous--home versus school--students
may choose to embrace multiple ethnicities (identities) or may find safety
in forming a cohesive self. Educators, therefore, should not normalize
and pressure children to find a single identity. Rather, they need to acknowledge
and accept multiple identities in students without prioritizing one over
the other, and encourage students to appreciate their own cultural heritage
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