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Multicultural Perspectives on Race, Ethnicity, and Identity

Elsie Achugbue

Multicultural Perspectives on Race, Ethnicity, and Identity offers the reader a multicultural and pluralistic perspective on factors that influence our individual and collective identities and perceptions of self and the important role these factors play in defining how we experience our lives and the world around us. The authors introduce and review numerous frameworks and models for understanding racial and ethnic identity development and articulate the unique experiences, past and present, of various racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Each chapter reviews the historical background—the social, economic, and political processes—that has shaped the experience of building and preserving racial and ethnic identities and perceptions of self in U.S. society and identifies the important socioeconomic trajectories that have affected interpersonal and group relations over time. In doing so, the authors, importantly, highlight the very real practical and policy implications that these changes and trends have for our future.

The path to becoming an increasingly multicultural and international society, however, often presents very real challenges to understanding racial and ethnic identity. Every once in a while, a significant or major historical event, such as the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president, spurs a national dialogue in the United States that urges us to examine whether we have become “postracial” and more inclusive and respectful of difference. In recent years, political figures, media pundits, and everyday citizens have pondered this question, and this discourse seems to offer both hope and concern. On the one hand, in the face of collective triumph or shared tragedy, it can seem that we—a nation of many divides—have overcome our most significant barriers to nestle in a place of unity. On the other hand, that the everyday reality for so many Americans, of all different backgrounds, may involve daily indignities or injustices, seemingly based on their race or ethnicity, negates such optimism.

The election of Barack Obama sent ripples of hope throughout the United States and the international community and seeded the notion that the country had transformed itself into a postracial utopia. Meanwhile, race itself, and racism, permeated political and social arenas nationwide as the American public grappled with the question of why and how much the president’s, or anyone’s, racial and ethnic identity really mattered. This also led to pertinent discussions on the meaning and significance of race and ethnicity in 21st-century U.S. society. Though unified in our thirst for change, America was divided, not necessarily along racial lines but by where we stood on the position of the importance of race and ethnicity as a concept. Some saw racial and ethnic group divides as an important historic institution that formed the basis of a real social hierarchy; others saw these divides as a false notion and a shameful stain on the otherwise polished face of a great nation.

Both the embracing and the backlash surrounding Barack Obama made evident what were still very salient categories in our daily national discourse and experience: color, race, ethnicity, and nationality. Obama’s political opponents weren’t the only ones who called into question the president’s identity; suspicion was evident on both sides of party lines as political figures and the public evaluated their new leader. Could the new president be trusted to represent mainstream America, or would he underhandedly advance black interests? Did he embody real “American” values despite being raised in a nontraditional family by a single mother? What did it mean that the president was also viewed as part of an educated black elite: Was the president black enough? What did it mean that he was rumored to worship amid an Afrocentric congregation: Was he, perhaps, too black? As a child of an interracial marriage, should he be considered black at all? And with ties to relatives in Africa, was he really even an American?

The very public examination of the president’s identity, the dissection of his identity into distinct facets of his life experience, illustrates a critical connection between our individual and collective identities and the broader narrative on what it means to be a part of this nation, to be an American. It also made clear that while the shape and form of racial and ethnic identity today is ever changing, it plays as important and central a role in our lives today as it has in the past. It is not only the way many people in the United States define themselves, it is still very much the way in which we define one another.

As we become more aware of our rapidly diversifying society; as so many of our cities are poised on the brink of becoming “majority minority”; as “bi-,” “multi-,” and “trans-” increasingly preclude our self-identities; and as a growing number of nontraditional families progressively define a “new normal,” we, as a nation, embark on an ever more complex examination of the meaning of race and ethnicity today. There is a strong assertion made by social science researchers that our relationship with racism and discrimination is not disintegrating but is simply taking on a different face. Each year, new studies are released that chronicle series of social experiments designed to capture social attitudes in the United States. What we are learning is that where the old racism was overt and obvious, a new racism has taken root that is covert and subtle, yet nonetheless has very real implications for individual, family, and community outcomes. Research has shown that racial and ethnic discrimination and bias remain ever present in everyday interpersonal interactions, in the act of buying or renting a home, applying for a job or bank loan, or purchasing a car, and in our policies and institutions—for example, in education and criminal justice systems. Beyond interpersonal relations, structural racism and systemic bias continue to privilege some and disadvantage others, contributing to real disparities among racial and ethnic groups, in education, employment, health, and household wealth.

Nonetheless, we have developed an ill-fated national culture of deeming it mostly unsuitable, uncomfortable, and inappropriate to talk about race. Although this is often done in an effort to revive that age-old fantasy of a raceless, or postracial, color-blind melting pot, it is in shockingly persistent ignorance of our daily realities. As a result, we unveil race and ethnicity only in reactionary responses to political missteps, sensational media reports, and celebrity blunders or, worse, to police brutality, hate, violence, and, ultimately, tragedy. It is for this very reason that the discussion embarked upon in the following chapters is both critical and timely.

The authors included in this book write about very different populations and subgroups in the United States; however, there are some consistent themes and concepts that transcend cultural boundaries. Each chapter addresses race as a social construct—meaning that at the same time that they acknowledge the very real political, economic, and social significance of race in the United States, they demonstrate a shared understanding of race as a false classification and echo the findings of rigorous scientific research that purports that there is no real biological demarcation that sets one “racial” group apart from another. Perhaps more important than this perspective of race as a social construct is the common insistence that, for many, a deliberate awareness and acceptance of racism and oppression as a reality for some groups—and, accordingly, of privilege and power as a reality for others—is a critical component of healthy identity development. Additionally, the authors place mutual emphasis on establishing and maintaining a sense of belonging as inherent to the psychosocial development process. At the core of the frameworks and models discussed is the need among all individuals, regardless of race or ethnicity, to feel that they are part of a greater community, to connect with others in, and recognize a reflection of themselves within, that community. In this way, despite the persistent notion of identity development as a personal or individual process, it is also almost impossible to separate the individual “self ” from family, community, or even the nation as a whole, because each of these environs influences our psychosocial development and perception of our selves. Finally, the authors collectively purport an understanding of identity as transformational, not static throughout one’s life, but rather as something that is constantly changing, evolving, redefining, and reshaping itself.

We begin, in chapter 1, with “Identity, Self, and Individualism in a Multicultural Perspective,” in which Alan Roland examines the origins of individualism and chronicles the range of pioneering scholarship on identity development. He goes on to differentiate between the individualized and familial conceptions of self that separate the United States, in its Westernized cultural framework rooted in individualism, from many cultures around the world, which instead embrace interdependency and reciprocity. In doing so, Roland draws from his experience working with East and South Asian clients, from Japan and India, respectively, to illustrate Asian societies’ emphasis on family, rather than the individual, as the core concept of identity. As an appropriate opener to the subsequent chapters, Roland also stresses the importance of recognizing the role of racism and colonialism in creating identity conflicts and reminds us that new identities are continuously emerging and evolving.

In chapter 2, “African American Identity and Its Social Context,” Lee Jenkins builds on Roland’s emphasis by defining the various manifestations of racism in U.S. society. Jenkins relates this to recognizing and understanding anger and rage as valid and appropriate responses to the unique position held by African Americans in the United States. He describes this position by borrowing from DuBois’s articulation of “twoness,” the dual endeavor of affirming a self-identity and maintaining self-respect in the face of a society whose continued exclusion prohibits the same. Jenkins appropriately closely links the African American experience to changes in social trends and economic development policies in the United States that adversely affected social cohesion within African American communities and fortified barriers to integration with the larger society. Jenkins offers a complex view of African American identity in differentiating among the social classes and gender and pays particular attention to the experience of poor urban African American youths.

In chapter 3, “Children of Undocumented Immigrants: Imperiled Developmental Trajectories,” Luis H. Zayas and Mollie Bradlee introduce us to the harrowing experience of citizen children living with undocumented parents and siblings in the United States. The chapter focuses on children of mixed-status families of Latin American origin—appropriately so, given that U.S.-born children whose parents were unauthorized immigrants represent an estimated 4.5 million of 9 million people living in mixed-status families in the United States; and that unauthorized immigrants, 58 percent of whom are from Mexico, are primarily of Latin American origin.[1] The authors guide us through the various legal, social–structural, and developmental conditions that contribute to these children’s identity development, too often characterized by fear and uncertainty, guilt and shame, detailing the ways in which living in a constant state of “hypervigilance” contributes to emotional insecurity, anger, and depression. At the close of chapter 3, the authors invite us to consider the ways in which immigration policy in the United States “devalues children,” especially citizen children, and how this experience will affect not only their psychological well-being, but also their sense of belonging, level of civic duty and engagement, and perspective on their obligation as workers and citizens.

Perceptions of Asian Americans as a social group have undergone substantial transformations over time. In chapter 4, “Racial and Ethnic Identities of Asian Americans: Understanding Unique and Common Experiences,” Greg M. Kim-Ju and Phillip D. Akutsu trace the history of Asian Americans, a diverse group composed of over 25 distinct ethnic groups from East and Southeast Asia, in the United States and recount the Asian American experience, from exclusion and marginalization in the 1800s to the stereotypical role of the “model minority” in contemporary times. The authors situate the process of Asian American identity development within the cultural constraints of ethnic traditions, practice, and language and, in reviewing different models of identity development, call out the distinction many Asian Americans make between ethnic and racial identity. The authors then address the various situational influences on ethnic identity, reinforcing our understanding of identity as a variable and continuing process informed by our unique life experiences.

In chapter 5, “Indigenous Identity in the 21st Century: Remembering, Reclaiming, and Regenerating,” Sandy Grande, Timothy San Pedro, and Sweeney Windchief encourage practitioners and service providers to do the work of developing a “critical consciousness” in examining their own racial bias as a key component of learning to walk with and be “in a good way” with indigenous peoples. The chapter details the experience of “forced incorporation,” endured by indigenous peoples, as unique from other racial and ethnic minority groups. The authors recognize the construction and reconstruction of race in the course of our actions rather than as something we are or possess. Accordingly, they identify the acts of remembering, regenerating, and reclaiming, particularly through the medium of storytelling, as something that indigenous peoples do, not only as a critical component of the process of healing wounds of history, but also in continuing to assert their sovereignty and self-determination, engendering a mode of survival.

Through a historic review of whiteness, Lisa B. Spanierman, in chapter 6, “White Racial Identity Development: Looking Back and Considering What Is Ahead,” engages us in an examination of the intricate relationship between race, labor, and economy in the United States. Whereas for many, racial and ethnic identity is defined by an experience of exclusion, contrarily, whiteness in the United States is a story of inclusion, an evolving and expanding definition that transformed over time as was needed to maintain social control by the empowered elite. In this chapter, we learn that whiteness is not removed from the experience of race but is rather inherently defined by it. Spanierman discusses several models of White identity development, each articulating an interdependent relationship between stages of identity development and racist or nonracist attitudes. She chronicles a process in which individuals move first from ignorance to awareness and then to acceptance of racist structures in U.S. society—inevitably paired with White power and privilege—and ultimately culminate in a desired healthy White identity that embodies both a comfortable understanding of and commitment to racial justice. The author importantly reminds us that, as with any other group, whiteness is not a monolithic experience but differs across gender, sexual orientation, and social class divides.

The rapidly rising number of individuals who self-identify as multiracial is pointed to by many as evidence of improved tolerance for mixing among groups. In chapter 7, “Growing up Multiracial in the United States,” Robin Lin Miller and NiCole T. Buchanan illustrate how multiracial individuals themselves have often occupied a symbolic position in U.S. society, first as a new and “exotic” category of minority and now emblematic of the realities of an increasingly multicultural society. Nonetheless, these individuals must still navigate the complex hierarchy of social and economic status afforded to different racial groups. Miller and Buchanan depict a compounding process of racial identity development: Akin to the American public’s examination of President Obama’s identity, they address the question of which label—a self-label, the family’s label, or society’s label—determines a multiracial child’s identity and acknowledge that these labels may, at times, be at odds. The authors stress the importance of ecological and environmental factors in multicultural identity development, offering a critical lesson on the importance of external validation to our internal processes and on how our neighborhoods and communities affect our perceptions of self.

The book aptly ends, in chapter 8, on the question of “What It Means to Be American,” through which Jennie Park-Taylor, Joshua Henderson, and Michael Stoyer engage us in an examination of the numerous micro- and macrosystems that influence our understanding of ourselves in relation to our nation. The authors articulate that what it means to be American has changed and continues to change over time, is deeply rooted in our history, and varies depending on the age and generation of the individual. They depict an America in which the experience of being American is not shared, is not uniform, but instead is uniquely crafted on the basis of an individual’s position within a fixed social hierarchy that clearly demarcates preferences and privileges based on race, gender, and class. They point out the inconsistencies of an American ideology that values civic participation and freedom but is built on biased and exclusionary rules for belonging and ask us to consider what change is needed to truly become a pluralistic society.

The world of multiculturalism is vast and the diversity of experience seemingly infinite. As such, it is important to acknowledge some of the important areas where additional research and a more in-depth discussion could contribute to and complement this work.

The authors consider the experience of identity development within the context of the United States. Although some of the chapters, particularly regarding Asian American identity and that of citizen children of undocumented parents, incorporate a lens that considers identity development as influenced by foreign policy, immigration law, and individual and familial experiences that transcend borders, the book overall does not deliberately acknowledge the role of internationalism. For example, many immigrants in the United States and their children maintain strong ties with their families and communities in their country of origin. These relationships are evident in both the social–cultural practices of these groups as well as their financial habits, for example, the billions of dollars U.S. immigrants send to their home countries each year. In addition, as discussed by Miller and Buchanan in chapter 7, a growing number of individuals develop blended identities that represent bicultural, multicultural, and international family arrangements. Furthermore, the relative ease and affordability of international travel, compared with what it was just a generation ago, and increased frequency and quality of interaction afforded by technological advancements and social media have served to further strengthen global ties and individuals’ connectedness to people and places around the world. Undoubtedly, these factors introduce an additional layer to our understanding of identity that transcends borders and traditional boundaries.

Additionally, although some authors address the differences in experience among men and women, this book does not deeply investigate the complexities of racial and ethnic identity development in the context of gender. Furthermore, for many racial and ethnic groups, the experience of being in that group varies not only between men and women but also among individuals who transcend traditional gender roles: The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) experience is another area worthy of further research. The present-day reality for LGBTQ individuals and families is not unlike that of other minority groups in the United States in that they, too, encounter social exclusion and live within the confines of legislative constraints that, at various points in history and up to today, infringe on civil liberties and rights enjoyed by mainstream society. Recognizing this allows us to at least acknowledge the many ways in which the LGBTQ experience warrants the same level of investigation and understanding.

Furthermore, Arab Americans and Muslims in the United States, as increasingly visible minorities in this country, constitute other groups whose voice would benefit from further attention. Although the majority of Arab Americans are Christian, the fastest growing segment of the Arab American population is Muslim. Like other racial and ethnic groups, Arab Americans and Muslims represent great diasporas that span many countries of origin and distinct waves of immigration to the United States. With the United States’ continued engagement in the Middle East as well as future involvement in the political and economic arenas of Arab countries—and rising immigration from these countries as a result of this engagement—the experiences of Arab Americans and Muslims will become an increasingly important component of our national narrative and an essential perspective on ethnic and religious diversity in the United States.

Multicultural Perspectives on Race, Ethnicity, and Identity illustrates the multiple ways that racial, ethnic, individual, and group identity and sense of belonging are etched in our collective history, deeply ingrained in the process of our birth and growth as a nation. This has occurred on an internal and individual level, in our understanding of ourselves and one another, as well as an external level, in shaping our national psyche and dominant cultural norms. In doing so, the authors have also chronicled our legislative past, identifying how race and ethnicity have been, and continue to be, so deeply intertwined with the law, governing everything from our interpersonal relationships and neighborhood interactions to our settlement patterns, development, and expansion. The authors present an invaluable examination of how understanding and accepting this history, given its inherent influence in our personal lives, families, and communities, can contribute to much-needed change that will ensure we remain on the path toward becoming a truly multicultural society in which each one of us can participate and thrive. They rightly ask the question of what this means not just for individuals, or various racial and ethnic communities, but for all of us.


[1]Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, “A Nation of Immigrants: A Portrait of the 40 Million, Including 11 Million Unauthorized.” Washington, DC: Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, January 2013.