Race, Ethnicity, and Culture

What is the difference between Race and Ethnicity?

This is a question that often gets glossed over but each of these words is a distinct part of your identity. Ethnicity refers to the idea that you belong to a particular cultural group that shares similar characteristics like religion, language, or place of origin. Race, however, is a social construct that is reliant on appearance – specifically skin color. This means that race is subjective, and races are divided based on the pigment of your skin, rather than your actual ethnicity.

What is my Ethnic identity?

Ethnic identity is a concept that develops throughout childhood and adolescence and is passed down from one generation to the next, primarily by traditions, language, religion, and cultural values. Ethnic identity is often significant in the lives of minority youth and youth of mixed ethnicity. Often, youth belonging to the majority ethnicity in an area may not even recognize their ethnicity. According to Jean Phinney, there are three stages of identity development. There are no time constraints or ages that correspond to each stage. Every individual is different and can pass through each stage at the right time for them. The first stage is called Unexamined Ethnic Identity. In this stage, the individual does not recognize or consider their ethnic identity. Individuals of the majority ethnicity often remain in this stage longer than those in the minority. The second stage is Moratorium, which involves the individual searching for an understanding of their ethnic identity. They may research their family’s history, learn the language of their ethnicity’s origin, and engage in traditions and cultural activities. The final stage of Phinney’s stages of identity formation is “Achieved.” This stage signifies that an individual has accepted their ethnic identity and feels secure in this aspect of their understanding of self.

What should I do if I feel disconnected  to my ethnic identity?

This is not an uncommon question, and is totally understandable, especially if you are from a mixed heritage. If you feel this way, you are probably in the Moratorium stage, described above. If you’re having trouble accepting your ethnic identity into your self-identity, or don’t feel secure in this area, that’s completely normal. Talking to your family and searching for understanding can help you to pass from the Moratorium stage to the Achieved stage.

Here are some questions you could ask yourself to explore your identity:

  1. What traditions do I observe, in everyday life or on special holidays?
  2. What are my most prized values, hobbies, or interests? Did my parents, grandparents, or siblings share these?
  3. What positive traits could I use to describe my family? How do these traits play a role in my life?

If you’re overwhelmed by this or are not comfortable talking to your family about this, it may be worth seeing a therapist who can help you explore this identity. CARE has clinicians from all walks of life, and there is probably someone who you can identify with who can help you on your journey to self discovery. Click here to schedule an appointment with a therapist at CARE.

How is my racial identity different from my ethnic identity?

Racial identity develops slightly differently from ethnic identity. If you’re having trouble distinguishing race from identity, scroll back up to the section titled, “What is the difference between Race and Ethnicity?” William Cross denoted four stages of identity development, called Statuses. The first status is the Pre-encounter. In this stage the individual may not be aware of their race and its effect on their life. The second stage, Encounter, is when the individual experiences an event that causes them to consider how their race affects their life. The third stage, Immersion, is when the individual explores their racial identity. The fourth and final stage is Internalization, in which the individual feels secure in their understanding of their race and how it affects their life. If you are feeling stuck in one of these stages, consider talking to your family or friends about how you’re feeling. They may have experienced what you are going through and may be able to shed some light on your racial identity. There is no specific age or time constraint that you must follow in identity discovery, but if you’re feeling lost it may be worth talking to a therapist who can help you to explore your racial identity. Click here to schedule an appointment with a clinician at CARE.

Additional Resources

Ethnicity and Race

Family Search

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