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The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.

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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

May 19, 2008

Written by C.N.

Does a Strong Ethnic Identity Help or Hurt?

One of the basic foundations of this site and blog is that having a strong Asian American identity has many benefits, individually and collectively. As I’ve said many times before, having a strong pan-Asian identity allows us to connect our similar histories and experiences, and let us draw upon our collective resources and speak with a louder voice in American society.

But on the individual level, does having a strong Asian American identity help or hurt someone’s ability to handle racism and racist incidents? As Diverse Issues in Education reports, that question is at the heart of a new study released by a team of Asian American psychologists:

Asian American adults, ages 18-75 years old, were questioned about any negative feelings they may have had in the previous 30 days. Participants were also asked about their perceptions of racial and ethnic discrimination, how often they felt discriminated against because of their ethnicity and how close they felt their feelings were to others in the same ethnic group.

For participants born outside the United States, embracing their ethnic identity did not guard against the ill effects of discrimination on psychological wellness. However, for Asians born in the United States, ethnic attachment did affect whether discrimination made people feel more distressed.

“Among adults in their 40s, feeling strongly about their own background can counteract the negative effects of discrimination,” says Dr. Tiffany Yip, the report’s lead author and an assistant professor at Fordham University.

More analysis from the report showed that U.S.-born participants in their 30s and those above the age of 50 who described themselves as having strong ethnic identity had more mental distress from discrimination than those participants with a weaker ethnic attachment.

So there seems to be a mixed bag of results here. The study apparently shows that among foreign-born Asian Americans, having a strong ethnic identity did not seem to produce any benefits in terms of helping them deal with racial discrimination.

For U.S.-born Asian Americans, the study notes that there seems to be a U-shaped curve in regard to how a strong ethnic identity affects racial distress — the negative impacts of racism are high among those 30 and younger and 50 or older, but low among those in their 40s.

In reading the article more closely, the authors argue that this pattern is likely the result of “life cycle” factors. That is, those between 18-30 are generally trying to “find their place in the world” and establishing their careers and as such, incidents of racial discrimination can be very jarring for them as they seek to achieve some personal stability.

On the other hand, among Asian Americans 50 and older, the authors argue that they are likely to be in a phase in which they’re preparing for old age and retirement and are seeking to minimize stressors as much as possible. In this context, incidents of racial discrimination can also be quite upsetting.

But for those in their 40s as the authors argue, racism does not produce as strong a negative result because they tend to be more settled personally and professionally and have learned effective coping skills to deal with incidents of racial discrimination — such as relying on their strong Asian American identity.

Ultimately, the study does not suggest that having a strong Asian American identity is some kind of magic bullet that automatically insulates someone from racial distress. Instead, the take-home message is that, combined with where you are in the general “life cycle,” having a strong Asian American identity is like having another set of tools and resources that you can use to better deal with the negative impacts of racism.

For me personally, I would much rather have such tools at my disposal than be blissfully ignorant about why racism exists against people like me. In other words, at least for me, knowledge — and my Asian American identity — is power.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Does a Strong Ethnic Identity Help or Hurt?" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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