Latino Adolescents’ Ethnic Identity is a Buffer Against Perceived Discrimination

Latino adolescents might become targets of discrimination due to their origin. However, research shows that engaging with their ethnic identity might serve as a protective factor.

By Tara Kuther

As adolescents’ social worlds expand, they become increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, the views of others. Perceived ethnic discrimination poses risks for adolescents’ adjustment. Ethnic identity, the degree to which one identifies with the values, attitudes, and behaviors of one’s culture, increases in salience during adolescence and aids adolescents’ adjustment.
Umaña-Taylor and colleagues studied 219 6th through 12th grade Latino students from 12 public schools. Measures of perceived discrimination included discrimination by peers and adults in school, unknown adults outside of school, online racial discrimination targeted at the adolescent, and vicarious online discrimination. Adjustment included scales tapping depressive symptoms, self-esteem, externalizing behaviors, and academic adjustment. Three components of ethnic identity were measured: ethnic identity exploration (the degree to which individuals have explored their ethnic background), identity resolution (the degree to which they have clear sense of the meaning of ethnicity in their lives), and identity affirmation (positive feelings about one’s ethic group).

As expected, ethnic identity appeared to serve as a cultural asset, associated with better adjustment in the face of risk. Although perceived discrimination online and from adults outside of school was associated with externalizing problems, ethnic identity affirmation, exploration, and resolution each emerged as protective factors. Adolescents with higher scores in these measures reported fewer externalizing problems. Likewise, identity affirmation buffered the negative association of perceived discrimination from adults outside of school on self-esteem; and adolescents who experienced greater levels of identity exploration experienced fewer depressive symptoms despite perceiving online discrimination. These results suggest that ethnic identity – exploration, resolution, and affirmation – can help Latino adolescents show positive adjustment in the face of perceived discrimination, posing important paths for intervention.

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Umaña-Taylor, A. J., Tynes, B. M., Toomey, R. B., Williams, D. R., & Mitchell, K. J. (2015). Latino adolescents’ perceived discrimination in online and offline settings: An examination of cultural risk and protective factors. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 87-100. doi: 10.1037/a0038432