Minority Student Identity Development: Complex Questions

A new monograph, Latinos in Higher Education and Hispanic-serving Institutions by Anne-Marie Nunez and others includes a chapter on the question of Latino student identity development. The monograph indicates that “a well-developed ethnic identity has been linked to higher levels of self-esteem and overall quality of life….” (p. 29). Yet clearly the journey toward identity development for minority students is a continuous and complex one, without a single clear answer, and defined by individual circumstances. Researchers have noted the clear link between physical identifiability and discrimination. When racial/ethnic identity is linked to visible characteristics, it then becomes a question for the individual how to internalize, reconcile, embrace, and even transcend this identity.

The monograph cites Vasti Torres’ bicultural orientation model (BOM) that presents a nuanced understanding of differences in identity formation based upon an original study of 372 Latino students (1999). This model identifies four alternatives or modalities for how Latino students navigate between two cultures: 1) bicultural (comfort with both cultures); 2) Latino/Hispanic (orientation toward culture of family origin; 3) Anglo (strong connection with majority culture; and 4) marginal (discomfort with both cultures. Torres later conducted a longitudinal study of 10 Latino undergraduates and found distinct differences depending upon environment where they grew up, family influence and generational status, and self-perception of status in society.

Students from diverse environments had a stronger sense of ethnicity, and students from areas where Latinos constitute a critical mass did not view themselves as minorities until they arrived on a predominantly white campus. First-generation college students struggled to balance the demands of schooling with parental expectations. Self-perceptions of ethnic identity relate to whether this identity is viewed as a source of privilege or nonprivilege and whether or not negative stereotypes are seen to pertain to the individual.

Beverly Tatum sheds further light on the complex interrelationship of racial/ethnic identity development and physical identifiability in her landmark book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. She describes identify development as circular, rather than linear, like moving up a spiral staircase. In some sense, we are never finished with this process. Tatum draws upon William Cross’ five-stage theory of identity that begins with pre-encounters with the beliefs and values of the dominant white culture; then moves to a stage of encounter when racist acts draw attention to the significance of race and one’s own devalued position; 3)immersion in the multiplicity of one’s identity; 4) internalization of a positive identity that embraces one’s own difference; and 5) internalized commitment to support the concerns of diverse others.

The pain of racist encounters can cause individuals to reenter the cycle and re-examine their own progress. Perceptions of incompetence associated with minority women in academe are a case in point. As documented in a new book, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia edited by four female professors, racist encounters can cause individuals to doubt themselves and begin the dangerous process of self-fulfilling prophecy and internalization of stereotypes. For example,Yolanda Niemann, in her essay entitled “The Making of a Token,”writes of the disparaging remarks made about her during her third year pre-tenure review, including the mischaracterization of her highly rated teaching evaluations as “poor” by an antagonistic reviewing committee and the stigmatization of negative expectations.

What remains clear is that in the formative college years, the role of college professors is critical in helping minority students in the process of identity exploration as they encounter stereotypes, misperceptions, and even devaluing experiences on our college campuses. The ability to provide a framework for understanding can allow minority students to progress on the continuous, circular staircase leading to the internalization of a positive identity.


  1. cordoba blue

    I can relate to this and always have. I grew up in a minority culture. I’m not specifying which, but I experienced all the aforementioned angst.
    Until I was about eight years old, I did not have conflicting emotions about my inheritance. Then I heard classmates ( and parents of those classmates ) make disparaging remarks about people of my background. Many of these people did not realize that I was “one of them”. It was a cruel awakening that my background was the butt of jokes and distaste. At first I didn’t know what to feel. I very much wanted to be accepted. I liked my friends, and wanted them to respect me.
    I began to simply avoid details about my inheritance. I did not wear my background on my sleeve, as it were. Many people of my background did so. They would laugh and say they’d never marry anyone who wasn’t of their ethnic background. They would always make comments about food in terms of liking their ethnic food rather than American cooking etc.
    I was the opposite. I identified with the English writers that I loved such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Being a big reader of Anglo books and having so many Anglo friends made me “think” like an Anglo person. I still do. Nobody meets me and says, “You must be —–!” My speech patterns, my psychology of how I deal with family members and raise my children, my values, all fall pretty much in the majority culture zone. In fact, when I’m around people of my ethnic background, alot of how they think seems foreign to me.
    Now alot of this has to do with my specific parents. They definitely wanted to be American, all the way. They raised us to use books and knowledge as a compass, NOT culture. I’m not claiming this as a positive or negative, just an observation. So in some ways I felt I was a first generation individual, because I kind of had to make my own rules as I went along. And those societal rules were shaped by my associates,,who in turn were mostly WASP’s. In other words, I did not use my grandparents as a compass because I did not identify with them,,probably because my parents didn’t identify with them either.
    Sometimes I felt as if I were walking this strange line between my genetics and my actions. My past would whisper in my ear, “Your grandmother would NEVER have done this”. Then my own logic steps in and says, “Yeah, but this is America. And that won’t work here. Besides my OWN logical reasoning skills tells me, nope, I have to go by what makes the most sense, not cultural norms of my background.”
    But sometimes it hurts. Actually sometimes it hurts alot. Because I loved my grandparents so much, and even though they’re gone, I feel they are relying on me to uphold their beliefs. I don’t want to disappoint them. But America has a long way to go before its citizens can feel accepted if they are not from the dominant background. In college, I even heard professors make remarks about “People who are —–usually” and then they’d follow it up with something completely inane. And I’d resent the hell out of it, believe me!
    It scared me sometimes. It was like if I revealed my “true identity” (like I was the real Spider Man for instance! Or I should say woman in my case) everybody would make all these freaking assumptions about me that weren’t even applicable!”Best to keep my mouth shut”, I would think. Let people judge you for who you really are, not by dozens of idiotic stereotypes, many of which were extremely hurtful and cruel.
    This is getting VERY EMOTIONAL. So I’d better stop. But yeah, I struggle every day with this native culture/dominant culture/logical-reasoning-skills-write-your-own-script meme. Hope people can relate to what I’ve written.Thank you for the great post!

  2. Joe

    Thanks too, Edna. Do you sense anywhere in academia that whites in authority sense they are running institutions that are white-normed, and white -normative, in most of their nooks and crannies? It is interesting, and illustrative of our still highly racist structures, that almost every student of color who walks onto a historically white campus immediately sees the white-normativity, which even most (liberal) white academics cannot see — indeed, most of whom assert or assume massive racial change in that normativity has happened since the 1960s…

  3. edna

    Joe and cordoba blue,
    Thank you so very much for your comments, and I am glad to know that my experiences resonated in some way. What I know from personal experience is that when I approached my anthropology professor, as one of the few minority students in my class at a predominantly white private college, that he was unable to help me make sense of identity issues or even realize how these might affect me. This tells me that the level of awareness may not be high, and that we still have much work to do.

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