Indicators of Positive Development Conference
March 12-13, 2003
Bureau of Labor Statistics Conference Center
Velma McBride Murry, Gene H. Brody and Dionne P. Stephens, University of Georgia
Identity formation processes during adolescence are characterized as pivotal to understanding the ease to which individuals transition into adulthood (Worrell, 2000). The degree to which one succeeds with this developmental task is often measured in terms of the extent to which he or she develops a personal identity that reflects autonomy and differentiation from family and peers. Traditional explanations of identity development continue to be framed according to European and primarily middle class individuals’ life course experiences (Spencer, in press).
Youths who are members of a marginalized racial or ethnic minority encounter unique identity issues that structure developmental processes and create additional challenges that include not only individuating from family but also establishing ways in which to negotiate, mediate, and repudiate perceptions, messages, and expectations resulting from social stigma and negative stereotypes about their racial/ethnic group. Although most studies contend that strong ethnic pride fosters positive developmental outcomes among African American youth, considerable reference has been given to Fordham and Ogbu’s (1986) theory of explaining the process of racial/ethnic disidentification and academic success. Specifically, these researchers have suggested that African American youth who “act White” by not identifying with their own ethnic group appear to perform with greater academic success than those who have high racial pride.
Thus, studies of African American youth’s process of identity formation have used different paradigms. Research efforts in this endeavor can be characterized as studies focusing on identifying factors that promote identity formation (Demo & Hughes, 1990; Peters, 1985; Murry & Brody, 1999), or those interested in defining and measuring racial or ethnic identity (Cross, 1971; Helms & Parham, 1985; Murry, Smith, & Hill 2001; Phinney, 1990; Smith, 1991), and studies linking various dimensions of identity formation processes to cognitive or academic performance (Arroyo & Zigler, 1995; Fordham & Ogbu, 1986) and to behavioral and psychological processes (Bowman & Howard, 1985; Parham & Helms, 1985). Regardless of the approach, normative developmental processes often used to study White youth identity formation are replaced by an emphasis on the need to understand racial identity formation in African American youths, assuming that racial or ethnic identity formation has greater significance for comprehending their overall development. Accordingly, theories and assessments have been developed to describe this process. Most theories and measures focus on the extent to which individuals hold positive, negative, or mixed attitudes toward their own racial or ethnic group and their sense of place as a group member (Carter & Helms, 1988). The most common conclusion arising from this work is that racial/ethnic identity formation is a complex, multifaceted process that in turn affects behavior and psychological functioning (Arroyo & Zigler, 1995).
The purpose of this paper is to attempt to merge the multiple approaches to studies of African American identity formation by utilizing one measure to ascertain its usefulness in assessing multiple dimensions of developmental outcomes. We describe briefly the psychometrics of a measure of identity formation, racelessness, and examine the correlations between dimensions of this scale and other social contextual, family, maternal and individual measures that may have prospective validity for this measure. Given the salience of self-perception in this developmental process, the measure is based on self-reports from African American youth. Data from a study of rural African American youth and families are used in these analyses. In the following section, we present a brief overview of literature on the importance of racial/ethnic identity. We use the terms ethnic identity and racial identity interchangeably to reflect the inconsistencies in the way in which this construct has been presented in the literature, measured, and studied over time.