A fundamental developmental task requires adolescents to explore and determine where they fit in the world around them (Erikson 1968
) and, in doing so, adolescents’ ethnic identity development may drive them to experiment with the use of different ethnic labels (Phinney 2003
). Given the salience of identity development during adolescence and the prevalence of school forms and other official documents that require youth to repeatedly think about the different ethnic labels that best define them, the present study sought to understand the patterns and correlates of adolescents’ ethnic labeling preferences. We drew from complementary, yet distinct, datasets focusing on youth with Asian and Latin American ancestry who reside in different US geographic locations to make comparisons by both contextual setting and ethnicity.
Several notable patterns in adolescents’ ethnic labeling choices were found. First, in comparison to adolescents in Los Angeles, an area that has long been accustomed to hosting immigrant families, adolescents who reside in non-traditional or emerging immigrant communities in North Carolina overwhelmingly preferred either heritage labels reflective of their specific ethnic background (e.g., Chinese, Hmong, Mexican) or panethnic labels (e.g., Asian, Latino) over hyphenated American ones. These patterns may be motivated by differences in the ethnic diversity of the surrounding environment. That is, adolescents with Asian and Latin American ancestry tend to only contribute about 4–15% of the total student body in the NC high schools from which our samples were drawn (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction 2008
). In contrast, adolescents from Asian and Latin American backgrounds often comprise the numerical majority in high schools in LA (California Department of Education 2006
). The strong preference for adolescents from new immigrant communities to identify closely with their specific ethnic heritage may be thus due to the salience of being in the ethnic minority and the “identity work” that may be involved in accepting one’s minority status (Fuligni et al. 2008
). At the same time, a preference for panethnic labels among youth in new immigrant communities could stem from desires to strengthen their overall presence (Espiritu 1992
; Kibria 2000
; Okamoto 2006
The hyphenated American identifications that seemed particularly common among youth in LA suggest that these adolescents endorse a bicultural identity, perhaps due to greater cultural resources that help support their integration into the community. The greater ethnic diversity found in areas like LA may also allow adolescents greater freedom in choosing both American and ethnic labels to define themselves (Qian 2004
). For instance, adolescents who feel well-represented in their communities could perceive more flexible options with which to identify as both an “American”, and also more specifically with their ethnic group. Established ethnic enclaves (e.g., Chinatown) that are often found in traditional immigrant receiving areas could also serve to encourage youth to maintain a strong identification with their heritage culture.
Differences in adolescent generational status, language proficiency, and ethnic identity were also examined across geographic setting, and implicated as potential explanations for the labeling patterns found. Indeed, there were larger proportions of adolescents from the second and third generations among traditional immigrant receiving areas in LA compared to emerging immigrant communities in NC. In addition, adolescents from NC reported higher levels of ethnic centrality and regard, greater proficiency with a heritage language, and lower proficiency with English. Perhaps the experience of being an ethnic minority in an area where the mainstream culture is still becoming accustomed to immigrant populations increases the salience of adolescents’ ethnic backgrounds and encourages them to identify more strongly with their ethnic group. Differences in generational status could also explain some of these other effects found across setting. For instance, adolescents from later generations, such as those from LA, could feel less strongly connected to their ethnic group and, in addition, their language skills could evolve differently as well.
Notably, ethnic differences were also found whereby adolescents with Asian ancestry reported greater English proficiency and weaker heritage language skills, and lower ethnic regard compared to their counterparts with Latin American ancestry. However, some of these mean differences were qualified by interactions with settings. For instance, ethnic differences in English proficiency were more pronounced in NC than in LA. Further, adolescents from Asian backgrounds in NC reported greater centrality than their counterparts from Latin American backgrounds, whereas the reverse patterns were found in LA. More systematic research is needed to better disentangle some of these effects; however, our general results suggest that geographic setting plays an intricate role in adolescents’ cultural adaptation. Moreover, variables such as generational status and language skills may be responsible for driving some of the broader labeling differences found across locations.
Consistent with prior research (Masuoka 2006
; Zarate et al. 2005
), generational status was found to be a consistently robust predictor of ethnic labels whereby adolescents of later generations were less likely to use heritage or panethnic labels and more likely to use hyphenated American labels than those of the first generation. Perhaps the use of a heritage or panethnic label alone is validated or legitimized by being foreign-born (Phinney 2003
). In contrast, adolescents who are US-born appear to exhibit greater feelings of bicultural identification (Berry 2003
), as evident from their preference for American labels in conjunction with an ethnic or panethnic one. To further highlight the importance of nativity in how adolescents define themselves, generational status was found to significantly mediate the initial effect of geographic setting on all four categories of ethnic labels. That is, one reason why adolescents in traditional and non-traditional immigrant receiving areas appear to prefer different ethnic labels is due, in part, to differences in adolescent generational status.
Although ethnic regard and heritage language proficiency were not significantly associated with ethnic labeling, ethnic centrality and English proficiency emerged as significant predictors that also helped mediate some of the ethnic labeling differences found across setting. Specifically, adolescents from NC reported higher ethnic centrality and lower English proficiency compared to their counterparts in LA. In turn, higher centrality increased the odds of using heritage labels by a factor of 1.34. English proficiency increased the odds of using heritage-American labels by a factor of 1.63. These meditational results highlight two key implications. First, the degree to which one’s ethnicity is central to the self and the facility of one’s language skills appear to vary by place of residence, further supporting the idea that developmental experiences across traditional and non-traditional immigrant receiving areas differentially structure adolescents’ lives. Second, ethnic centrality and language proficiency each represent salient markers for identification, perhaps by providing the motivation and validation necessary for self-identifying with certain groups. Hence, adolescents’ ethnic labeling preferences appear tied to social and demographic factors as well as to individual differences in language skills and the importance placed on ethnic background.
Indeed, the contexts in which adolescents reside can affect multiple layers of development. We found some support for the proposition that generational status, ethnic centrality, and language skills may mitigate the impact of geographic setting on ethnic labeling. However, it is important to note that the overall effects of setting were still significant in predicting label use above and beyond any mediating effects. Hence, there are likely other factors involved in explaining the robust influence of context. Although some ethnic differences were found, differences by setting were more consistent and salient. That is, adolescents with Asian and Latin American ancestry within each setting appeared more similar than same-ethnic youth across settings. These findings are supportive of recent work that highlights qualitative differences between adolescents’ experiences in new versus established immigrant communities (Perreira et al. 2010
). That said, some ethnic differences in labeling were found. For instance, youth with Asian ancestry irrespective of setting were less likely to use panethnic labels and more likely to use panethnic-American labels compared to youth with Latin American ancestry. Differences in generational status appeared to account, in part, for these ethnic differences.
In terms of adjustment, adolescents from NC reported significantly higher self-esteem than adolescents from LA, further pointing to the necessity of examining place of settlement as a key factor in development. Main effects of ethnicity were also found whereby youth with Latin American ancestry reported higher self-esteem than adolescents with Asian ancestry. Although links between ethnic label use and self-esteem were not found, ethnic labels likely signify more than a box to check when completing an official form. Rather, labels are imbued with meaning for adolescents who use them, and may provide a way for youth to understand how they are viewed by the larger society and how they want to identify themselves to that broader society (Holley et al. 2009
). Recent research highlights the importance of school counselors and other important figures in adolescents’ lives to honor the ethnic labels that youth choose to define themselves, given the meaning and importance that such labels take on in adolescents’ lives (Malott et al. 2009
). Clearly, additional efforts to examine links between ethnic label use and well-being should be undertaken.
One limitation of the current study is that our analyses were based on self-report data. We also have little information on whether ethnic labels mean something different in each community. For instance, identifying one’s ancestral origins as “Mexican” could take on a qualitatively different meaning in LA versus NC. Further, there is a great deal of diversity even within each broad area of immigration. That is, not all specific communities within one geographic area are the same; hence, there remains a need for future research in both traditional and non-traditional areas of migration in order to replicate our results and provide more generalizable findings. Indeed, our cross-site comparisons are only an initial exploration into the potential richness of considering how place of settlement impacts adolescent development. For instance, there are specific ethnicities that are found in one place of settlement and not in another, and such differences should be explicitly examined in future work. As one example, the Asian population in NC is partly comprised of individuals who identify as Montagnard, an ethnic minority group from the highlands of Vietnam who have largely settled in areas of NC and not, for instance, California. Future research that uses qualitative data to more deeply explore adolescents’ ethnic labeling choices and cultural adaption could be helpful, particularly in ethnic minority and refugee families that tend to be understudied in the current psychological literature.
Another suggestion for future research is to center on younger samples to determine earlier periods of development in which individuals’ ethnic labeling begins to take shape. Indeed, emerging work has shown that children as young as pre-kindergarten are beginning to understand issues of race, ethnicity, and discrimination (Brown and Bigler 2005
). Given prior work linking family relationships with ethnic identity (Kiang and Fuligni 2009
), and the recent push for understanding family ethic socialization (Hughes et al. 2006
), research on how the family influences early conceptions of ethnic labeling would be particularly worthwhile. Similarly, examining how ethnic labeling continues to evolve in later years of high school and through the adult years as adolescents begin post-secondary education or enter the work force could also lead to more precise information on how ethnic labels form and affect other aspects of development.
As long as US convention continues to require classifications by race or ethnicity, the labels that adolescents use to define themselves will likely continue to be a salient aspect of their lives. Much of our understanding of the cultural adaptation of adolescents from immigrant families stem from areas of the US that are relatively ethnically diverse and metropolitan in nature. Consistent with prior research that points to the importance of considering immigrant families’ place of settlement and the limited social and institutional resources that are found in new immigrant communities (Bailey 2005
; Hirschman and Massey 2008
), our results suggest that context plays a significant role in adolescents’ cultural self-views. By broadening our understanding of adolescents’ ethnic identity development to areas of the US that are newly adapting to a diverse ethnic community, we can move towards nationwide efforts to support development and provide a welcoming environment with which all youth can flourish.