At Home in Ourselves
African American teens who embrace their ethnic identities enjoy better mental health.
Ethnic pride may play a key factor in bolstering teens’ mental health, even for those who suffer from low self-esteem, say researchers from Northwestern University, Loyola University Chicago, and Walden University. The study examined the relationship between racial identity, self-esteem and mental health in more than 250 African American young people living in urban, low-income areas.
Findings indicate that when young people experience an increase in ethnic pride between grades 7 and 8, their mental health also improved during that time, regardless of levels of self-esteem. However, even teens with low self-esteem who embraced their ethnic identity experienced a ”buffer” against potential mental health problems.
Boys experienced stronger effects of that buffer against symptoms of depression than did girls, the researchers noted.
"These findings imply that ethnic pride is important to African American adolescents' mental health for other reasons than it simply makes them feel better about themselves as individuals," said lead author Jelani Mandara, associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, in a public statement.
"The findings also imply that ethnic pride may be as important as self-esteem to the mental health of African American adolescents,” he explained. “Parents, schools, and therapists should expose young people to material and environments that help foster a sense of ethnic pride."
Why does ethnic pride have such a strong positive effect on teens’ mental health? Historically, there is evidence of its role in buffering people of color against negativity, explains Gary Bailey, MSW,ACSW, associate professor at Simmons College School of Social Work.
“Part of what has been so important to the African American community during the time of apartheid [in the U.S.] was a healthy sense of self,” Bailey, who is coordinator of the Simmons UnDoing Racism Academy, explains.
“Despite what others told you, there was a sense in your own community that you had value, and that came from within one’s family, one’s church,” he explains. “Segregation, with everything that was wrong with it, also came with it a cocoon, a blanket of sameness, which meant that you were around people who were like you, even with the differences, people who were achieving who looked like you.”
A native of Cleveland, OH, Bailey notes that a particular source of pride for him, as a young African American, was the election of the country’s first black mayor, Carl B. Stokes.
“The sense of community was very important as a way of anchoring people,” Bailey adds.
Can the findings from this research be expected in other ethnic, or mixed-ethnic teens? Bailey, who was not involved in this study, says perhaps.
“It is very important,” he says of ethnic pride. “It is very much about clothes, food, music, art, all about culture and identity. It can only help all children.”
White children, Bailey explains, tend to already feel anchored in their society and their ethnic group. “Children of nationality, young people from the Caribbean or other parts of Diaspora, have anchored their ethnic identity in the place that they come from,” Bailey says. “This helps to anchor them when they confront racism in this country. This self-soothing behavior—“kissing our own boo-boos,” patting yourself on the head—is what you learn by having it done by people who believe in you, who are not trying minimize you.”
How can families instill ethnic pride in their children at a young age while helping them integrate smoothly with peers from other ethnic groups?
“It is important to help children understand that ‘not the same’ doesn’t mean ‘less than,’” Bailey advises. “Different does not equal wrong, it just means not the same as.”
It is important to offer children a variety of positive role models and provide a “healthy environment that reflects back positive choices,” he adds.
It is also key for parents to help children understand that they “operate in a variety of worlds.”
“They learn that there are things to talk about in the house and to talk about out of the house,” Bailey explains. “There are multiple realities. Kids are better to adapt to the world around them, particularly kids of color who have to negotiate with the white world.”
During challenging times, he maintains, ethnic identity offers a sense of comfort and is what “we fall back on.” Children who are disconnected from their ethnic roots, Bailey notes, are being done a disservice.
“As we age we do more to go back to the ways of our parents and grandparents,” he contends. “It is so important to have something to go back to; our ethnic identity is that place we can go home to in ourselves.”
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