Hans Hermann: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers and communities. This week on Critical Window we’re learning about racial and ethnic identity development during adolescence and how educators can support students in their identity development.
Dr. Joanna Lee Williams is an associate professor in the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia and is affiliated with Youth-Nex, the U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development and previously served as the director of research for Young Women Leaders Program, a mentoring program for middle school girls. She is also an affiliate of the Curry School News Center for Race and Public Education in the South.
Dr. Williams’ research interests focus on race and ethnicity as social contexts for youth development. Specifically, her work examines ethnic identity as a form of positive youth development in the face of discrimination and other stressors and ethnic identity in relation to youths’ beliefs and behaviors. She has also applied interests in understanding diversity, peer relations and positive outcomes in youth development programs.
In 2014, Dr. Williams was one of five scholars in the country to be awarded the William T. Grant Foundation Award for a five-year study for the benefits and challenges of ethnic diversity in middle schools and Dr. Williams received her Ph.D. in 2008 in Developmental Psychology from Temple University. Welcome to the show, Dr. Williams.
Joanna Lee Williams: Thank you for having me.
Hans Hermann: Before we start, I just want to reference a couple of numbers for folks. We’re in a country that has a changing level of diversity and especially as we see in our schools and our younger populations. By 2030, immigration is gonna overtake births as the dominant driver of population growth. And we’re gonna see, very soon, that we’ll have a majority minority population in the United States, meaning that there will not be a single group over 50 percent of the population in the United States, different ethnic or racial group.
This is all important to understand for our educators ’cause that means our classrooms are gonna be changing which is why today’s topic that we’re gonna get into, Racial and Ethnic Identities, is really important for people to be aware of and talking about how hit impacts student learning and school environments. So I first wanted to start off by having you define what racial and ethnic identity are, how these may be different, and then also just talk about identity itself, maybe, and how you define it in your field.
Joanna Lee Williams: Sure. So I’ll start with identity, which is essentially our beliefs about who we are and the values and other behaviors that go along with that. So it’s often an answer to the question who am I. For young people there are related questions like how do I see myself, how do other people see me or where do fit in. So we all have our own personal identity that encompasses this range of self-beliefs and attitudes and behaviors.
Racial or ethnic identity is more specific. It reflects how a person understands themselves a member of a racial or ethnic group. I am going to use – probably you’ll hear me use the term ethnic racial identity to encompass kind of this broader construct because sometimes people will use racial labels and other people use ethnic labels when they’re talking about their identity. But regardless of the label, ethnic racial identity is multidimensional. In part, it’s about like the content of the beliefs that you have about what it means to be a member of your group but it’s also about the process of how those beliefs develop and change over time.
Hans Hermann: So as you know, at All 4 Ed we focus on the developmental period of adolescence. How, then, does ethnic and racial identity development compare in adolescence to other age demographics?
Joanna Lee Williams: So adolescence is a really important time for thinking about racial and ethnic group membership. During this time, young people’s cognitive abilities start to grow and develop in ways that allow them to think more abstractly about the world and their experiences in it. So this often becomes a time when young people begin exploring this who am I kind of question in general.
While younger children may understand their racial or ethnic group membership in very concrete terms, so things related to like the foods that I eat or maybe the physical appearance that I have, adolescents can reflect on more abstract or collective aspects of their group. They can think about history and sort of, you know, how they’re viewed by other people. So adolescence really tends to be that time when young people start considering what it means to be a member of their group and how race or ethnicity fits into their overall identity.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that race or ethnicity is salient to every adolescent. A lot of that depends on personal experience, it depends on, you know, messages from families, peers in schools. But when it is salient an adolescent can reflect on what it means to them and a sense of connection or pride in one’s group is often common during adolescence.
Hans Hermann: And if you don’t mind, just for folks as they’re listening, when we’re – and it may be obvious to some, but racial and ethnic identity groups, what are some examples just so people are aware of when you’re talking about those, what they should be having in mind?
Joanna Lee Williams: Sure. So we might think about a racial group label as something like black or African-American. An ethnic group label within the sort of black diaspora might be something like Jamaican-American. So there’s a lot of labels that young people and adults, as well, might use. We have, in the United States, a limited number of racial categories. Those tend to be the kinds of boxes that you see when you’re filling out a form. And then lots more ethnic labels that may relate to country of origin or a particular cultural heritage.
So when I’m talking about an ethnic group membership, usually – you know, it depends on how the individual defines themselves. It might be a panned ethnic label like Hispanic or Latinx, or it might be very specific like Puerto Rican or Dominican or something like that.
Hans Hermann: All right, thank you. So you started hinting at this in the previous question that you answered about cognitive changes that are happening in adolescents. What are the physical changes, social changes and the things that are happening in their brain during adolescents that affect this ethnic and racial development?
Joanna Lee Williams: Okay. So we know the onset of puberty brings about important changes in the adolescent brain. I should say we know that although it’s really based on kind of relatively recent science. But we know now that some of the hormonal changes that happen with the onset of puberty also relate to changes that happen in the adolescent brain. And adolescents start becoming more attuned to social information.
So young people might pay more attention to messages about what it means to be a member of their racial or ethnic group. Feedback from peers becomes especially salient during this time. Adolescents are starting to negotiate their identity in the context of peer relationships, often in school, and they have to kind of figure out, how do I balance what I’m hearing maybe from family members or other adults with, you know, what I’m seeing or hearing from my friends in school or the messages I’m getting from media or teachers. As they start beginning to explore their ethnic and racial identity and being more attuned to social feedback, young people might start to be more aware of stereotypical messages about their group which might be positive or negative.
They also, themselves, this is something that is normative in adolescents, may rely on stereotypes when interacting with others and that’s also related to some of the neurobiological changes going on. So there’s really strong connections between the physical changes that are happening and the social, emotional and cognitive ones as well. This is going to be important for all aspects of identity but when you think about the content of messages you might be aware of or more attuned to as it relates to race or ethnicity that has some implications for how you start to make meaning of that part of your identity.
Hans Hermann: So before we sat down and started recording this, we were talking a little bit about how you got involved in this research, and I’d like to take the time now for you to share that with folks, about why you got interested in research in ethnic and racial identity development, particularly in adolescents.
Joanna Lee Williams: Okay. So this is a personal story. I don’t often share it but it is something that I reflect back on, and I’ll start by describing my own racial identity. So I identify both as black and biracial. I grew up with an African-American father and a white mother. And when I was in sixth grade, I remember having an experience where an African-American peer of mine confronted me as we were sort of socializing in a classroom setting and asked me this question, are you black or are you white?
And in my sixth grade mind I had this very sort of rational response internally at first, like, well, you’ve known me since kindergarten, you know my parents, so you know, I’m both, like both in terms of my heritage. But I knew that wasn’t what he was asking me. He was asking me essentially about, you know, my allegiance to social groups and racial groups in our school. The school that I attended at the time was probably about 30 percent black and about 60 percent white. I didn’t have really the sort of language or the – you know, enough cognitive development to kind of make sense of this but I had enough social savviness to know that his question was intentional.
And then at that point I actually started thinking a lot more about my social interactions with peers along racial or ethnic lines. So that – it caused me to think a lot about kind of my place and where I fit in. I don’t know that I dwelled on it for a long time but it was certainly one of those moments that when I started to learn more about racial and ethnic identity, in terms of, you know, psychological research and I had experiences in college where I was given opportunities to better understand what my identity meant to me, I looked back on that experience and realized it was one of those pivotal encounters that sort of was an early moment of starting to think about what race meant for me personally.
Hans Hermann: So that’s a, I think, a powerful story, and thank you for sharing that. As you said, you don’t share it often so we really appreciate – I think folks listening will appreciate hearing that. So you alluded to this in your story itself. Adolescence is a period defined by changing social dynamics and there is an increased importance for peer relationships. So how should we be thinking about changing peer relationships in the context of developing racial and ethnic identities?
Joanna Lee Williams: So, one of my favorite books is called Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Tatum. She is a well-known scholar and she’s president emeritus of Spellman College. And her title is based on the observation that in racially diverse middle schools, much like the one that I went to, there is often a tendency for youth to seek out same race peers. And so you walk into a cafeteria and you might see kids who are sorting themselves along racial and ethnic lines.
So part of the answer to the question that she raises in the title, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, has a lot to do with racial and ethnic identity development. As kids start engaging in the process of exploring their identity, during this time, as I said before, when social information from peers becomes really salient they may find a sense of what we call identity safety when they’re around same race peers, other kids who they feel have had similar experiences to them. So it’s a normative part of the identity development process. It’s often necessary in settings where kids feel like maybe, you know, they’re being stigmatized in negative ways and that they can find sort of a safe space with same race or same ethnic peers.
There is evidence that as young people start becoming more grounded in their ethnic racial identity development they are then better able to navigate cross-racial friendships. So oftentimes if you follow kids from, like, the start of middle school through the end of high school you see some shifts in the social landscape around race. Different settings, like sports and extracurriculars, help to change those dynamics a bit as well. Importantly, there’s benefits both to have same race friendships as well as cross-race friendships. So schools should really find ways to try and support both and help students understand the value of both kinds.
Hans Hermann: So a question that – is racial and ethnic identity significant only for students of color –? And that may sound awkward to say but it’s an interesting question. Is this a type of development we’re seeing in all students?
Joanna Lee Williams: Right. So, I think it’s a complex question but it’s an important question. On the one hand, any youth, regardless of their racial label, may feel a strong sense of connection to some aspect of their cultural heritage. So we can all think of the cultural or ethnic labels of our ancestors and we may feel connected to those. So in that way there’s some maybe almost generic aspect of feeling like, oh, I have pride in being, say, Irish-American or something like that.
But when it comes to race the story can be a little bit different, particularly in the context of the United States and given the history of sort of how racial groups came to be. Being white is often used as a synonym for being sort of typical or normal, so in their day-to-day experiences white youth might not see race as being very salient. There’s not a lot of messages being conveyed in their day-to-day interactions that prompt them to think about their race, whereas for youth of color the same is not true. Oftentimes they are getting messages from the people around them that, you know, they’re seeing through the lens of race or ethnicity and they start seeing themselves in that way for that reason.
So on the research side, in my field as a developmental scientist, I would say broadly speaking research on identity really, in a large way, for white youth has focused on aspects of like individual identity, so how you see yourself as a person, whereas for youth of color it’s often focused on race or ethnicity. So we haven’t studied youth from different backgrounds in quite the same way.
There are some models of racial identity development for white individuals that focus a lot on how you become sort of conscious of what it means to be white in a racially hierarchical society and those kinds of models really are about – a little more about racial consciousness than maybe about cultural pride. So it’s not quite the same as what we know about and understand in terms of racial or ethnic identity for youth of color. That body of literature suggests really positive correlates of having a strong sense of yourself in terms of your race or ethnicity. It’s positively related to academic outcomes, to social and emotional well-being and even to physical health and that’s a pretty robust literature.
Hans Hermann: And I guess speaking from personal experience that I think that type of like consciousness, it is – as a white male, it’s a different type of experience than what I hear from my peers, other people of color about their experience growing up. So I think what you said rang very true to me, personally. So what does positive ethnic and racial identity development look like and how does it impact students’ well-being? And you started hinting at that in your previous answers.
Joanna Lee Williams: Yeah.
Hans Hermann: And then their ability to learn?
Joanna Lee Williams: Sure. So a young person with a positive ethnic or racial identity feels good about their group membership and understands how it fits into their overall identity. So it’s, you know, cohesive rather than something separate to how they define themselves. Of course, I don’t want to minimize this, there is a great deal of diversity in how a youth might express their ethnic or racial identity and their sort of ideological commitments and how they think members of their group should or should not act. But a sense of pride and having a sense of integration into a greater sense of self are I think these key ingredients that we think of when we think about a positive ethnic or racial identity.
As I mentioned before, there is a lot of evidence showing that this is associated with positive academic outcomes, but I think the mechanisms – there are probably multiple reasons why. So for some students, academic success is tied to how they define their racial or ethnic group, so being successful goes hand in hand with being say a member of X or Y group.
For other youth, it may be that ethnic group membership is a source of price. So a young person might strive or feel motivated to do well as a way of honoring the legacy of their group. And then still for other youth, particularly if they’re encountering negative stereotypes about their group in school, having that sort of cultural wealth to draw upon may give them some protection or buffering in the face of discrimination that allows them to be more resilient in terms of academics.
Hans Hermann: So you’re affiliated with Youth-Nex, as we mentioned in the intro. It’s a U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. Could you tell us more about the start of Youth-Nex and the type of work that it undertakes?
Joanna Lee Williams: Sure. So Youth-Nex started about ten years ago under the leadership of my colleague Patrick Tolan. The goal of the center has always been about using research to try to reframe deficit oriented narratives about adolescents. So we have stereotypes about adolescents. We think they’re moody, they’re rebellious, you know what I’m talking about, they’re prone to take risks and make poor decisions.
So the collection of researchers affiliated with Youth-Nex believe that this narrative really undervalues adolescents and their incredible potential. We take a positive youth development perspective which means that we believe that all youth have the capacity to thrive and that they’re more likely to thrive when they’re in the context of supportive relationships and settings that really meet them where they are and meet their developmental needs.
And while it’s certainly true that there are these neurobiological changes and other changes that make teens more sensitive to rewards and more prone to risk, that’s something that we can reframe as an opportunity rather than as a deficit. So youth have this tremendous capacity for being creative and being innovative and making contributions to society, and our responsibility, therefore, is to create the settings where they can flourish rather than limiting our focus to kind of keeping them out of trouble.
So I want to mention that last year my colleague, Nancy Deutsch took over as director of Youth-Nex and she is leading some new initiatives through the center, including one on reimaging middle school, which I am excited to be a part of. So essentially, we’re taking what we know about the science of early adolescent development, so kids who are maybe like 12, 13, 14 years old and what we know about positive and supportive school settings and trying to really re-envision what a middle school could look like if it were designed specifically to support young people’s great capacity to learn, grow and to lead. So I’m excited to see where that goes.
Hans Hermann: That sounds exciting, it really does. Reimaging middle – you hear a lot about reimaging high schools but reimaging middle schools, that’s something we probably should be considering as well. Is there an aspect to that work that focuses specifically on students of color or on different demographic groups within adolescents or is it more of a broad initiative?
Joanna Lee Williams: Well, it’s a broad initiative although I have a working paper that I wrote on early adolescent development and as part of writing that working paper we were asked to consider issues of equity in this. So beyond the kind of science of early adolescent development, how do issues of equity play a role in what we know. And so looking at what’s happening in early adolescents, everything that I mentioned before, like young people are aware of things that are unfair and they start to become aware in middle school of disparities that exist. They often don’t know how to make sense of them but having an awareness that, hmm, people – myself or people like me don’t seem to be treated the same way as other kids.
You see that reflected – starting to get reflected in how kids behave in school and whether or not they feel their school is supporting them or it’s a trusting environment for them. And so it’s a time where because of what we know developmentally about youths’ abilities to think and observe, then we need to kind of be focusing in on how these environments can make sure that they’re not conveying those kinds of messages.
Hans Hermann: So this is all a very complex issue and at times, for students and for their families, for individuals it can be a traumatic or uncomfortable topic for schools to deal with. How should educators navigate this process of understanding and learning about issues of race and ethnicity, especially when a lot of this is happening outside of the school experience of a student?
Joanna Lee Williams: Yeah. So, no student ever comes to school devoid of learning and experiences from their life outside of school. All kids come and bring – you know, they’re whole people and they bring their outside experiences with them to school. And I think educators should get a lot of credit for the work that they do to support young people as whole people and not just as learners of specific academic knowledge.
When it comes to race and ethnicity it doesn’t necessarily have to be traumatic or uncomfortable. So I think first, educators should not assume that race or ethnicity is a salient part of how youth identifies themselves. It could be for some but not for others so that’s important. Second, just like with any academic content, students may have learned misinformation or stereotypes about racial or ethnic groups. So there is an opportunity to correct misinformation in the context of schools for all kids and we can do that through offering inclusive curricula that show, you know, the complexities of people.
Third, I think many youth, what they bring with them as it relates to race or ethnicity is a sense of pride in and connection to their group and schools can be a place to nourish that because we know it’s really beneficial. And last, there will certainly be students who have experienced race related trauma or conflict. As most educators know, when a student is experiencing trauma it can be extremely difficult to learn and focus on the academic task at hand. So resources to support the student emotionally and psychologically which often come through school counselors are essential in that regard.
Hans Hermann: And you started getting towards this in your response just now, but then how can teachers support, in their classroom specifically and then in other places in the school building, students as they’re developing a positive racial and ethnic identity?
Joanna Lee Williams: So, I think many schools have a long way to go in terms of meeting students’ needs as it relates to ethnic and racial identity. While it’s often unintentional, schools may implicitly, sometimes explicitly, convey messages about what being successful looks like, and historically, youth from racial and ethnic minoritized backgrounds are not the ones associated with those depictions of success.
So educators have to be more open in how they define what success looks like and should, individually constantly reflect on how they interact with students from different racial or ethnic backgrounds so they can be aware of potential biases. I also think that we need to go a lot further in building inclusive curricula and examining the messages we currently send about race as part of the learning experience. So I’m gonna talk a little bit about my research that I’ve been doing recently.
So one of my research projects, we’ve been interviewing some middle school students, again. We asked seventh graders last spring what they had learned about race in school. Many of them said nothing, you know, it’s not something that we talk about. They explained that, you know, the school doesn’t really talk about race so I haven’t learned anything, that’s what some kids said.
Other kids shared, and this was more frequent, the single place where race came up academically was in history class but what they were learning in their classes were these basically one-dimensional and often negative narratives about broad racial groups. So, for example, kids commonly said what they learned about African-Americans was slavery or that they used to be treated poorly but things are better now. They learned that Native Americans had their lands taken away and were killed. They learned about Asian-Americans being forced to build railroads and then forced out of the country or that they were put into internment camps. They learned virtually nothing about Hispanic or Latinx Americans.
And embedded in all of these historical events they learned that white people were the conquerors, the enslavers, the leaders or the innovators. So I think it’s important, given that this is what seventh graders were telling us, this was their understanding of race as they had learned it in school, we need to ask ourselves what can any kid take away from these overly simplified narratives as they’re developing their ethnic and racial identity, how should they make meaning of it? It’s sort of – you know, on the one hand it’s just academic content but it’s also giving them some information that they’re using to kind of inform how they understand race because they’re not having conversations about race in other spaces.
So I think questions like what does it mean when a black student says that their knowledge of blackness is limited to what they learned about slavery. We’ve had kids say that to us, you know, what does being black mean to you and they’ll say well, I think about slavery and that sort of thing, or what should white students take away from the history of colonization or slavery as they’re starting to think about, you know, what being white means.
So I don’t think we’ve found a way yet of giving kids the language to talk about or understand or make meaning of race or racial identity in schools. But kids are making meaning all the time on their own. So they’re interpreting their social experiences and their academic experiences and they’re drawing conclusions on their own. Of course, they may have parents who are helping to kind of mediate some of the messages that they’re receiving and that’s really critical. But in schools and when they don’t have that external support that can just reinforce stereotypes and sort of reproduce racial hierarchies.
So I think we have a great opportunity to help socialize young people to understand the role of race both at a kind of societal level and also as part of their individual experience, ’cause it operates in these two different ways. And we have to better support educators so that they can scaffold this learning effectively.
Hans Hermann: A robust answer with a lot of great things that people should be thinking about and I hope people will listen back again over it and take down notes ’cause I think you had a lot of excellent suggestions as to how to create a school climate as a teacher and the things you can do in your classroom. So then let’s extend it to school leaders, superintendents and principals, what can they be doing to create effective support systems in their schools and districts for students to support this development of racial and ethnic identity?
Joanna Lee Williams: Sure. So, in diverse schools in particular, but really in all schools, school leaders can create opportunities for students to engage in racial or ethnic affinity groups, just for those students who might find them beneficial and again, not all students will. So that means if you’ve got a diverse school with kids from multiple backgrounds, having opportunity for kids who share a similar background to be, you know, part of a club or a discussion group or something like that, that’s potentially facilitated by an adult could just allow them to go into this identity safe space where they can talk about common experiences and to normalize that so that the message that the rest of the school takes away isn’t that, oh, these kids are segregating themselves or they’re doing something secret. If it’s sort of normalized it’s something that everybody has an opportunity to participate in if they choose to do so.
I think school leaders need to reflect on the kinds of messages that may be implicit in their building that may unintentionally connect success or excellence to only certain kinds of students. And then I think to the extent that they have the capacity, providing their teachers with the resources, skills and practice to engage students in conversations related to race or ethnicity as they arise, giving teachers access to kind of inclusive curricular materials that center different perspectives, they don’t just show different people but they center different perspectives, and helping teachers with professional development so they can employ pedagogy that’s responsive to students’ experiences. I think all of those, and, you know, for leaders to send the message that this is something we value, I think, is a good starting place.
Hans Hermann: Yeah. And there are excellent examples around the country. I was recently in California, Oakland Unified High School where they do a great job of the school leadership doing exactly what you’re talking about. I think something else that comes to mind is – it seemed to be basic things, just like as you talked many times about role modeling and the type of posters and who is in the posters, is it only white role models, is it showing people of different backgrounds and different ethnic and racial groups, and also just what the staff itself looks like, that’s definitely something that’s in the power of superintendent and principals. So, again, excellent suggestions.
So then what do you see as the next steps for implementing large-scale policies and practices that support student development in racial and ethnic identity?
Joanna Lee Williams: Well, I think we can think about teacher education programs as a place to build capacity for this. So the training of future educators and school leaders should be explicit in how it prepares them to support students in terms of developing racial or ethnic identity. So on the one hand this means giving them adequate grounding in child and adolescent development so they know what to expect and what kinds of conversations may be appropriate. And also specific skills for supporting conversations about race or culture so that if something comes up in class, it may not be the intention of the content, a teacher is prepared to respond without getting flustered.
So in the moments if you’re not prepared and a student asks something and you’re thrown off, you may shut down the conversation or I’ve heard accounts from students where they get disciplined. It’s sort of they’re being, you know, sort of disruptive and the teacher shuts it all down.
Policies, of course, that help to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the educator workforce I think are really critical. You mentioned at the beginning that the student population is changing and really the student population now in public schools, I think we are close to if we haven’t already reached that tipping point of being just a majority diverse school population, but the teacher workforce has not shifted in the same ways. And I think valuing educators more genuinely in the United States. Resources to say that we value our teachers are sorely needed.
And then finally, I think we can’t have this conversation without bringing youth themselves to the table. So going back to my core kind of belief in adolescents and their great capacity, young people have always been leaders in racial justice movements and they can speak better than anyone else about what it would look like to feel supported in the development of their racial and ethnic identity. So think an important next step would be to ask young people about their own experiences and their own needs.
Hans Hermann: So I think that last point about youth leadership is an excellent one and that’s where we’re gonna end it. Our guest today is Dr. Joanna Lee Williams, associate professor in the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia, faculty affiliate with Youth-Nex and previously associate director of research for the Young Women Leaders Program. You can follow her at Williams Joanna L that’s at W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S J-O-A-N-N-A-L on Twitter. Thank you again for joining us today. It was great having you on Critical Window.
Joanna Lee Williams: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Recording: Thank you for listening to Critical Window, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends and families about Critical Window and please subscribe on iTunes to Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharone Charnoff, Hans Hermann, and Robin Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning visit all4ed.org/SAL.