Module 9: Racial and Ethnic Identity Development

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Module 8: Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility
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Module 9: Racial and Ethnic Identity Development
Module 10: Unpacking Whiteness

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Describe the various racial and ethnic identity development models and frameworks.
  • Explain the connection between positive racial and ethnic identity development and resiliency, academic achievement, and engagement of youth of color and Native youth.
  • Act in your library or classroom to integrate racial and racial identity development frameworks and models to increase the engagement and learning of youth of color and Indigenous youth.


In her groundbreaking work, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: and Other Conversations about Race, Dr. Beverly Tatum argues that youth of color and Indigenous youth develop their racial and ethnic identity through socialization. In other words, their lived experiences shape how they come to understand what it means to be Black, African American, Latinx, Asian American, Native, or biracial in the United States, and to interrogate how their racial identity impacts their current and future lives. Their lived experiences are informed by their experiences at home, in their communities, and in school, but also by the messages and images sent by the media, books, curriculum, social institutions, and political leaders.

Tatum contends that many BIYOC, unless they grow up in homes and communities (including schools), that are race-conscious – “that is, actively seeking to encourage positive racial identity by providing their children with positive cultural images and messages about what it means to be a [BIPOC]” – often absorb the beliefs and values of the dominant Eurocentric culture (134). This includes that whites are the preferred group. This leads some young children of color to value the beliefs, lifestyles, and images of beauty held by the white dominant group more highly than those of their own racial and ethnic group.

Who is…

Dr. Beverly Tatum

Photograph of Dr. Beverly TatumDr. Beverly Tatum is a psychologist and educator whose research focuses on race in education, racial identity development in teenagers, and assimilation of black families and youth in white neighborhoods.

To learn more about Dr. Tatum and her work:

  • Watch this video, Is My Skin Brown Because I Drank Chocolate Milk?
  • Read one of Dr. Tatum’s texts (we recommend starting with Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: and Other Conversations about Race).

During adolescence, youth of color and Indigenous youth begin to develop a new understanding of their race and ethnicity as they are confronted by the personal and collective impact of racism on people of color and Native people.  They begin to reject the beliefs, lifestyles, and images of beauty held by the dominant white culture, turning to members of their own ethnic and racial group to find the answer to questions like: “What does it mean to be a [Black, Latinx, Asian, Native, or biracial] person? How do I act? What should I do?” (143). During this period some adolescents of color or Indigenous teens will adopt an oppositional stance, rejecting school activities associated with academic success that they perceive as “acting white.”  This is most often true for those who attend schools “where only whites (usually wealthy whites), or disproportionately few [youth of color] have the opportunities to participate in higher-level programs and courses” (Tyson, 2006, 41). Some BIYOC will adopt a resistance stance, making a conscious decision to challenge the dominant school culture as a way of safeguarding themselves from potentially painful or damaging interactions (Kinloch, 2017). This might include behaviors such as eye-rolling, silence, sharp verbal responses, absence, and disinterest. There are other BIYOC who will embrace academic success. They know that education is their right and they see it as a way for them to create change in their communities.

It is also important for educators and librarians to consider an additional concept related to racial and ethnic identity formation – essentialism.  Essentialism is “the belief that all people perceived to be in a single group [in this case racial, ethnic, or tribal group] think, act, and believe the same things in the same way” (Ladson-Billings, 2013, p. 40).  BIPOC do not relinquish their individual perspectives, lifestyles, likes/dislikes, etc. just because they belong to the same racial or ethnic group. Librarians and educators need to guard against essentializing the perspectives and experiences of BIYOC and to instead view them as individuals whose identity formation is impacted by a plethora of factors, not just their race or ethnicity. We will develop this concept further in the Intersectionality module.

As this short introduction to racial and ethnic identity shows, understanding how educators and librarians can support the positive racial identity of BIYOC is critical to helping them achieve their full potential.


  • Read this interview with Dr. Beverly Tatum in which she discusses how racial and ethnic identity impacts youth in the classroom.
  • Read these essays in which four youth of color discuss their lasting memories of a first encounter with racism.


Watch this video, created by WNYC, of a diverse group of 12-year-olds from New York City schools talking about their racial and ethnic identity.


Next, watch the documentary When Your Hands Are Tied, which explores the unique ways in which Native youth are finding to express themselves in the contemporary world while maintaining strong traditional lives. If you don’t have time to watch the entire film, watch as much as you can.



In your journal, write a short autobiography exploring your own racial, ethnic, or tribal identity. Consider these questions:

  • When and how did you become aware of your racial, ethnic, or tribal identity?
  • Describe a moment when your racial, ethnic, or tribal identity was important to, or took on particular meaning for, you.
  • Describe a moment when your racial, ethnic, or tribal identity was important to, or took on particular meaning for, others.
  • How do you benefit from your racial, ethnic, or tribal identity?
  • How do you suffer or “miss out” because of your racial, ethnic, or tribal identity?
  • How did your racial, ethnic, or tribal identity impact your experiences at school? In the library?
  • How does your racial, ethnic, or tribal identity continue to impact your life today?


Read the transcript of the EmbraceRace webinarUnderstanding Racial-Ethnic Identity Development, in which Dr. Sandra “Chap” Chapman provides an overview of racial-ethnic identity models — how and why they were developed, and how to use them to understand our own racial-ethnic identity journeys and to support the happy, healthy and just development of the children or teens in our lives.

Read this summary [PDF] of racial and ethnic identity models and frameworks.

Read this research study [PDF] which discusses the connection between positive racial identity, resiliency, and student achievement for youth of color. As you read the study, think about the students you see every day in your classroom or library. How do their experiences mirror those described in the study?

Read this article which provides specific advice about what teachers can do to help their students of color not just survive, but thrive in the classroom, with a fully developed, strong sense of pride in who they are, where they came from, and what they’re capable of.


Click on this link to watch a short animated video of Clint Smith’s poem “Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class.” At the end of the poem, the creators interview Smith. Reflect on how the poem and Smith’s words connect to the research you’ve learned about in this module.

Images of Practice - Icon by Adrien Coquet from Noun ProjectImages of Practice

Multnomah County Library (MCL), headquartered in Portland, Oregon, is committed to the goals of equity, inclusion, and sustaining a workforce that reflects the community it serves. As one strategy for recruiting diverse library staff to engage with the many communities served by the MCL, the library administration created a designation called Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSA) that allows them to focus on hiring staff that have specific knowledge, skills, and a passion for providing linguistically and culturally specific services. This strategy has allowed them to recruit for a Bilingual Chinese Regional Librarian, a Youth Librarian with African American cultural competency, Library Assistants with African American cultural competency, and Bilingual Library Assistants with Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Russian cultural competencies, among others.

Kirby McCurtis, who has an African American KSA designation, was recruited and hired to provide outreach to the Black and African American community served by MCL. As one form of outreach, Kirby started Black Storytime, a way for families to experience and celebrate Black and African American culture at the library. Listen as Kirby describes the program in this short video.

 “Black Story Time is our Saturday morning ritual. We plan our day around it. We’ve been going since Davide was two. Now, every time I see my 4 and a 1/2 year old point to the little boy in one of his books he got to take home from Black Story Time and say, “Mommy, is that me? He looks like me!” I smile as big as he does. I think to myself, finally, maybe he won’t have to constantly convince himself that being Black and at a mostly White school, White neighborhood, and White city is ‘OK.’ Instead, he will know as innately as he knows how to run or play, that he is valuable, he is beautiful, and he is worthy of being seen and heard. Just like the kids his books. I just love it. And for my 2-year old who is the only black child in his daycare, Black Story Time is huge for us. It’s his time to connect with people little and big who come in all shades and all hair types. For once he is not the different one. He’s just his perfect little self. And he LOVES books.”

-Raina Croff Mbaye (Parent)


Note: To read more about Black Storytime and its inception, check out “Black Storytime: Empowering Children, Growing Communities” by Kirby McCurtis in Libraries, Literacy, and African American Youth: Research and Practice (Libraries Unlimited, 2017).


In your journal, reflect on these questions:

  • Are you providing resources and programs that support the positive racial identity development of BIYOC? Are you including stories of resistance, not just stories of victimization?
  • If you are in a school, are the positive contributions of communities of color and Indigenous Peoples included in the curriculum in meaningful ways that promote positive racial and ethnic identity and counter stereotypes?
  • Are youth of color in your school or library learning about the intellectual and activist heritage of communities of color and Indigenous Peoples?
  • Are classroom norms set that are representative of racial and ethnic identity development?
  • Are images of BIPOC prevalent in the library, the school, and the community?


In your journal, brainstorm what you can do in your library or classroom to build the positive racial identity development of youth of color and indigenous youth.

When you’re done, click here to see our ideas.

  • Be intentional in providing resources that provide positive cultural images of BIYOC.
  • Offer programs like Black Storytime that incorporate stories, music, movement, rhymes, and activities to promote positive cultural images in order to affirm the self-esteem and positive identity development of BIYOC.
  • Conduct an audit of the curriculum to ensure that it includes the contributions of BIPOC communities across all content areas.
  • Make sure when discussing historical events such as slavery, the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, or the Civil Rights movement, as well as current events such as Black Lives Matter, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and DACA, do so in ways that highlight the resistance and activism of BIPOC communities and provide youth with a vision that things can change.
  • Invite BIPOC from the community to share with BIYOC how they have successfully navigated a racially-biased system to pursue their strengths and interests.
  • Provide opportunities for BIYOC to explore their culture and develop a clearer sense of what their ethnicity-race means to them.

Select one change you want to make in your library or classroom to support the positive racial and ethnic identity development of BIYOC. Make a plan; now implement it.


In this section, we address common questions and concerns related to the material presented in each module. You may have these questions yourself, or someone you’re sharing this information with might raise them. We recommend that for each question below, you spend a few minutes thinking about your own response before clicking the arrow to the left of the question to see our response.

Isn't it an oversimplification to say that all people of a particular race share a common identity? Doesn't that go against the idea of seeing people as individuals?

Race is one part of a person’s culture, and for many people, it is a central piece. Certain racial groups have formed a shared way of viewing and interacting with the world based on their shared histories and similar life experiences. But race is never the only element of a person’s culture. And, cultural groups based on race, like other types of cultural groups, are not monolithic. “Black culture,” for example, is not just one thing, but a rich tapestry of subcultures connected only by the shared experience of being identified as Black. We can recognize and validate cultural groups without assuming that every individual BIPOC must have certain cultural values because of their race.


I like to celebrate all of the cultural months in my library, but now I have heard that we shouldn’t do this. Why?

The problem with Black History Month and similar cultural months is not that they are celebrated at all, but rather that they are the only time during the year these identities are mentioned and honored. You can continue to celebrate cultural months in your library; however, it is critical that you also celebrate racial and ethnic diversity and identity all year round and not just during a certain month. For an additional perspective on this issue, see the article “Let’s Get Rid of Black History Month” by Joel Christian Gill.



Additional Resources

Tatum, B. D. (2017). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race.  Revised and Updated. New York: Basic Books.

Irizarry, J. (2011). The Latinization of U.S. schools: Successful teaching and learning in shifting cultural Ccntexts. New York: Routledge.

Majors, R. and Billson, J. M. (1993). Cool pose: The dilemmas of Black manhood in America. New York: Touchstone.

Bernal, M. E. & G. P. Knight (eds.) (1993). Ethnic identity: Formation and transmission among Hispanics and other minorities. New York: State University of New York Press.


References and Image Credits

Crenshaw, K. (1989). “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at

Kinloch, V. (2017). “You ain’t making me write”: Culturally sustaining pedagogies and Black youth’s performances of resistance. In D. Paris & H. S. Alim, (Eds.), Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World (pp. 25-42). New York: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2013). “Critical race theory-What it is not!” In Marvin Lynn and Adrienne D. Dixson, Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education (pp. 34-47). New York: Routledge.

Tatum, B. D. (2017). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race.  Revised and Updated. New York: Basic Books.

Tyson, K. (2006). “The making of a ‘burden’: Tracing the development of a ‘burden of acting white’ in schools.” In Erin McNamara Horvat and Carla O’Connor, Beyond Acting White: Reassessments and New Directions in Research on Black Students and School Success (pp. 57-88). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Go Back:
Module 8: Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility
You Are Here:
Module 9: Racial and Ethnic Identity Development
Module 10: Unpacking Whiteness