Beyond race and ethnicity: Examining development in context

The change in the 2000 U.S. Census allowing individuals to select more than one race (Root, 2000) may illustrate the increasingly diverse U.S. population and the complexity of defining one's multidimensional cultural and racial identity.

Authors: Vincenzo Teran and Kimberely Santora

Race and ethnicity are complex social constructs that have been examined by many scholars across history and disciplines. Race is often referred to as 1) biological categories, deriving from one’s phenotype such as eye, skin and hair color, and/or 2) sociopolitical categories, which aggregate and position groups of people based upon phenotypical characteristics (e.g. Helms, 1994). Ethnicity is often based on cultural factors such as one’s ancestry, geographic origin, language and beliefs (Perez & Hirschman, 2009). These constructs have been historically utilized to define and assign one’s individual and collective identity and social position in society. However, they have also been contested by scholars as offering a limited scope in defining and understanding diversity. Littlefield, Lieberman and Reynolds (1982) argued that more similarities than differences exist between racial groups while more differences than similarities exist within these groups. The change in the 2000 U.S. Census that allowed individuals to select more than one race (Root, 2000) perhaps illustrates both the increasingly diverse U.S. population and the complexity of defining one’s multidimensional cultural and racial identity.

In many ways these are not discrete nor separate categories with inherent conceptual meaning, but are most useful in beginning to understand the social narratives and experiences that one is exposed to and has available to internalize as identity/identities (Helms, 2005). Nonetheless, multicultural psychologies have sometimes stressed racial and ethnic heritage over other aspects of identity and experience, mainly because these other aspects are more complex to conceptualize, study and measure. However, given the shortcomings of race and ethnicity constructs in understanding individual and collective identities, the authors encourage psychologists to expand beyond these categories to adopt an ecological perspective. With an ecological lens, psychologists can understand in more depth the multiple, embedded contexts in which all individuals exist and the reciprocal and dynamic interactions between individuals and these other systems. This model examines individual characteristics while also considering the macrosystem (global influences), exosystem (social and governmental institutions) and microsystem (family, community and peers), which interact as an open system (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). The feminist ecological theory expands upon these principles to also stress the influence of sociopolitical dimensions, time, history and the dialectical nature of these (Ballou et al., 2002). These interactions affect and influence all aspects of the person and daily life.

The authors emphasize an awareness of these intersecting forces in the assessment and service of all youth and families, particularly for those from multiethnic and multiracial backgrounds. Practitioners should exercise caution in the use of racial and ethnic categories as overgeneralized descriptions of individuals as they fail to fully capture the historical and socio-political influences on identity development and one’s social position, particularly relating to social power. As experts in human development, psychologists would benefit from using an ecological conceptualization of the forces and systems which shape identities. From this perspective psychologists can be in a better position to understand the unique experiences and narratives of multiracial and multiethnic youth, which involve navigating, negotiating and integrating the intersection of different cultures.


Ballou, M., Matsumoto, A., & Wagner, M. (2002). Feminist ecological theory. In M. Ballou& L. Brown (Eds.), Rethinking mental health and disorders: Feminist perspectives (pp. 99-141). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Helms, J. (1994). The conceptualization of racial identity and other “racial” constructs. In E.J. Trickett, R.J. Watts, & D. Birman (Eds.), Human diversity: Perspectives on people in context (pp. 285-311). San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Helms, J., Jernigan, M., & Mascher, J. (2005). The meaning of race in psychology and how to change it: A methodological perspective. American Psychologist, 60(1), 27-36.

Littlefield, A., Lieberman, L., & Reynolds, L. T. (1982). Redefining race: The potential demise of a concept in anthropology. Current Anthropology, 23, 641–647.

Perez, A. D., & Hirschman, C. (2009). The changing racial and ethnic composition of the US population: Emerging Americans identities. Population and Development Review, 35, 1-51.

Root, M. P. (2000). Rethinking racial identity development. In P. Spickard & W.J. Burroughs (Eds.), We are a people: Narrative and multiplicity in constructing ethnic identity (pp. 205- 220).

Author Bios

Vincenzo G. Teran, MAVincenzo G. Teran, MA, is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. He is the process of completing a pre-doctoral internship at the Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology, Boston University School of Medicine. His research interests include cultural issues in the research and practice of professional psychology, mental health disparities, traumatic stress and attachment, and Latino mental health.

Kimberly A. Santora, MSKimberly A. Santora, MS, is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at Northeastern University. She is a pre-doctoral fellow in Clinical and Community Psychology at the Yale School of Medicine, in adolescent services. She is passionate about bringing mental health services to underserved youth struggling with identity development and interpersonal functioning.