Report Explores Shifts in How Youth Describe Racial and Ethnic Identity

Posted May 2, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A young Black woman, wearing a yellow short-sleeved shirt, smiles while examining a book in a library.

A new study explores shifts in young people’s self-described racial and eth­nic iden­ti­ty and the impli­ca­tions of those shifts for child wel­fare pol­i­cy­mak­ers, prac­ti­tion­ers and researchers. Con­duct­ed by Child Trends and fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, the report makes the case that cap­tur­ing young people’s racial and eth­nic iden­ti­ty is cen­tral to accu­rate­ly inter­pret­ing data about young peo­ple and to mak­ing informed deci­sions about pro­grams tai­lored to their needs.

Based on sur­vey data from the Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive®, and inter­views with cur­rent and for­mer Oppor­tu­ni­ty Pass­port® par­tic­i­pants, the study includes the voic­es of its participants.

This research is an impor­tant resource,” says Leslie Gross, direc­tor of the Casey Foundation’s Fam­i­ly Well-Being Strat­e­gy Group. It encour­ages a nuanced approach to data col­lec­tion and analy­sis that can bet­ter reveal strengths and dis­par­i­ties among racial and eth­nic groups.”

Under­stand­ing Racial Iden­ti­ty Is an Ongo­ing Process

Many inter­sect­ing fac­tors, includ­ing phys­i­cal attrib­ut­es, ances­tral roots and per­cep­tions of racial cat­e­gories, shape racial and eth­nic iden­ti­ty. Reviews of lon­gi­tu­di­nal sur­vey data — infor­ma­tion about peo­ple who are repeat­ed­ly sur­veyed over a long peri­od of time — reveal that changes in racial and eth­nic iden­ti­ty are a com­mon devel­op­men­tal process for ado­les­cents and young adults, the report notes.

These changes are par­tic­u­lar­ly salient for young peo­ple in or aging out of fos­ter care, who may have expe­ri­enced place­ments with a fam­i­ly of a dif­fer­ent race and eth­nic­i­ty and who have lim­it­ed access to their fam­i­ly his­to­ry. I lived with many dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies that reflect­ed many dif­fer­ent cul­tures and iden­ti­ties and races,” said a youth quot­ed in the study. And I just nev­er knew where I fit in. I still have a hard time with it.”

Recent research has shown that young peo­ple in fos­ter care are more like­ly to change how they describe their racial and eth­nic iden­ti­ty as they age than their peers out­side of the child wel­fare sys­tem. Of the near­ly 1,967 youth who com­plet­ed the Oppor­tu­ni­ty Pass­port Par­tic­i­pant Sur­vey at least twice, 329, or 17%, changed how they described racial and eth­nic iden­ti­ty at some point.

The most com­mon iden­ti­ty change,” accord­ing to Child Trends researchers, was from a sin­gle iden­ti­ty of col­or to anoth­er iden­ti­ty of col­or.” Most of these shifts involved a change to or from Two or more races, NH [non-His­pan­ic].’”

The Child Trends inter­views with young peo­ple who have expe­ri­enced fos­ter care rein­forced the idea that racial and eth­nic iden­ti­ty devel­op­ment is an ongo­ing process, and that they had spe­cif­ic rea­sons that led them to change how they report­ed their racial and eth­nic iden­ti­ty. A major rea­son was new infor­ma­tion about a youth’s ances­try, pro­vid­ed either by fam­i­ly mem­bers or DNA testing. 

Chang­ing Racial Iden­ti­ty and Impli­ca­tions for Child Wel­fare Researchers

Child wel­fare pol­i­cy and prac­tice are often informed by lon­gi­tu­di­nal data mea­sur­ing fac­tors that influ­ence out­comes among dif­fer­ent groups of young peo­ple. Yet these stud­ies often treat race and eth­nic­i­ty as sta­t­ic and unchanging.

Data analy­sis by Child Trends researchers reveals how a small change in ana­lyt­ic meth­ods — the choice of using par­tic­i­pants’ racial and eth­nic iden­ti­ty respons­es from (1) their first sur­vey, (2) their most com­mon­ly report­ed respons­es or (3) their most recent sur­vey — can pro­duce dif­fer­ent results,” accord­ing to the report.

A lack of clar­i­ty about researchers’ han­dling of chang­ing respons­es to race and eth­nic­i­ty ques­tions, the authors write, risks faulty com­par­isons across stud­ies that paint an incom­plete pic­ture of par­tic­i­pants’ experiences.”

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