Report Explores Shifts in How Youth Describe Racial and Ethnic Identity
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.”