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The social construction of racial and ethnic identity among women of color from mixed ancestry: Psychological freedoms and sociological constraints

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2009
Dissertation
Author: Laura Quiros
Abstract:
In the context of the 21st century, when an increasing number of people cannot be classified by an archaic system based on race, an awareness of the complexities of ethnic and racial identity is more important than ever. This study assists in the development of a critical understanding of the complexity of racial and ethnic identity by exploring the construction of racial and ethnic identity among women of color from mixed ancestry. These women are the offspring of parents from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds. As a result, their identities--both internally and externally constructed--belie traditional racial and ethnic categories. This population faces unique struggles, as identified in the empirical literature and supported by the data analysis. Women of color from mixed heritages: have been assigned monolithic labels based primarily on their physical appearance; may feel pressured to adopt a single and predetermined ethnic or racial label; and are often researched as one ethnic or racial group. Furthermore, scholars agree that institutional racism has been a constricting force in the construction of identity and identification for ethnic groups of color in the United States. This study is important because women of color are not always comfortable with the ascribed identity, particularly when it is based on faulty characterizations and when their ethnicity is overlooked. Additionally, this study brings insight to the psychological and social impact of socially constructed identifications. This study regards race and ethnicity as social constructions, defined by human beings and given meaning in the context of family, community, and society. As such, women of color from mixed ancestry find themselves in the middle of the psychological freedoms and sociological constraints of identity construction within the dominant society. As a result, they develop management techniques for integrating components of self and for managing the freedoms and constraints in social constructions of race and ethnicity. This is a subject of pivotal importance to multiple fields of inquiry as well as one having significant educational, clinical, and programmatic implications. Among the implications for social work practice and pedagogy are the need for critical reflection, increased awareness, and cultural diversity.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

TITLE PAGE …………………………………………………………………………… ….i

COPYRIGHT PAGE…………………………………………………………………... ..... ii

APPROVAL PAGE…………………………………………………………………… …. iii

ABSTRACT…………………………………………………………………………… …. iv

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS………………………………………………………………..v

TABLE OF CONTENTS……………………………………………………………......viii

LIS T OF TABLES………………...……………………………………………………..xii

LIST OF ILLUSTRATION……………………………………………………………..xiii

I.

CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION………………………………………… . 1

Statement of Research………………………………………………………….1

II.

CHAPTER TWO: THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK:… ……………………..3

Traditional Psychological Theories……………………………………………3

Traditional Theories of Racial Identity……………………………………..5

Traditional Theories of Ethnic Identity……………………………………..7

Critique of Traditional Psychological Theories………………………………10

The Social Construction of Identity…………………………………………..12

Psychological Freedoms…………………………………………………..12

Sociological Constraints…………………………………………………..13

Identity Through a Social Construction Lens……………………………..16

Ecological Approach………………………………………………………17

Root’s Model of Identity Resolution…………………………..18

Multidimensional Identity Model……………………………...21

Face s of Race…………………………………………………..22

III. CHAPTER THREE: LITERATURE REVIEW ..............................................25

Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity…………………………………..25

Conceptualization and Classification of Race and Ethnicity………………...25

Historic Overview of Racial and Ethnic Classification……..…25

Racial Classification: The One - Drop Rule………………........27

Racial Conceptualization: Genetic Meaning…………..……...28

Racial Conceptualization: The Ethnicity Paradigm……..…….29

R eclassification: Movements and Changes in Population..…...31

Reclassification: The Census………………………………….33

ix

Modern Versions of Conceptualization and Classification........35

Social Construction of Race…………………………………...…………….35

Social Construction of Ethnicity ……………………………………………..37

Contextual Factors and the Construction of Racial and Ethnic Identity……..38

Family Messages…………………………………………………………..39

Family Character…………………………………………………40

Appearance ………………………………………………………42

Connection………………………………………………….……44

Societal Stereotypes………………………………………………..……...48

Black Women…………………………………………………….49

Latinas……………………………………………………………50

Asian Americans…………………………………………………50

Mixed Heritage………………………………………………..….51

Gendered Stereotypes………………..…………………………...51

Characterizations and Physical Appearance …………………………………52

Racialization……………………………………………………..52

What Are You?.............................................................................54

Power of Social Constructions……………………………………………….56

Impact on Welfare………………………………………………………...57

Bias and Discrimination………………………………………….58

Bias and Rejection……….……………………………………….60

Silence……………………………………………………………62

Social Impact…………………………………………………………...…63

Impact on Internal Identity Construction….……………………………...65

In Conclusion…………………… ………………………………………..68

Introduction to Qualitative Inquiry ……………………………………….69

Introduction to Grounded Theory…………………………………….…..70

IV. CHAPTER FOUR: METHODOLOGY……………………………………..72

Adv antages of Qualitative Research…………………………………………72

Theoretical Orientation: Grounded Theory………………………………….76

Coding…………………………………… …………………………….77

Memo - Writing……………………………………………………………79

Theoretical Sampling……………………………………………………..80

Description and Selection of Sample………………………………………...81

Criteria for Sample Selection………………………….………..……...…81

Recruitment…………… …………………………………………...……..83

Data Collection………………………………………………………………86

Development of Interview Guide…………………………………………87

Researcher Preparation and Conduct of Interviews………………………88

Content of Interviews……………………………………………………..90

Data Analysis………………………………………………………………...92

Definitions of Ethnicity…………………………………………………...94

Definitions of Race………………………………………………… …….95

In Conclusion……………………………………………………………..98

x

TABLE OF CONTENTS CONT.

V. CHAPTER FIVE: THE WOMEN…………………………………………..99

Thumbnail Sketches………………………………………………………...99

VI. CHA PTER SIX: SOURCES OF SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION……………105

Contextual Factors and the Construction of Racial and Ethnic Identity…...105

Family Messages…………………………………………………………..106

Family Character: Mixe d Identities and Negotiations…………………..107

Appearance: Racial Identity and Colors Within Our Families………….111

Connection: Saliency of Ethnicity………………………………………115

The Commu nity……………………………………………………………119

Neighborhoods: Where We Grew Up…………………………………...120

Peers: Experiences in School……………………………………………122

Society……………………………………………………………………..125

Our Complexities: On Being Mixed………………………………...…..126

In Conclusion……………………………………………………………129

VII. CHAPTER SEVEN: THE POWER OF SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONS….131

Sense of Racial and Ethnic Identity…… ………………………………….133

Latinas…………………………………………………………………...135

Awareness of Racial Identity………………………………………….135

Awareness of Ethnic Identity……………………………………..…...137

Ambiguity of Racial Identity………………………………………….138

Ambiguity of Ethnic Identity…………………………………….……139

European and of Color…………………………………………………..140

Awareness of Racial Identity…………………………………………140

Awareness of Ethnic Identity…………………………………………142

Ambiguity of Racial Identity…………… ………………………….143

Ambiguity of Ethnic Identity……………………………………… ….144

Black and Ethnic………………………………………………………...146

Awareness of Racial Identity……………………………………….....146

Awareness of Ethnic Identity………………………………………….148

Ambiguity of Racial Identity……………………………………….....149

Ambiguity of Ethnic Identity………………………………………….149

Summary of Findings……………………………………………………150

Impact of Social Constructions on Women’s Welfare……………………151

Latinas……………………………………………………………………152

Bias……………………………………………………………………152

Rejection from Racial Group…………………………………… ……153

Rejection from Ethnic Group…………………………………………153

Silencing………………………………………………………………154

European and Of Color…………………………………………………..156

xi

TABLE OF CONT ENTS CONT.

Bias……………………………………………………………………156

Rejection from Racial Group……………………………………..…..157

Rejection from Ethnic Group…………………………………………159

Silencing………………………………………………………………159

Black and Ethnic…………………………………………………………161

Bias……………………………………………………………………161

Rejection from Racial Group…………………………………………. 162

Rejection from Ethnic Group………………………………………….164

Silencing………………………………………………………………165

Summary of Findings…………………………………………………….165

Social Impacts……………………… ……………………………………167

Latinas…………………………………………………………………..168

Relationships……………………………………………………….....169

Career………………………………………………………………….170

European and Of Colo r………………………………………………….172

Relationships…………………………………………………………..172

Career………………………………………………………………….173

Black and Ethnic…………………………………………………………175

Relation ships…………………………………………………………..175

Career………………………………………………………………….176

Summary of Findings……………………………………………………178

Management of Multiple Identities…………………..………………….179

Accepting……………………………………………………………..179

Shifting……………………………………………………………….180

Resisting………………………………………………………………182

VIII. CHAPTER EIGHT: CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS FOR

SOCIAL WORK PRACTICE…………………………………………….184

Implications………………………………………………………………188

Implications for Practice……………………………………………..188

Implications for P edagogy…………………………………………...189

Appendix

Study Questionnaire…………………………………………………..192

Flyer…………………………………………………………………..197

Bibliography............................................. ..................................................198

Autobiographical Statement.………………………………………….….210

xii

LISTS OF TABLES AND ILLUSTRATION

Table 1: Definitions of Ethnicity…………………………………………………..…….94

Table 2: Definitions of Ra ce………………………………………………………......…95

Table 3: Glossary of Terms: Sense of Racial and Ethnic Identity:……………………..134

Table 4: Latinas and Power of Social Constructions…………………………..……….135

Table 5: European and of Color and Power of Social Constructions… ………………..140

Table 6: Black and Ethnic and Power of Social Constructions………….……………..146

Table 7: Glossary of Terms: Impact of Social Constructions on Women’s Welfare ….151

Table 8: Latinas and Power of Social Constructions………………………….……….152

Tabl e 9: European and of Color and Power of Social Constructions………………..…156

Table 10: Black and Ethnic and Power of Social Constructions……………………….161

Table 11: Glossary of Terms: Social Impacts……………….…………….………..….168

Table 12: Latinas and Effects of S ocial Constructions……………………….………..168

Table 13: European and of Color and Effects of Social Constructions………………..172

Table 14: Black and Ethnic and Effects of Social Constructions……………………...175

xiii

ILLUSTRATION

Illustration: Freedoms and Constraints…………………………………………………186

Social Construction 1

CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION

Statement of Research

Within the United States, the construction of identification for women of color from mixed ancestry is a complex and fluid process. These women are the offspring of parents from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds. As a result, their identities—both internally and externally constructed—belie traditional racial and ethnic categories. The resulting complexity stems from their multifaceted heritage, from their exposure to diverse values, roles, norms, behaviors, and languages and from living in a White dominated society that makes race the dominant marker of identity and where White is associated with power and privilege and color carries stigma. The combination of these realities complicates the women’s identity development (and the development of racial and ethnic consciousness) in ways not faced by mono-racial or mono-ethnic individuals. Women of color from mixed heritage face unique struggles. On the one hand, United States society typically assigns monolithic identifications to individuals and groups primarily based on their race, which is based on physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, and body shape. In contrast, ethnicity, which refers to shared religion, language, food, geographic origin and ancestry or other social characteristics, is less detectable and more likely to be ignored, overlooked, misread or silenced. Undeniably, women of color of mixed ancestry are pressed to adopt a single and predetermined racial or ethnic label, (Root, 1992, 1998, 2000; Omi & Winant, 1994; Wallace, 2001; Brunsma & Rockquemore, 2002, 2001). Racial and ethnic identifications can intersect or diverge, however, when it comes to labeling women of color of mixed heritage, race trumps ethnic identity. In effect,

Social Construction 2

women are constrained by the social constructions designed by those in power. For example, a woman with dark skin and curly hair may self-identify ethnically as Jamaican and racially as Black, but because of her physical features most people see her simply as African American. In another example, a woman with similar physical features may self- identify ethnically as Puerto Rican and racially as mixed race, yet wider social would label her African American based on her physical features. This attribution becomes problematic not only because it is inaccurate, but also because in American society, Blackness is associated with deeply held beliefs of stigma and inferiority while in contrast, Whiteness represents power and privilege (Aspen Institute, 2004).Although legally sanctioned forms of racism no longer exist, its historical legacy and the resultant racial inequities remain embedded in the nation’s political, economic and socio-cultural institutions. This “structural racism” (Aspen, 2004) disturbs the construction of identity for women of color from mixed ancestry because they must contend with the negative meanings associated with the notion of race. They regularly run into demonizing stereotypes and other mischaracterizations based on racial and/or ethnic traits that continue to permeate the entire social order and act to justify both social exclusion and the unequal treatment of women of color. In the final analysis, this study regards race and ethnicity as social constructions, defined by human beings and given meaning in the context of family, community, and society (Root, 1992, 1998, 2000; Omi & Winant, 1994; Wallace, 2001; Brunsma & Rockquemore, 2002, 2001).

Social Construction 3

CHAPTER TWO: THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

This research explores the social construction of identity among women of color with mixed heritages. This chapter presents the literature on the theories used to study identity formation as they bear on the formation of racial and ethnic identity and racial and ethnic identification. After reviewing and critiquing traditional psychological theories of identify formation, it turns to the ecological approach and multidimensional models of racial and ethnic development that help to operationalize the concept of social construction. Even here, while theories of racial and ethnic identity formation for women of color exist, few discuss the experience of women of color with mixed ancestry. Therefore, the chapter concludes with a discussion on the theory of social construction in relation to the study of the racial and ethnic identity and identification of women of color from mixed ancestry. In the end this research applies the ecological approach and existing multidimensional theories of racial and ethnic identity formation to the experience of women of color from mixed ancestry.

Traditional Psychological Theories The study of identity formation in the United States is commonly attributed to the developmental psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1963). The foundational work on identity has roots in traditional psychology where identity is understood as a more general sense of self. Erikson defined identity formation as (1968), “a process located in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his/her communal culture” (p. 22). Inherent in this definition is the acknowledgement that the process of identity formation involves both the

Social Construction 4

individual and his or her membership in a cultural group and in society. Yet, this framework focuses exclusively on developmental issues and rarely acknowledges the many life changes and experiences that shape one’s identity and identification (Reynolds & Pope, 1991). Erikson (1963) studied identity development through eight developmental stages beginning at birth and continuing through adulthood. Each stage consists of a process of exploration and commitment to important parts of identity with the critical developmental task faced during adolescence. Central to the Eriksonian model is the resolution of a psychosocial crisis during the adolescent stage of development. According to this theory, the resolution of crisis during the adolescent stage has positive psychological outcomes and is key to a sound ego in adulthood. Erikson’s (1963) theory of identity development may serve as a reference point, but the limitations in this theory are particularly relevant to women of color from mixed ancestry. To begin with, the positive resolutions at each stage of development favor male socialization and virtually ignore women’s development. Studies in support of Erikson’s theory are criticized because of his over reliance on White, male and middle-class samples. Gilligan (1982) has written extensively on Erikson’s (1963) theory of life-span development as a male-oriented model that focuses on issues of separation and individuation as opposed to relationship and care that Gilligan (1982) believes are central to women’s development (Kroger, 2002).Moreover, traditional psychological theorists such as Erikson view identity as a static process, one that can be mapped and empirically measured in linear terms. Yet, racial and cultural identity is a unique and dynamic process whereby individuals are likely to re-examine their ethnicity and their race throughout their lifetime (Phinney, 1990). Root’s (1990) extensive work with multiracial

Social Construction 5

individuals serves as an example of the limitations of the traditional psychological frameworks. Qualitative studies with multiracial individuals revealed the fluidity of identity among this population depending upon their immediate surroundings, their unique history and daily experiences. Social change such as the manifestation of racism and changing environments further affects the construction of personal identification. “Any individual who witnesses the evolution of social change may also witness change in his or her own self-view” (Root, 1992, p. 33). Despite the limitations in his work, the literature states that Erikson did have an awareness of the role of culture in identity. McGoldrick (1982) notes that Erikson’s description of the final stage of human development included the process of coming to terms with cultural identity: “for only an identity safely anchored in the ‘patrimony’ of a cultural identity can produce a workable psychological equilibrium” (p. 412). However, this theoretical model of identity development is limiting and inadequate to describe racial and ethnic identity development. For individuals of mixed heritage, the construction of a personal identity falls outside of the traditional identity discourses and roadmaps. As stated by Root (1998), “identity development, validation, and transformation are contextually informed by people in situations within which they interpret their interpersonal transactions through political, gendered, and class positions within the region’s history of race relations” (p. 240). Traditional Theories of Racial Identity The conception and construction of race on the macro level has implications for racial identification on the micro level. The traditional theories from developmental and counseling psychology on racial identity (such as William Cross’ Nigrescence models)

Social Construction 6

refer to racial identity as a collective identity in combination with the individual’s perception of the commonalities he or she shares with a particular group based on a common heritage (Helms, 1990) . Black racial identity is conceptualized in the psychology literature as the process of accepting and affirming Black identity in an American context (Vandiver, 2001). Therefore, the achievement of such identity is in accordance with one’s ascribed group membership. William E. Cross Jr. (1971) formulated the original Nigrescence theory of racial identity development during the Civil Rights movement. This social movement contributed to the creation of a collective identity among Black Americans. Nigrescence is the French term for turning Black, reflecting the model’s description as the psychological process of an American individual moving from a place of Black self- hatred to Black self-acceptance (Vandiver, 2001). The Cross (1971) model on Black racial identity development is cited as one of the first models of ethnic identity and has played a major role in the conceptualization of African Americans’ racial identity (Worrell, Cross, & Vandiver, 2001). The literature and subsequent research supports that Cross’ (1991) nigrescence model is straightforward, easy to understand, and, as a result, has face validity (Vandiver, 2001). Yet, similar to traditional theorists, Cross (1971) used a conventional linear theory to study racial identity development and assumed racial identity was a universal process among African Americans. Helms (1990) explains that this model assumes that one’s Black racial identity develops regardless of one’s ethnicity. “One’s ostensible ‘Africanness’” Helms (1990) adds, “is also assumed to account for one’s psychosocial development regardless of ethnicity” (p. 4). Cross revised the original theory in 1991 in an effort to include a multiple identity cluster at each stage of identity

Social Construction 7

development (Worrell, Cross, & Vandiver, 2001). This model was further expanded in 2000. The revised models allow for the diversity of internalized identities beyond race. However, this latter model still falls short of addressing the unique experiences and voices of racially identified ethnicities of color. Traditional Theories of Ethnic Identity Ethnic identity is a component of the more general definition of identity formation as described by Erikson (1968). The definitions of ethnicity vary throughout the literature (Phinney, 1990). Broadly defined within the psychological literature, ethnicity is most often used synonymously with culture. Transmitted over generations by family and reinforced by the surrounding community, ethnicity can influence how a person acts, behaves, and what he or she believes. Researchers cite psychologist Jean Phinney’s conceptualization of ethnic identity as the most widely used definition (Trimble & Dickson, 2005). Phinney (1990) defines ethnic identity as a dynamic and multidimensional construct that refers to one’s sense of self as a member of an ethnic group. She includes self-identification, subjective feelings of ethnic belonging, and positive and negative feelings towards one’s ethnic grouping in this definition (Phinney & Alipuria, 1996; Phinney, 1990). The psychological literature often merges race and ethnicity into a single category. For example, Phinney (1996) describes ethnicity as “broad groupings of Americans on the basis of both race and culture of origin” (Phinney, 1996, p. 919). However, race and ethnicity are fundamentally distinct because race varies among ethnic groups. In addition, the differences in race among ethnic groups impact group

Social Construction 8

membership. One may identify with an ethnic group but may not be wholly accepted or recognized as a member due to their perceived race (Wallace, 2001). In reviewed articles on ethnic identity formation published in English since 1972 (books, chapters dissertations or unpublished works were excluded from the review), Phinney (1990) found seventy empirical articles that focused on ethnic identity in adolescents or adults. Although the articles varied in terms of the meaning, the measurement, and the study of ethnic identity, they all focused just on ethnic identity among “minority” or non-dominant group members. European ethnic identity was included in this group. The majority of these studies focused on ethnic identity development among White ethnic groups, specifically Jewish Americans, then Black Americans, with less research on Hispanics, Asian Americans, and American Indians. Findings from Phinney’s (1990) extensive review of literature revealed several gaps and limitations in the existing research on racial and ethnic identity. For one, the research on the heterogeneity within the Black population is generally neglected in the study of ethnic identity (Phinney, personal communication, March 16, 2006). Second, definitions of ethnic identity vary widely throughout the research such that a universal definition does not appear to exist indicating confusion or disagreement about this topic. Third, approximately half of the studies in Phinney’s (1990) reviewed research did not assess ethnic self-identification. In some studies the researchers knew the ethnicity of the participants, while in other studies the researcher identified the participants as members of a group. None of the studies with Black participants asked for a self-identification. Furthermore, Phinney’s (1990) research indicates that participants in these studies reported that a single label inaccurately described one’s ethnic identity and was

Social Construction 9

particularly problematic for individuals from multiethnic and multiracial backgrounds. Finally, Phinney (1990) suggests that ethnic self-identification is an important aspect of ethnic identity—one that would be best assessed with open-ended questions. For example, Wallace’s (2001) study of mixed-heritage high school and college students from diverse backgrounds captures the complexity of racial and ethnic identification by allowing participants to self-identify. In Wallace’s (2001) study, racial and ethnic identification was collected by a survey featuring racial categories with multiple ethnic subcategories as well as open-ended spaces for providing specific information about ethnic heritage (Wallace, 2001). If students were unable to locate their racial and/or ethnic identities in the predetermined boxes, they also had the option to self-identify, removing the pressure to adopt a single and predetermined racial and ethnic label and giving them the agency to express their multiple heritages. The psychological literature on ethnic identity also fails to address the existing intersectionality of gender and ethnicity in identity formation. A few researchers, such as Chae (2001/2002), Frankenberg (1993) and Phinney (1990), report significant differences between male and female identity development among racial and ethnic groups (Chae, 2001/2002; Phinney, 1990), but on the whole the discussion is very limited. As Frable (1997) adds, however, that gender identity research tends to exclude mixed-heritage individuals. Chae’s (2001/2002) general review of literature integrating gender, ethnicity, and identity formation offers a more holistic view of identity formation. Chae’s (2001/2002) literature review highlights the effects of gender socialization and gender role expectations on male and female ethnic identity formation. According to this compiled research, women are more likely to develop strong ties to ethnic heritage and

Social Construction 10

tradition compared to males. Yet, as noted by Chae (2001/2002), the socialization process for males and females is different according to the ethnic groups. The socialization practices of specific ethnic groups were not included in this literature review because of the limited studies that focus on socialization and identity. Finally, Chae’s (2001/2002) reviewed research found that, regardless of gender, the context of the environment influences identity development among ethnic minorities. The traditional psychological literature also highlights the complex relationship between ethnic identity and psychological adjustment. Developmental ethnic identity models explore the extent to which an individual has “achieved” a secure sense of ethnic identity throughout their life in a process of exploration and commitment to various stages of development (Phinney, 1990; Marcia, 1980). Studies derived from developmental models support the prediction that higher self-esteem is found in individuals with achieved ethnic identity (Phinney, 1990). Although psychologists such as Phinney do not set standards for the level of ethnic involvement that is needed for a person to achieve ethnic identity, they seem to assume that individual reach a universal resting place where identity is fixed and stable. While Phinney (1990) states that each ethnic group has its own distinct history, tradition, and values, she addresses that such variations further complicate the difficulty in both assessing and measuring ethnic identity.

Critique of Traditional Psychological Theories

To summarize, the traditional psychological models of identity formation are problematic for understanding identity construction among women of color from mixed

Social Construction 11

ancestry in three distinct ways: identity is viewed as a linear process, the Western emphasis on achievement of a singular racial or ethnic identity, and the limited research on the absence of gender as an additional sociocultural construct impacting the process of identity development. First, identity is a fluid process. As discussed, identity can change over a lifetime in a way that is not reflective of a stage process (Root, 1990). Yet within the traditional psychological identity models, fluidity in terms of identity is viewed as pathology rather than a sign of vitality (Wallace, 2004). Second, women of color from mixed heritage are faced with a multiplicity of identities and may seek simultaneous group membership from more than one reference group. According to Wallace (2004), this notion of achieved identity is an example of traditional Western achievement-oriented ethnic and racial models where an individual is labeled “at-risk” or considered to be “unhealthy” by failing to identify with, and settle on, a single socially constructed identification. Traditional models of identity formation contribute to women’s pressure to adopt a single and predetermined racial or ethnic label and add to the mischaracterizations that women of color from mixed ancestry regularly run into because they do not fit into the conventional racial and/or ethnic categories. Finally, the traditional psychological theories neglect the intersectionality of gender and racial and ethnic identity among this population. Women of color live racially structured lives that impact identity formation in ways not faced by males of color or their White peers (Frankenberg, 1993). These three critiques support the move toward the theory of social construction in relation to the study of women of color from mixed ancestry.

Social Construction 12

The Social Construction of Identity The psychological theories that comprise the majority of the studies on ethnic and racial identity formation alone fail to capture the holistic process of racial and ethnic identification of women of color from mixed heritages. Social constructionism may provide a better theoretical fit for several reasons, as this theory is better able to capture the complexity and inherent tensions involved in the construction of identity for this population. Within this study social constructionism, specifically the social construction of race and ethnicity, is analyzed as both a positive and negative force in identity construction. Deconstructing the theory as it relates to identity formation allows the reader to understand the meaning of both the psychological freedoms and sociological constraints faced by women of color from mixed ancestry. Psychological Freedoms Social Constructionism highlights the fluidity and dynamism of identity formation within specific social contexts. For women of color from mixed ancestry, identification takes place in the context of society through interpersonal relationships while constantly undergoing reconstruction and redefinition. This means that the racial and ethnic categories people use to identify themselves and others are continually created, inhabited and transformed throughout a person’s life course depending on their history and daily experiences. In other words, identity and identification is a social and interactional process. More so, at different times and in different contexts, certain aspects of identity are more relevant than others (Dein, 2006). For example, in a pilot study Root (2000) asked participants what aspects of identity are important to them in the contexts of home, work, school, with friends, in the community, and in a community in which no one

Social Construction 13

knows them. Root (2000) found that the salient aspects of identity changed depending on the contextual environment. Rockquemore and Brunsma (2002) refer to this type of identity as a “protean identity,” meaning that individuals exercise fluidity in their identity depending on the context of a particular interaction. Landale and Oropesa (2002), note that ethnic and racial identities for Latinos are also subject to change when individuals relocate. “In particular, migrants often encounter different definitions of their racial identities in origin and destination locales” (Landale & Oropesa, 2002, p.234). Furthermore, social constructionism considers the non-singular nature of identity construction by acknowledging the multiplicity of identifications that women may adopt beyond the conventional racial and ethnic categories. In other words, social constructionism creates the space for the opportunity for a fluid personal identification as individuals are able to choose one identity in lieu of another as needed or as desired. Sociological Constraints At the same time, racial and ethnic identifications are constructed by those in power. Historically, racial categories have been limited to White, Black, Hispanic and Asian. For example, Americans of Caribbean ancestry are often ascribed a single identity—Black—which conflates race and ethnicity (Nagel, 1994). Black is typically used as a “catch-all” designation for people of color when, in fact, Black people do not always share group membership with others of similar skin color. As Hadden (2002) suggests in her research on HIV prevention with Black immigrants, “HIV prevention strategies need to be cognizant of the fact that Blacks are not a homogenous population with a single culture and ignore historic and contemporary differences within the group” (p.78). In Root’s (1992) book, Racially Mixed People in America, Michael Thornton

Full document contains 225 pages
Abstract: In the context of the 21st century, when an increasing number of people cannot be classified by an archaic system based on race, an awareness of the complexities of ethnic and racial identity is more important than ever. This study assists in the development of a critical understanding of the complexity of racial and ethnic identity by exploring the construction of racial and ethnic identity among women of color from mixed ancestry. These women are the offspring of parents from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds. As a result, their identities--both internally and externally constructed--belie traditional racial and ethnic categories. This population faces unique struggles, as identified in the empirical literature and supported by the data analysis. Women of color from mixed heritages: have been assigned monolithic labels based primarily on their physical appearance; may feel pressured to adopt a single and predetermined ethnic or racial label; and are often researched as one ethnic or racial group. Furthermore, scholars agree that institutional racism has been a constricting force in the construction of identity and identification for ethnic groups of color in the United States. This study is important because women of color are not always comfortable with the ascribed identity, particularly when it is based on faulty characterizations and when their ethnicity is overlooked. Additionally, this study brings insight to the psychological and social impact of socially constructed identifications. This study regards race and ethnicity as social constructions, defined by human beings and given meaning in the context of family, community, and society. As such, women of color from mixed ancestry find themselves in the middle of the psychological freedoms and sociological constraints of identity construction within the dominant society. As a result, they develop management techniques for integrating components of self and for managing the freedoms and constraints in social constructions of race and ethnicity. This is a subject of pivotal importance to multiple fields of inquiry as well as one having significant educational, clinical, and programmatic implications. Among the implications for social work practice and pedagogy are the need for critical reflection, increased awareness, and cultural diversity.