Discrimination: How being rejected by one’s own ethnic group affects youth


By Joanna Lee Williams, Ph.D. Williams is Assistant Professor in Leadership, Foundations and Policy at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and affiliated with Youth-Nex. Her research interests include the role of identity processes related to race/ethnicity, resiliency, and coping in adolescent development, with a particular emphasis on perceptions of stigma and discrimination among ethnic minority youth. She recently received a Racial Discrimination and Health Award of Excellence from the National Cancer Institute for a distinguished poster presentation at the 2011 Science of Research on Discrimination and Health meeting. Her current work examines the nature and frequency of racial microaggressions and their relation to racial ethnic identity development, psychosocial functioning, and achievement outcomes among adolescents and young adults.

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A central feature of adolescence is engagement in the process of understanding oneself both in terms of personal identity (e.g., What are my goals, values, beliefs, and personal choices?  What are the continuous aspects of my personal character?) and social identity (e.g., Who am I in relation to my reference groups?  How connected am I to these groups and what do they mean for my personal identity?).  For all adolescents, a sense of belonging to a group is of paramount importance for healthy functioning, and for ethnic minority youth, identity exploration in terms of racial, ethnic, or cultural heritage is often especially salient.  So what happens when a teen is harassed, teased, or rejected based on a central aspect of their social identity like race?  Well, growing evidence shows that when kids are victimized because of social identity factors it can be more harmful than other, more general forms of victimization (Russell, Sinclear, Poteat, & Koenig, 2012).  This suggests a need for researchers to better understand how the specific content of an insult is related to youths’ well-being.

But there’s even more that we don’t really understand.  Specifically, what if the person who is doing the teasing or rejecting is someone I consider to be a member of my “in-group”?  Does this make a difference?  Evidence from social psychology research suggests “yes”.  Researchers have hypothesized that the consequences of group rejection may vary based on two key characteristics: whether the rejection comes from an in-group or an out-group member, and whether the cause of rejection is something that is stable/unchangeable (like race) or unstable/changeable (like physical appearance; Jetten, Branscombe, & Spears, 2006).  Based on these dimensions, it’s argued that you may be worse off if you’re rejected by an in-group based on a characteristic that you can’t change than if you’re rejected by an out-group for that same characteristic.  For example, a Chinese-American teen may be more negatively affected if he experiences ethnic-based harassment or rejection from other Chinese-American peers than if he is harassed by non-Chinese peers.

There are a couple of reasons why this may be the case (although I think we need to know a lot more).  First, given the salience of social identity and social group membership in adolescence, it may be particularly stressful if a youth cannot turn to other in-group members for support when they are the ones rejecting him.  Second, additional social psychology research has shown that if an in-group member is perceived as violating group norms, other in-group members may treat him especially harshly; indeed, the “deviant” may receive harsher treatment from his in-group than he might from out-group members (Hogg, Fielding, & Darley, 2005).

In addition to the centrality of identity development, there are two other factors that may be at play in adolescence that are particularly relevant to this issue.  The first is called “own-group conformity pressure”, which refers a sense of pressure to adhere to an often implicit set of rules about what it means to be a group member (e.g., “Chinese American teens in our school are supposed to act this way and not that way”; Contrada, et al., 2001).  While the actual rules may not be explicitly stated, they are likely shaped by societal stereotypes perpetuated on a regular basis by various sources (e.g., media, etc.).  Adding to this is the finding that when social content, like social group membership, is involved, adolescents tend to use stereotype-based information to inform their judgments (Albert & Steinberg, 2011).  So teens may have a tendency to defer to stereotypes when defining in-group and out-group boundaries.

In our own work we’re just starting to explore some of these issues.  We began by conducting focus group discussions with Black college students to learn more about their experiences with subtle forms of discrimination, or “racial microaggressions.”  What we found was that in addition to talking about transgressions perpetrated by out-group members, many students also talked about race-related harassment that came from same-race peers.  In most cases these incidents centered on narrow definitions of authenticity; youth were accused of not being “Black enough” by their peers based on their behavior, speech, dress, etc.  At the same time, no one could exactly say what being “Black enough” really meant or looked like, aside from a general feeling that it was grounded in stereotypes.  Importantly, those who experienced these in-group insults and rejections felt confused and hurt, and a few recounted that the experience was tremendously stressful.

While there’s a sizeable body of research demonstrating that experiences with racial or ethnic discrimination are related to negative outcomes, the field is only just beginning to consider the nuances involved.  For example recent work by Aprile Benner and Sandra Graham (2012) shows that discrimination from school staff negatively affects academic performance, while discrimination from peers is related to psychological maladjustment.  However, I don’t think we currently have a very good understanding of how kids might be differentially affected when the source of the discriminatory treatment is an in-group member, or what conditions might foster the likelihood of in-group rejection.  Given the salience of social identity and the paramount importance of group belonging in adolescence, I think it’s an area that requires further study so we have a better understanding of how to support youths’ healthy development.


Albert, D. and Steinberg, L. (2011), Judgment and Decision Making in Adolescence Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, 211–224. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00724.x

Benner, A. D., & Graham, S. (2012, October 29). The Antecedents and Consequences of Racial/Ethnic Discrimination During Adolescence: Does the Source of Discrimination Matter?. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030557

Contrada, R. J., Ashmore, R. D., Gary, M. L., Coups, E., Egeth, J. D., Sewell, A., et al., (2001).  Measures of ethnicity-related stress: Psychometric properties, ethnic group differences, and associations with well-being.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31(9), 1775-1820. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2001.tb00205.x

Hogg, M. A., Fielding, K. S., & Darley, J. (2005). Fringe dwellers: Processes of deviance and marginalization in groups. In D. Abrams, M. A. Hogg & J. M. Marques (Eds.), The social psychology of inclusion and exclusion. (pp. 191-210). New York: Psychology Press.

Jetten, J., Branscombe, N. R., & Spears, R. (2006).  Living on the edge: Dynamics of intragroup and intergroup rejection experiences.  In R. Brown and D. Capozza (Eds.), Social identities: Motivational, emotional, and cultural influences (pp. 91-107).  New York: Psychology Press.


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