Last updated June 16, 2015
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Multicultural Perspectives on Race, Ethnicity, and Identity

The authors take as their premise a shared belief that in the context of a pluralistic society, the values, mores, and status of the group or groups with which we each identify have a profound effect on how we view ourselves and on how we view and interact with others. The book provides an opportunity to delve into the historical contexts and processes that have shaped each of us while navigating the sea of change that will define our future. It urges us to seek the common humanity in those very different from ourselves.

Multicultural Perspectives on Race, Ethnicity, and Identity is a multicultural conversation intended for all those who wish to explore the impact of race, ethnicity, and sense of self on the development of individual and group identity in the increasingly diverse society of the United States in the 21st century. This volume expands on an earlier version, published by the National MultiCultural Institute, titled Race, Ethnicity, and Self: Identity in Multicultural Perspective, which was first published in 1994, with a second edition in 2003.

In any book about multiculturalism, there could be dozens of chapters representing different identity groups and many more perspectives addressing any one group. We have chosen to focus here on issues related to race and ethnicity. Multiculturalism is also a broader concept that includes differences such as gender, age, religion, class, sexual orientation, and variations in abilities. It includes different perspectives, worldviews, values, belief systems, and social and economic conditions, often intersecting between and across these differences.

Rapidly changing demographics and transformational social change continue to reshape the racial and ethnic composition of the United States. In some ways, these changes have challenged traditional definitions of race and ethnicity, expanding them to include our ever increasing diversity. In other ways, they have tested the boundaries of our understanding of identity itself.

There is, of course, great diversity within each racial or ethnic group even within the context of the United States; and as the meaning of family and community evolve and expand to reflect the depth and complexity of our interconnectedness, in our homes, in our neighborhoods and cities, and around the world, so too will our definition of ourselves. While acknowledging the multiplicity of this diversity, these chapters underscore the belief that certain experiences or cultural traits are shared by members of particular identity groups and play a role in identity development.

The key terms in this book—race, ethnicity, and identity—are defined differently by different authors. Because these definitions are still evolving and reflect ongoing changes in our society, each chapter establishes its own vocabulary, as well as its own perspective. We believe that the differences presented here will contribute to, rather than detract from, the conversation.

Historically, race has been defined as a biological classification of human features and characteristics. In the context of the United States, race has also been recognized as a social construct, a concept of complex and inconstant meaning, influenced by social conflict and political struggle. Race is often also used to differentiate among human beings in social structure and cultural representation and can lead to distortions in self-image and perception of and by others.

Ethnicity generally describes a group’s sense of possessing a shared identity informed by a common language, culture, or religion. Racial and ethnic identities often overlap. One person may be Caucasian by race and Anglo-Saxon or Jewish by ethnic group; another may be Latino by ethnic and linguistic group but of African, Caucasian, or Native American racial heritage. As with race, our ethnicity plays a major role in how we are viewed by others, in who we believe we are, and in who we may or may not want to be.

Identity development is a process through which we create a sense of self influenced by history, community, family, and personal characteristics. In the context of the United States, autonomy is one way identity is expressed. In many cultures around the world, however, less emphasis is placed on individual autonomy, and the development process engenders the creation of a “familial” self that reflects an interdependency among family or cultural group members. Whether individual or familial, our perceptions of ourselves are undoubtedly influenced by our interactions with and relationships to one another.

As in many other parts of the world, the United States is undergoing substantial transformation. Increasing immigration, population growth among racial and ethnic minority groups, intermarriage and intermingling across cultures, and technological advances that bring us closer together despite distance and difference all serve to advance the reality of an increasingly multicultural society. These trends continue to challenge and to inevitably shift what have been the dominant social norms and structures, with the creation of new and different ways to understand ourselves and one another. Recognizing our unique identities and the ways in which the world around us forms and shapes these identities remains a fundamental step toward knowing and respecting one another.

Elizabeth Pathy Salett

Diane R Koslow