New Study Shows How Immigrants Cope with Identity-Threatening Contexts

Summary of:

Taknint, Taos Joelle  Discrimination, Identity, and Psychological Distress: An Investigation of Adult Immigrants’ Social Identity Management in Identity Threatening Contexts”. University of Victoria 2020

Background & Theory

In the current era where identity threats are heightened due to the rise in right-wing nationalism in the global west (e.g., National Front in France, Alt-Right in the U.S.), understanding how immigrants protect their sense of self when faced with discrimination is now more important than ever. Rooted in adult identity development and social identity theories, this research investigates the experiences of racism, ethnic and national identity, and psychological distress amongst immigrant adults (ages 40-64) in Canada. The questions in the study were investigated within a particular developmental context the understudied period of middle adulthood.

Research Question(s)

  1. What is the role of ethnic identity and experiences of discrimination in predicting psychological distress?
  2. What is the role of ethnic and national identity in predicting the usage of social identity management strategies?
  3. How are social identities managed when under threat (within the context of discrimination)?

Methods

A mixed methodological approach was used to quantitatively investigate the links among discrimination, ethnic identity, and psychological distress as well as the links between social identity and identity management strategies. Open-ended questions and thematic analysis were used to identify the ways in which discrimination affects participants’ sense of belonging and connection to their ethnic group and Canadian society.

Results

Ethnic identity affirmation was the most consistent protective factor against psychological distress across the analyses in the first research question. Participants were typically quite high in their levels of ethnic and national identity affirmation and exploration. Equally, most had high levels of integrated dual identity and low levels of conflicted dual identity, which is a positive thing.

Further, both ethnic identity affirmation and the understudied construct of national identity affirmation were linked with the selection of adaptive social identity management strategies (i.e., less endorsement of individual mobility, stronger dual identity) in the second research question.

As for the third question, social identities are managed under threat of discrimination via the following coping mechanisms: proving oneself as a valid member of the national group, proving their ethnic group’s worth, maintaining status in both social groups, and avoiding group categorization.

Shared by both biculturalism and social identity management perspectives is the strategy of individual mobility, physically or psychologically leaving a group when an aspect of one’s identity is under threat. This one is specifically important to the workplace context as it suggests that employees move on from an organization where they feel that their ethnic identity is under threat.

How This Translates for the Workplace:

The study was done on generally middle class, well-established, highly educated adult immigrants, who are an active part of the workforce. Therefore, it provides an accurate representative sample of an average company’s racially diverse employees. Its findings are also generalizable since the sample consisted of multiple ethnic groups and not one specific group. It concludes with emphasizing on how leaders, families, and community members can all play a role in supporting identity affirmation within their respective contexts.

  • The importance of Diversity Training: We live in a globalized world where the chances of an organization having employees from multiple ethnicities are very high. The results of this study indicate that despite the overall low levels of discrimination experienced within this largely middle class and highly educated sample, discrimination’s association with psychological distress is both real and harmful. Thus, continued efforts to combat discrimination at the interpersonal, institutional, community, and national levels are needed. Although most people may agree that discrimination is an ongoing problem in society, responsibility for addressing discrimination is often diffuse. Who is responsible for addressing discrimination in each context? Truly systemic efforts to combat discrimination necessitate both individual understanding as well as community involvement. Organizations like Pollack Peacebuilding Systems can be instrumental in delivering such diversity and inclusion training for workplaces and educational institutes.
  • Encouraging Authenticity through Multicultural Efforts and Policies: This research places a huge emphasis on ethnic identity affirmation and draws on the importance of authenticity as a positive coping mechanism for immigrants while faced with adverse racial judgments. Further, employee wellness and productivity are also boosted through authentic adjustment and expression in the organization. Hence, aside from having diversity training programs, it may also be useful to ask: does the workplace allow its employees to affirm their ethnic cultural identities? For example, do employees get additional leaves based on their respective ethnic festivals (like Diwali, Eid), or a chance to express their culture’s food, aesthetics, and music in the workplace? By reflecting on these questions, workplaces can move beyond the mechanical understanding of diversity as merely a lack of overt discrimination, into a more nuanced understanding of it, that of encouraging inclusion actively, giving immigrant employees a space and supportive environment to express their full selves that includes their ethnic culture. This also gives non-immigrant employees who haven’t been exposed to cultural diversity before a chance to understand and know the latter’s culture better, leading to better assimilation for both. It also gives the former a strong message against tolerance of any form of discrimination. People from all over the globe contribute to the success of a company, especially if it is a multinational one. Such a concern for an inclusive, thriving multicultural work environment where employee authenticity is valued can go a long way in reducing attrition and retaining the best talent, a must-have priority for stable and profitable organizations.