Factors Contributing to Cultural Identity


Cultural identity is assumed to be multidimensional and multifaceted due to cultural diversity and globalization. The concept of cultural identity is relational and constantly evolving. However, it can also be ambiguous, fragmented, paradoxical, and problematic. In resolving these challenges, immigrants undergo self and cultural identity transformation in order to achieve understanding, harmony, and balance within themselves, their environment, and their connection with others .

It is necessary to address the definition of culture before discussing cultural identity. Nieto states that culture consists of an ever-changing system of values, traditions, social and political relationships, and world views created and shared by a group of people bound together by a combination of factors that can include shared history, geographic location, language, social class, and/or religion, and how these are transformed by those who share them. In everyday social situations, we use culture to express and give meaning to our identity, which in turn is used to construct affiliations with and boundaries between other individuals and groups .

Many historians provided different definitions of cultural identity; some important definitions are given here: According to Lustig and Koester, cultural identity is a “sense of belonging to a particular culture or ethnic group. It is formed in a process that results from membership in a particular culture, and it involves learning about and accepting the traditions, heritage, language, religion, ancestry, aesthetics, thinking, patterns, and social structures of culture” . Stuart Hall gave two different ways of thinking about ‘cultural identity’: the first in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’, hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves’, which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common. Cultural identity, in the second sense, is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. However, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essential past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power .

Culture and cultural identity in the study of intercultural relations have become umbrella terms that subsume racial and ethnic identity. This means both racial identity and ethnic identity lead to the development of the concept of cultural identity. However, these terms have different meanings. For example, race is a classification of the humans, usually by genetic similarities passed hereditarily. Ethnicity has a range of distinctive features, passed by socialization from one generation to another. There are never clear boundaries, cultural or geographic, that mark the limits of ethnic groups, but a group usually shares common culture, language, religion, and behaviors . In this paper, the term ethnic identity is more often synonymously used to refer to cultural identity.

However, as I discussed in the previous chapter acculturation is different from ethnic identity. These two are related but separate constructs. Acculturation refers to how ethnic minority individuals adapt to the dominant culture and the changes in their beliefs, values, and behavior that result from contact with the new culture and its members. By contrast, ethnic identity involves an individual’s self-identification as a group member, a sense of belonging to an ethnic group, attitudes toward ethnic group membership, and degree of ethnic group affiliation or involvement .

For Asian Indians, family is the main element which influences the development of cultural identity. Mainly the parents transmit ethnic identity to their children using a process of enculturation or ethnic socialization. Parents directly and indirectly model and reinforce ethnic behaviors to their children about the traditions, beliefs, and values associated with their cultural background . Children are socialized to be obedient, and are expected to bring honor to their families by exhibiting good behavior, maintaining high academic achievement, and contributing to the well-being of the family. Furthermore, because Indian self-identity is defined by the family and is established by a surname that affiliates individuals to a religion, social class, language, and a state in India, second-generation immigrants face an added challenge of creating a sense of self based on conflicting cultural allegiances. Therefore, the process of adolescent self identification may involve a refusal to accept the choice of being either American or Asian Indian and an attempt to create a new self-definition by finding out how to be an Asian Indian on one’s own terms rather than on the parents’ mode of acculturation or preferred ethnic identity . A second important difference between the parents and children is that the phenomenon of adolescence, as it is broadly conceptualized in Western society, rarely exists among traditional Asian Indian families. Although all Asian Indian cultural communities have rites of passage associated with the onset of biological puberty, there is no corresponding change in adolescents’ roles, status, responsibilities, or autonomy in decision-making . Thus, given the differences between the belief systems of Western and Indian societies and the fact that most immigrant parents expect their children to maintain the traditional values and lifestyles of Indian culture, misunderstanding, miscommunication, and conflict are likely to occur in Asian Indian families .

The common pattern for first-generation Asian Indians is to affirm their ethnicity, generally by “reinventing” Asian Indian culture on foreign soil (Dasgupta, 1998, p. 965-966). Often, Asian Indian immigrants are more “Indian” than the people they left behind, and they may retain a sense of a culture that no longer exists on the Indian continent. Despite the influence of social class and generation on their cultural identity and world view, many maintain a traditional value system many years after immigration . However second-generation Indian Americans, who do not maintain the traditional value system of their parents, understand the influence of their new culture also affects their ethnic identity development.

Uba noted that there are three aspects of Asian American ethnic identity that can be distinguished. These aspects are 1) consciousness of ethnicity, 2) adoption of an ethnic identity; and 3) application of that ethnic identity. Some Asian Americans will strongly identify with many aspects of Asian American ethnicity, but some will only acknowledge that they belong to an Asian American ethnic group. Furthermore, they may deny that they have anything in common with members of their ethnic group . Some may identify with their ethnic group to the extent of knowing the history of the ethnic group and still see the ethnic group as irrelevant today, and some others may identify socially with the ethnic group but have no knowledge of its history .

Formation and Development of Cultural Identity

The process of identity formation has received much attention in literature. Many models have been proposed to explain the process of identity formation in various ethnic and cultural minority groups. A common feature of these models is that identity formation of ethnic and cultural minorities in the United States occurs in the context of the dominant culture.

Phinney maintained that the process of identity formation does not proceed in a linear direction. He proposed a bi-directional model based on an ethnic person’s affiliation with his or her ethnic group and his or her acculturation in the mainstream White culture. This model allows an ethnic person four possibilities: a) a strong bicultural identity, b) a strong ethnic identity but a weak identification with mainstream culture, c) a weak ethnic identity but a strong identification with mainstream culture, and d) a weak identification with both cultures. Most educated South Asian immigrants probably fall in category a) with a relatively small number in b) and c), and only a few in category d) . Nieto states individuals growing up in a multicultural environment may develop multicultural and hybrid identities. That is, race, ethnicity, gender, social class, ability, national origin, religion, and other differences combine to influence who immigrants are and how they identify themselves. Immigrants identify in multiple ways, based on such factors as family structure, race, sexual orientation, and national origin. In spite of these differences, they share a need to belong and to feel free to explore who they are. According to this, identities also change in response to the sociopolitical contexts in which people live. Further, Nieto states that identities have been shaped and continue to be influenced by the people with whom one interacts and the material and social conditions of one’s lives .

This is, in fact, what Lessinger found in her study, which indicates that people have developed what she calls a “transnational identity” . Another influence on identity formation that is important to consider is the identity that the dominant White society assigns to members of the visible racial and ethnic groups. The degree to which this affects individual members of a particular group varies from person to person. The whole question of ethnic identity becomes more complex. In the case of biracial children, the numbers seem to be increasing. Sodowsky et al. have identified certain cultural value variables for Asian Indian Americans to some extent. Counselors may find them useful in trying to understand the attitudes and values of South Asian clients .

Cultural identity development could involve three stages according to Phinney’s model: unexamined cultural identity, cultural identity search, and cultural identity achievement .

Unexamined cultural identity is the phase in which immigrants are not aware of ethnic, cultural, or racial differences between themselves and others. (During an unexamined cultural identity stage, immigrants do not typically examine or question their cultural, ethnic, or racial identity). Instead they tend to take their cultural values, norms, beliefs, customs, and other characteristics for granted and are not aware of ethnic, cultural, or racial differences between themselves and others. They rarely show any interest in discovering their backgrounds.

However, over time immigrants are confronted with cultural, ethnic, and racial conflict that creates difficulty and confusion in their lives. During this time, they begin their cultural identity search regarding self and others. The immigrants may experience a personal event, hear a comment made by a friend or neighbors or see a message through mass media such as television, the internet, a newspaper, a magazine, or a billboard that triggers a question about their ethnic, cultural or racial identity. They become aware of cultural, ethnic, and racial differences and begin to explore and discover aspects of identity. They may pursue social interaction with cultural and ethnic groups with which they identify, and they may participate in ethnic, cultural, social, and service organizations. In this continuous process, they also reflect and evaluate themselves, others, the world, and how they fit within the various groups. The individual’s values, morals, ethics, and beliefs are being influenced and shaped .

In extending Phinney’s second phase of cultural identity development, some immigrants experience an identity crisis during this stage. Immigrants struggling with an identity crisis often perceive themselves as belonging to a particular ethnic, cultural, and racial group, but their peers are communicating to them that they do not belong to their group because they do not have similar physical and behavioral characteristics. An immigrant as a minority in a dominant group who denies their ethnic, cultural, and racial identity is known to have an identity crisis. In addition, if the person is exposed to cultural events, activities, educational material, and friendships from the same cultural/ethnic group, this will help him or her to develop a healthy ethnic/cultural identity .

When Asian American Indian immigrants suffer a crisis, they revert to their Asian heritage and reject all mainstream and other ethnic minority assumptions and values. Sue explained about this stage that, they may seek out and set up tentative alliances with other minority groups that have been similarly oppressed. Sue further noted that these alliances can be fragile and may disappear when Asian Indian Americans have conflicts with other minorities .

The final phase is a cultural identity achievement, where individuals have developed a fairly solid grasp of their own cultural identity. They have reached a state of clarity, confidence, understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of that identity. If they are confronted with discrimination and stereotypical comments, these individuals are able to avoid internalizing the negative communications. This does not mean that negative comments by others are not hurtful to the individual, but that he or she does not question his or her cultural identity. The immigrant generation accepts cultural differences in this stage. There is no pre-encounter or conformity stage as postulated by the models of minority ethnic identity models. The acceptance of cultural differences is a reality of life for this group. In this stage, most Asian Americans are proud of their identity and do not consider it a hindrance. They have completely “bought into” the American dream that hard work will overcome all differences .

All these stages of identity formation and development differ for the first, second or third-generation of Asian Indian Americans. The cultural identity development of Asian Indian Americans depends on different elements such as gender, age, class, spiritual, national, regional, and personal identities, which will be considered in more depth below.

Elements of Cultural Identity

There are various elements of cultural identities such as race, gender, age, class, spiritual, national, regional, and personal identities. Some of these elements are discussed with respective of Asian Indian Americans.


Research on Asian Americans has assumed race as the most significant, or salient, aspect of identity. Racial identity refers to a sense of group or collective identity based on one’s perception that he or she shares a common heritage with a particular racial group . Racial identity most often categorizes individuals based on skin color. Furthermore, people tend to focus on the most visible characteristics, usually regarding race and sex. South Asians are generally regarded as part of visible racial and ethnic minorities. However, Indian immigrants come in all skin colors, from fairest to darkest, and have different facial features. Indian college students, despite their relatively higher educational and occupational status, struggle with an idea of an exclusive racial identity .


Gender identity deals with the feminine, masculine aspect of identity. Gender may be a variable in cultural identify in those cultures in which men are more likely to get jobs in the mainstream culture while the women remain at home. There may also be different cultural expectations for men and women, such as the assumption that women are the carriers of ethnic traditions. The very little research that addresses this issue suggests a greater involvement in ethnicity by women than by men. Gender roles are clearly demarcated in Asian Indian American cultures. Obviously, the migrating generation would be most rigid in its definition of gender roles . According to Indian culture, men and women would be strictly bound by the demands of their ethnic culture and their host culture. For instance, men manage business outside the home, while women manage the home. This practice is more widespread in India; to a certain degree it reflects attitudes in the United States as well, though this custom has slowly been losing its appeal. The role of men and women among Asian Indian Americans varies with generational and educational level, as well as with social class, and economic stability. Men experience a great deal of stress in regard to their role, especially in cross cultural contexts. As immigrants, their family expects them to display their authority in order to make clear to other cultural groups that they are in control of their family. Also, men make the final decision on major topics such as career and property matters, however, women participate in the decision making process, only through private conversations with their husbands. Accordingly, this separation of gender roles also creates a considerable social segregation between the two genders . This however does not mean that the men were able to make decisions without regard for the opinions of others. In actuality, the power and control in the family reside with the oldest person, regardless of gender, and even when the oldest person in the family is far away .

Woollett et al. noted that among Asian Indian women, the social construction of gender and ethnicity is fluid and changing, based on the maternal status of the woman. They also state that ethnicity and ethnic identity are not homogenous categories, but operate across gender. The experience of marginality, and being on the “outside” of the host culture, creates stronger bonds within a family and less rigid gender identification and boundaries .


Age is the dimension where interactants may identify themselves as young, middle-aged, and old based on actual age, appearance, and how they feel. Parents are to be honored and revered. It is assumed that the older a person gets, the more maturity and knowledge he or she has. Older people are respected for these attributes. Families go to elders to resolve familial conflicts. They also turn to older family members for advice and support when they are in a crisis or when relationships are disrupted in social or work relationships .

Children of South Asian immigrants are socialized into two cultures, the culture of the family and the culture of the larger American society. Most parents try to inculcate ethnic pride and awareness of their cultural heritage in their children. For young school-age children, this sometimes poses a problem. They stand out because of their physical appearance and for that reason are often teased or rejected by other children. Most young children lack the inner resources to deal with such hostility and to base their self-esteem on their ethnic heritage. They want to be like everyone else so they can fit in with the crowd and shed any cultural trait that sets them apart.

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