Adolescent Identities and Our Biases

All of us hold social identities. Some examples are race, ethnicitygenderidentity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, and documentation status.

Identities can be a source of strength and connectedness. They can also be a source of discrimination and bias. The truth is that humans start to perceive identities at a very young age. Some research demonstrates that even very young children arrive at their first day of school with preconceived biases related to race, age, ability, and gender. These biases often have a deleterious effect on the mental health of individuals from marginalized groups. 

We are categorized across our social identities in all types of situations: from going to the corner deli, riding the subway, driving in our own car, at work, school, and play. In these settings, others are assessing our identities and making interpretations about what they believe those identities mean about us or groups we belong to. 

In the name of understanding the nature of individual and group bias, there are two types of bias to learn about. 

Explicit Bias: When we are aware of our biases, they are considered explicit. Explicit bias is seen when we react outwardly to people or groups based on an identity they hold. We may have learned these biases directly from family, peers, or through media depictions. Alternately, we may have developed these biases because of an experience we can pinpoint. No matter where they stem from, explicit biases are known to us.

Implicit Bias: Implicit biases are biases we are not aware that we hold. Because they lie outside of our consciousness, no amount of introspection will help us to identify them. Rather, it takes special tools to measure these biases. As implicit biases are just as powerful in influencing our behaviors thoughts and feelings, they are just as essential to identify. 

If you have never tried to understand the implicit biases you hold, a good place to start is the Project Implicit site where you can use their online tool to measure implicit biases you hold. If you want to read about the study of bias, the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Perception Institute provide excellent resources about bias and how science has come to understand it.

Of course, this all relates back to affirming adolescent's identities. As adolescents mature they become increasingly aware of their own identities, and the biases held against them. Therefore, adolescents often benefit from added support in the discovery and affirmation of their identities. 

Bias in any form may feel uncomfortable to acknowledge. We may wish that we were not biased, and we may be saddened to recognize that our adolescents and their peers experience bias against their identities. In order to provide the support adolescents need, you may have to first challenge yourself to do the hard work of confronting your own biases. 

I'm curious, are there instances in which your adolescent has helped you to become more aware of your biases? Have you tried taking the Implicit Apperception Tests and had to confront your feelings about the results? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below. 



Brown, C. S., Alabi, B. O., Huynh, V. W., & Masten, C. L. (2011). Ethnicity and gender in late childhood and early adolescence: Group identity and awareness of bias. Developmental Psychology, 47(2), 463-471.

Bigler, R. S., & Wright, Y. F. (2014). Reading, writing, arithmetic, and racism? Risks and benefits to teaching children about intergroup biases. Child Development Perspectives, 8(1), 18-23.

Rivas-Drake, D., Seaton, E. K., Markstrom, C., Quintana, S., Syed, M., Lee, R. M., Schwartz, S. J., Umaña-Taylor, A. J., French, S., Yip, T. and Ethnic and Racial Identity in the 21st Century Study Group (2014), Ethnic and Racial Identity in Adolescence: Implications for Psychosocial, Academic, and Health Outcomes. Child Dev, 85: 40–57. doi:10.1111/cdev.12200