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I am Muslim and American; I am not a terrorist: Self-descriptions in American Muslim Adolescents

Sat, April 14, 3:45 to 5:15pm, Hilton, Third Floor, Directors Row 1


American Muslims, who are among the most ethnically diverse religious groups in the United States, face considerable discrimination and surveillance (Pew Research Center, 2015, Sirin & Fine, 2008). One important question for understanding the development of this contested minority is how American Muslim adolescents view themselves. The present study examines self-descriptions in American Muslim teenagers and in a comparison group of non-Muslim, predominantly European-American, adolescents.

Based on the ethnic identity development literature (e.g., Phinney & Ong, 2007; Tajfel & Turner, 1987), we hypothesized that Muslim adolescents would offer more complex self-descriptions than would their non-Muslim peers. We also hypothesized that ethnic, cultural, and religious categories would feature more prominently in Muslim self-descriptions than in non-Muslim self-descriptions. Finally, we hypothesized that Muslim adolescents would distinguish themselves from negative stereotypes of their group more than would majority youth.

Participants included 127 Muslim adolescents (43.2% male; mean age = 15.77 years; 82.5% from immigrant families) from DC MIST, an organization for Muslim teenagers, and 84 non-Muslim adolescents (45.2% male; mean age = 15.63 years; 86.9% European-American) from a rural high school in Pennsylvania. Participants completed the Twenty Statements Test (Kuhn & McPartland, 1954), writing up to 20 phrases each for the prompts “I am…” and “I am not…” Responses were coded for content of descriptive phrases and overall complexity of organization (inter-rater reliabilities were high for all categories). In addition, Muslim participants completed the Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI-2, Kovacs, 2011).

Muslim participants produced significantly more phrases than non-Muslims; thus analyses focused on proportions of total responses. As hypothesized, within their “I am…” descriptions, Muslim youth offered a significantly larger proportion of cultural group labels than did non-Muslim youth (ps< .001). Specifically, Muslim participants were more likely than non-Muslims to describe themselves with religious labels (69.3% vs. 4.8%), U.S. nationality (18.1% vs. 2.4%), and other nationalities (26.8% vs. 2.4%). Self-descriptions were coded for complexity based on the extent to which they included personal characteristics, group descriptors, distinctiveness from other groups, and efforts to transcend group categories (Hutnik & Street, 2010). As hypothesized, Muslim adolescents’ self-descriptions were significantly more complex than those of non-Muslims (p< .001; see Figure 1). Also as hypothesized, Muslims were significantly more likely than non-Muslims (34.1% vs. 6.0%) to state that they were not strong negative stereotypes of their group (e.g., “terrorist,” “extremist” for Muslims, “illiterate,” “uneducated” for non-Muslims; p< .001). Interestingly, Muslim participants with more complex identities reported less depression, and those who mentioned at least one strong stereotype reported less depression than those who did not (ps≤ .05).

These findings show that religion is an important part of self-conception for Muslim adolescents. Both ethnic identity and American identity are more salient for this group than for non-Muslims. In addition, Muslim youth are aware of and want to distance themselves from strong anti-Muslim stereotypes, and as is the case for other minority youth, identity is often complexly structured in this group. Moreover, complex identity and acknowledgement of stereotypes appear to be adaptive in that these are associated with lower depression.


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