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Early Discrimination Harms Native Youth

American Indian early adolescents who experienced discrimination were likely to respond with anger and delinquent behaviors, which, in turn, were strongly associated with early substance abuse. Development tasks of early adolescence may amplify the stress of discrimination. This is a time when children need to feel similar to other children. Early discrimination cruelly blocks the need for conformity and group acceptance. At this age, ethnic identities are just forming and effective coping mechanisms may not yet be in place (Phinney and Chavira,1995). Without strong defenses against discrimination, children may respond by internalizing group rejection with feelings of self- hatred, low self-worth, and depressive symptoms. Rejected early adolescents may also respond to discrimination with anger and externalizing behaviors such as delinquency and substance abuse (Williams-Morrris 1996). Whitbeck, L. B., Hoyt, D. R., McMorris, B. J., Chen, X., & Stubben, J. D. (2001a). Perceived discrimination and early substance abuse among American Indian children. Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, 42, 405–424.

The developmental risk for American Indian early adolescents may also be accentuated by cultural values of affiliation, respect, and sharing (Locust 1988). American Indian families and culture work to socialize strong norms of being part of the group, mutual acceptance, mutual respect, self-control in social situations, and responsibility to the group rather than to self. Given these values of affiliation and acceptance, rejection by peers may be especially potent for American Indian adolescents. As Locust (1988) has so poignantly put it, "Discrimination against persons because of their beliefs is the most insidious kind of injustice. Ridicule of one's spiritual beliefs or cultural teachings wounds the spirit, leaving anger and hurt that may be masked by proud silence" (P 315). For some American Indians, lashing back verbally would only add to the humiliation because they would have betrayed their social values of dignity and self-control. Perceived discrimination and early substance abuse among American Indian children. Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, 42, 405–424.

IINII uses a revolutionary Design Thinking process to help your school community gain an understanding of one’s sense of self, as well as developing an understanding of students’ and parents’ values; having an understanding of one’s values matters because research has shown that it is linked to better well-being, less stress, and increased confidence in one’s ability to succeed.

Understanding students’ values can be developed with culturally sustaining practices that reflect a student’s identity and experience. Particularly helpful is focusing efforts on cultural competence and relevance and providing opportunities for students to practice bridging differences between diverse identities in a safe environment. To learn how you can create a dynamic youth-centered environment that honors the unique values of your students and parents, visit our website at, or contact us at or 1800-507-2502.

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