Models of Racial Identity

(For Therapists)
by Jerome Rabow, Ph.D.

For many years, scholars have focused on analyzing, interpreting and producing models of identity and identity development. In the 1950s with his book Childhood and Society . Erik Erikson building on Freud’s work developed an eight stage model of identity development that covered the entire lifespan. This model became part of the education of mental health practitioners who could use it to augment their understanding of particular diagnoses of the many DSM that we have had to all learn about. His identity development stages describe the poles of each stage that a person will confront at approximate times of life. Thus the infant struggles with the pole of trust versus mistrust and the older adult facing the declining period of life confronts ego integrity or despair. While Erikson attempted to provide a more universalistic understanding of identity by overcoming the sole emphasis on sexuality that Freud’s work was centered upon, recent scholars have argued that no comprehensive analysis can be reached without attention to other identity issues. Researchers in the mental health field and in the academic sciences are now aware that identify is not only a “human” issue, that is one that ALL humans cope and deal with, but that identity is influenced by race, gender and sexual orientation. In the following brief summary of work on identity we wish to focus on race, although some of the issues can be applied directly to issues of gender and sexual orientation. The infant’s resolution of the trust/mistrust identity issue manifested itself later in life as an adult issue. Since racial identities are learned very early in life, they work as a lens for interpreting, understanding, experiencing and participating in the world as well as a way of connecting with and identifying with others. These identities can change when they are challenged by life experiences.
This suggests that any discussion of “universal” identity processes needs to be supplemented by discussions of racial identity. Race dictates how gender, sexual orientation and other aspects of identification are experienced, practiced and processed. We cannot talk about separate gender or sexual orientation models without keeping in mind that White and non-White women, for example, may differ greatly in their development and identification in the same stage of the life cycle. Having a model of racial and gender identity development for our clients allows us to be much attuned to our clients’ sense of self and provides us with a more sensitive and perceptive understanding of the way they will view us and their world. We will now summarize some of the major racial identity theorists.

Racial Identity: The Works of Helms, Hoffman, and Howard

Basic to understanding the work of these three authors are three fundamental concepts that they all use. We believe that their concepts can be applied to gender and sexual orientation as well. These three concepts are racist/sexist, non-racist/non-sexist, and anti-racist/anti-sexist.

  • Racist/sexist: To be a racist or sexist is to oppose, belittle, or denigrate members of a particular racial or ethnic group or gender in speech, action or belief.
  • Non-racist/Non-sexist: To be a non-racist or a non-sexist is to acknowledge that racism and sexism exist and occur but to not actively confront or challenge the racism or sexism that you hear about or witness. Your silence and non-action implies acceptance and allows racism and sexism to continue.
  • Anti-racist/ Anti-sexist: To be an anti-racist or anti-sexist is to oppose, confront, and challenge statements, actions, and beliefs that belittle, stereotype and demean the other.

In 1995, Janet Helms developed six stages of White racial identity development in her book A Race is a Nice Thing to Have: contact, disintegration, reintegration, pseudo-independence, immersion/emersion, and autonomy. The first three stages are described by Helms as racist and non-racist and represent a negative White racial identity. The last three represent different degrees of anti-racism and a positive and healthy White racial identity. While the stages are described as distinctive, Helms understood that stages may overlap and that a person can move back and forth between stages.

The six stages are described below:

  1. CONTACT: In the first stage of contact, the individual adheres to the “colorblind” motto. They see racial difference but do not find it salient and in fact may feel that racism is in fact propagated by the discussion and acknowledgement of race as an issue. In this stage, there is no conscious demonstration of racism here. This seemingly non-racist position can cover unconscious racist beliefs. If the individual is confronted with real-world experiences or knowledge that uncovers the privileges of White skin, they may move into the disintegration stage.
  2. DISINTEGRATION: In this stage, because the person has new experiences which confront his prior conception of the world and because this conception is now challenged by this new information or experience, the person is often plagued by feelings of guilt and shame. These emotions of guilt and shame can be modified when the person decides to channel these emotions in a positive way but when those emotions continue to dominate, the person may move into the reintegration stage.
  3. REINTEGRATION: This stage is marked by a “blame-the-victim” attitude that’s more intense than anything experienced in the contact stage. They may feel that although Whites do have privileges, it is probably because they deserve them and in are in some way superior to minority groups. If the person is able to combat these feelings, they maybe able to move on to the pseudo-independence stage
  4. PSEUDO-INDEPENDENCE: This is the first stage of positive racial identification. Although an individual in this stage does not feel that Whites deserve privilege, they look to people of color, not themselves, to confront and uncover racism. They approve of these efforts and comfort the person as these efforts validate this person’s desire to be non-racist. Although this is positive White racial identity, the person does not have a sense of how they can be both White and non-racist together.
  5. IMMERSION/EMERSION: In this stage, the person makes a genuine attempt to connect to his/her own White identity and to be anti-racist. This stage is usually accompanied by deep concern with understanding and connecting to other Whites who are or have been dealing with issues of racism.
  6. AUTONOMY: The last stage is reached when an individual has a clear understanding of and positive connection to their White racial identity while also actively pursuing social justice. Helms’ stages are as much about finding a positive racial identification with being White and becoming an active anti-racist.

Unlike Helms’ stages which outline White racial identification, John and Joy Hoffman present six stages of racial identity development with special attention to the different ways that people of color and White people move through them.

  • CONFORMITY (both): In the first stage of conformity, people of color and Whites feel that they are just “regular Americans.” Unconsciously, members of both groups strive to emulate Whiteness in actions, speech, dress, beliefs and attitudes because Whiteness is perceived as positive.
  • ACCEPTANCE (Whites): In this stage, Whites can still dismiss or diminish comments or actions that indicate that racism is alive. They express the view that that everyone has struggles and people should just accept the way things are and try to be American. They expect of color to “get over it” and go forward as Americans which really means be more like White people.
  • DISSONANCE (people of color): Dissonance for people of color occurs when they want to get along and be Americans but discover that their race or gender may preclude them from the benefits that Whites or males get. They start to feel confused about the beliefs they held about America and themselves as they begin to see that racism and sexism may be impacting them.
  • IMMERSION (people of color): These questions and disillusionment can lead to the immersion stage where women and persons of color feel angry about racism and sexism. They feel that most White people and males are racists and sexists and thus part of the problem. What might people of color do with this anger?
  • RESISTANCE (Whites): Whites move from their acceptance stage to the resistance stage where they profess that racism is a thing of the past. Whites often express their belief that there is a new racism and that is the racism that they perceive is against Whites. This is popularly referred to as “reverse racism.”
  • RETREAT (Whites): If their assumptions about people of color and their own lack of privilege are proven false, they may enter the retreat stage. They may feel guilty and ashamed by how hard life has been and still is for people of color. They are also frustrated by, annoyed, and impatient with other Whites who don’t get it.
  • EMERSION (people of color): The fourth stage for people of color is emersion where their anger about racism directed towards Whites leads them to feel that they can only belong with others in their own racial group which understands them. They avoid, as much as possible, contacts with Whites and seek out people of their own race or gender.
  • INTERNALIZATION (people of color): Internalization occurs when they realize that there are negative qualities among their own people and that all White people are not the enemy. They see racism and sexism as the enemy and as something that they can fight against. They also manifest the desire to have more control over who they want to be. They are more than just a person of color or a woman
  • EMERGENCE (Whites): After feeling guilty and ashamed, Whites may move into the emergence stage where they start to understand their privilege and how it has and continue to benefit them. They also now begin to take control over the type of White person they want to be like.
  • INTEGRATIVE AWARENESS (both): In the last stage of integrative awareness, Hoffman asserts that Whites and people of color both come to the conclusion that there is much more to them than their race or gender. Both groups are able to positively identify with their own racial group while also acknowledging that other aspects of their identity (their gender, their talents and abilities, their unique experiences) contribute to their personhood.

These academic models are now being translated into clinical practice. Jerry Rabow has done this in the test you have just taken and Gary Howard has done this in his book for teachers, We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know. Both of these practitioners emphasize how important it is to deal with one’s own racial and gender identifications to better understand and serve your clientele. Without taking the time to confront your own racial and gender journey, you can not and will not be sensitive to many of the issues that affect the mental health of your White, non-White, bi/multi-racial and multi-gendered clientele. Academic knowledge about certain groups of people is not sufficient to understand your patients entirely. When you have invested, as you are with this diversity course, in moving through the various stages, you will be able to offer what Howard calls “culturally competent teaching,” but which we call “culturally competent clinical practice.” This is achieved when personal experience, competence in your field and connection to the patient are all aligned. You will build upon your practice as you simultaneously move through the stages and feel more comfortable in them and learn from your clients about their experiences and about how people of similar ethnicities vary in their racial identifications and attitudes. This progressive, rich, balanced, informed, moral, comprehensive, sensitive, perceptive, and intimate approach will only help you to serve your clientele better.

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