White Racial Identity Development

There are many theories of racial identity development, which attempt to explain  how people realize their racial identity and how they deal with it. One that resonated with me in graduate school was Janet Helms’ theory of white racial identity development. I extracted details from my paper on Counseling White College Students (2001) detailed below. In this paper I provided recommendations for intervention strategies to facilitate movement through these “statuses”. I now feel her theory is too structured, but it’s a good starting point in understanding the concepts.

Janet Helms in her book, Black and White Racial Identity: Theory Research, and Practice (1990) proposes a six-stage model of white racial idenitty development. She uses the word status, implying there is flow from one status to another. Her model of White Racial Identity Development is categorized into different statuses: Contact, Disintegration, Reintegration, Pseudo-Independence, Immersion/Emersion (added to her model later), and Autonomy.

In the first status of Contact, the white person is unaware of their racial identity and thus is ignorant of how they participate in the reproduction of racial inequality. People in this stage accept their position in society as normal and unrelated to their race. Whites in this status become offended when views are presented which challenge their own dominance.

In the second status of Disintegration, the white person begins to acknowledge they are part of a racial group and that there are privileges to their identity as white. In this status, the white person struggles with various moral dilemmas. One of these is the belief in a pure meritocracy versus the reality that there is racial inequality, which makes pure meritocracies almost impossible.

In the third status of Reintegration, the white person develops an oppressive racial identity. Often they believe in racial superiority with regard to culture as well as behavioral norms. A common belief in this status is that “institutional and cultural racism are the white person’s due because he or she has earned such privileges and preferences” (p.60 Helms, 1990).

In the fourth status of Pseudo-Independence, the white person begins to attempt to redefine their racial identity into something positive and non-racist. They will actively question ideas of superiority and acknowledge their own part in perpetuating a racist society. Still, the white person will look to the minority to explain racism and not look at their own race.

In the fifth status of Immersion/Emersion, the white person searches for accurate information on the realities of his or her environment. The white person in this status will work on changing perceptions of fellow whites and not depend on blacks to facilitate change. They have become consciously aware of the subtle and pervasive layers of racism.

In the final status of Autonomy, the white person internalizes all they have learned. This may take reverting to previous statuses until a new understanding takes hold. We must always question our biases and never presume we are above such flaws. What I would point out is that the progression through each status is not linear nor is it permanent. As with any tendency, to use a rather trite term, it is not something solved once. There is no pill to end racism. It is a process, a humanizing process.


About Daniel Roddick

Daniel has a B.A. in American History with minors in both Ethnic Studies and Sociology. He also has an M.Ed. in College Administration and Counseling. Daniel has worked in the financial aid industry for over a decade. He has presented all over the country on financial aid issues related to equity, inclusion, and access to education. He is also a writer of poetry, fiction, and this blog, all of which touch on identity.
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One Response to White Racial Identity Development

  1. Pingback: Four Sparrows | Daniel Roddick

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