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Exploring the Topic of Racial Identity

Today's post includes excerpts from Jemar Tisby’s book How to Fight Racism. For a deep dive into racism and race identity, pick up your copy of the book, or stream the How to Fight Racism video series.

Race shapes our identities and experiences, and the more we understand how, the better we can recognize the messages we’ve picked up about race. Psychologist Janet Helms describes racial identity as a sense of collective identity based on a perceived common heritage with a racial group.

People can often struggle to name what they are going through as they develop a greater sense of racial awareness. But social scientists have a name for what it means to discover a sense of one’s race. It’s called racial identity development, and there’s a crucial need for people of all races to critically explore their racial identity and ensure they are moving in a direction toward greater self-awareness and sensitivity. 

Teboho’s story of racial identity

In 2015, officials at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa announced a fee (tuition) increase of 10.5 percent for the upcoming school year. In response, Black South Africans led the way in protesting an increase in school fees that would have locked out many Black people from a quality education that they could not afford. They used the phrase “fees must fall” as a mobilizing phrase for the movement. As the movement gained momentum, Christians from across the color line weighed in. Some Christian groups initially came out in support of the protestors, but other Christians saw #FeesMustFall as confrontational, divisive, and violent. They launched the #colourblind initiative as a way to advocate for “unity, reconciliation and a stop to racism ‘from all races.’”

In his book How to Fight Racism, Jemar Tisby shares the testimony of a young Black South African woman named Teboho. She shared her story about the response to the #FeesMustFall movement with members and guests of a new church in Cape Town. 

“For the first time, I realized that my brothers and sisters in Christ when it came to this issue we are not on the same page. I was so confused. I still did not have the vocabulary for it,” Teboho explained. She had become a Christian through the ministry of a predominantly white church, and these people were her spiritual family, her trusted friends, her brothers and sisters in the household of faith. Yet when it came to matters that affected her daily life as a Black person, this group of people felt like strangers to her. 

Teboho shared that she often experienced greater commonality with people who did not share her religion. “It was interesting that you could relate more to those who do not confess the faith than those who did. Even the white people who were not Christian somewhat ‘got it.’ [They understood] the injustice in access to education.” Black Christians and other oppressed people often find solidarity with those working for justice, even if they do not share the same spiritual convictions. Teboho’s realization during the #FeesMustFall movement initiated a process of spiritual reevaluation for her. “So for me at this stage, it’s a healing process and a lamenting and repenting. . . . And also realizing [that] how the Bible is taught to us is important.”

 A pressing issue of racial justice forced Teboho to reconsider what it meant to be both Black and Christian. She had been taught by white Christians that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the great unifier. But when the reality of racism demanded a response, she found there were limits to white Christian support. Despite this sense of betrayal by white Christians, she did not lose her faith. She embraced her Blackness as part of what it means to be fully human. 

Racial identity development

Teboho’s story is all too common. Many Black Christians in the United States have shared similar experiences during the height of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Throughout history, people of color have had to endure racial awakenings that destabilized their foundational beliefs about faith, society, self, and others. 

One of the most thorough contemporary treatments of racial identity development comes from Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a social psychologist and the former president of Spelman College in Atlanta. In 1997, she wrote a book called Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, and Other Conversations about Race, and the book proved to be so helpful she wrote a revised and updated edition in 2017. 

In it, Tatum defines “racial identity” as “the meaning each of us has constructed or is constructing about what it means to be a White person or a person of color in a race-conscious society.” Notice that racial identity is not just for Black people and other people of color. White people have a racial identity that must be explored as well. Similarly, “racial identity development” refers to “the process of defining for oneself the personal significance and social meaning of belonging to a particular racial group.” 

William Cross developed the model for racial identity development for Black people in 1971. Since Cross first developed his model, other psychologists have created models for other people groups, including biracial, immigrants, and white people. In general, the stages of identity development move from unawareness, typically at younger ages, to greater awareness as people get older and have more interactions with others. The tables below, adapted from Cross’s original model, detail the stages of racial identity development. People of color are represented by the first model, and white people by the second.

Racial Identity 1
Racial Identity 2
Racial Identity 3
Racial Identity 4
Racial Identity 5

One of the most valuable aspects of learning the racial ethnic-cultural identity model is that it gives a framework for different stages of racial awareness. The word development indicates a process of change—racial identity is not static. If you can locate which stage of racial-ethnic-cultural identity you are at presently, then you can more intentionally move toward racial maturity and awareness.

Where are you in your racial and cultural identity development? 

The different phases of racial identity development include: conformity, dissonance, resistance and immersion, introspection, and integrative awareness. In general, one begins with less awareness of racial dynamics and an unconscious acceptance of white people and their cultural practices as normative, acceptable, and even preferred. 

Teboho might have been moving from conformity to dissonance in her racial identity development. The #FeesMustFall movement helped her realize that racial solidarity with other Black South Africans meant conflict with her white Christian community. If she’d had this model to guide her thinking, Teboho might have more easily found the language she needed to express her racial journey. Knowing where you are in your own racial identity development can help you name the emotions you are feeling and can move you toward more mature levels of racial awareness. 

At some point in life, most people have an encounter with racism that disrupts their previous thinking. In the United States, some Native Americans may have been catalyzed by the protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (#NoDAPL). People of Latin American descent have rallied to the United States and Mexico. For young Black people, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have been catalysts for racial awareness and activism. These disruptive events sometimes jolt Black people and other people of color into a new recognition of the salience of race in their own lives and the broader culture. The “dissonance and appreciation” phase of racial identity development requires a reassessment of your previous racial paradigms and begins a process of exploring your own racial or ethnic group with more intentionality. 

In a white-centered society, white people have their own process of racial identity development. White people tend to grow up with a “colorblind” mentality, meaning they are taught to not “see color,” and that the only way to treat everyone equally is to pretend that everyone is the same. In the bestselling book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo lists several statements that may indicate a person has accepted the theory of colorblindness. 

  • “I was taught to treat everyone the same.” 
  • “I don’t care if you’re pink, purple, or polka-dotted.” 
  • “Focusing on race is what divides us.”

Yet the theory of colorblindness denies the historic and tangible ways that race affects people of color and shapes the thinking and behaviors of white people. The lens of colorblindness begins to crack for white people in the “disintegration” phase; it typically happens when they develop a personal relationship that forces them to confront the relevance of race. This season of life may include a sense of discomfort, confusion, or guilt as the white person realizes his or her unearned advantages in a society that favors whiteness. If the white person chooses to courageously continue down the path of racial awareness, colorblindness eventually gives way to color-consciousness. 

From colorblindness to color-consciousness 

In the book White Awake, author and pastor Daniel Hill relates how he first encountered his racial identity as a white man. The journey began when he officiated the wedding of a friend who was of Indian descent. The wedding reflected his friend’s Indian culture through the food, the clothing, and the music at the wedding. Hill remarked to his friend, “You have such an amazing culture! . . . I wish I had a culture too.” It’s easy to predict what comes next. “Daniel, you may be white,” his friend said. “But don’t let that lull you into thinking you have no culture.” His friend’s remark about white people having a culture stuck with Hill, and he began learning more about the reality of race and its past and present reality in the United States. A brief comment from a friend became a pivotal step in his journey from colorblindness to color-consciousness. 

Following the contact phase there may be a period called “reintegration” where a white person clings even more tightly to unhelpful racial ideas. They may blame people of color for their own hardships without accepting the fact that history, institutions, and policies continue to adversely impact racial and ethnic minorities while offering racial privileges to white people. Many people remain stuck in this phase. This is well reflected in the attitude of Tim Hershman, a white man from Akron, Ohio. “If you apply for a job, they seem to give the blacks the first crack at it,” he responded to a poll question. “And, basically, you know, if you want any help from the government, if you’re white, you don’t get it. If you’re black, you get it.”

Hershman seems to ascribe to the erroneous concept of “reverse racism,” which is the idea that the effort to address historic racial inequities has led to racism against white people. It is clear that people of color may act in prejudicial ways against white people by judging them solely based on their skin color. But racism is more than an individual or interpersonal attitude. It includes systems, structures, and institutions owned and operated by those who hold the power to make decisions. 

The concept of “reverse racism”

As journalist and author Renni Eddo-Lodge explained it in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, “Everyone has the capacity to be nasty to other people, to judge them before they get to know them. But there simply aren’t enough black people in positions of power to enact racism against white people on the kind of grand scale it currently operates against black people.” 

Looking at economics and politics, two of the predominant seats of power in our nation today, it is clear that white people still occupy many of the positions of power. Nationwide, in 2018 about 40 percent of people identified as racial or ethnic minorities. As of 2019, just four of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies were Black (not including one black interim CEO). Only eleven were Latinos. Looking at the Boards of Directors of these companies, people of color held 16 percent of those seats. In 2018, Sharice Davids of Kansas and Debra Haaland of New Mexico became the first two Native American women elected to the US House of Representatives. No African American had served as a US Senator for a southern state since Reconstruction until Tim Scott was appointed to fill a vacancy in 2013. The erroneous concept of “reverse racism” and the perception among some that white people have it harder in the United States because of race than people of color is a characteristic sign of people who have much further to go in their racial identity development.

White people who are able to productively handle their feelings of resistance to the idea of white privilege or the idea that racism still exists can progress to a phase called “pseudo-independence.” In this stage of white racial identity development, people understand racism is an issue, and they seek out people of color to help them understand. But they primarily rely on others to do the work of fighting racism without recognizing their own ability—or responsibility—to be part of the solution. 

Mature white racial identity

At the most mature stage of white racial identity development, “autonomy,” white people become allies and advocates for people of color. For every racial and ethnic group, individuals should be striving to recognize the ongoing importance of race in society today. Race and ethnicity can exert influence on where one is likely to live, how much a person makes at their job, which social networks they inhabit and the quality of the healthcare they receive. 

At the same time, race and ethnicity are not the only markers of identity. Someone who is productively engaging in their own racial identity development will always be aware that they are sons, daughters, spouses, workers, and believers. The goal for everyone is to have a positive view of their racial and ethnic identity, one that does not require assimilation or rejection of culture or experiences, and one that values the diversity of other people. Racially mature people will assert not only that their race is a factor in how they experience the world but also that identity is more than skin deep. 

Fighting Racism

The ARC (awareness, relationships, and commitment) of Racial Justice encourages us to build our awareness not just of society but our own souls. Many people assume they know what they believe about race and racism and why they believe it, so the assumption goes unexamined. By taking the steps to reflect on our experiences with race, we can better understand our attitudes on the topic. It takes support, reflection, and resilience to unpack your racial history, but doing so will make you a more effective advocate for racial justice. 

This post includes excerpts from Jemar Tisby’s book How to Fight Racism. For a deep dive into racism and race identity, pick up your copy of the book, or stream the How to Fight Racism video series.

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