White Racial Identity
White Racial Identity
White racial outlook (WRO) theories are considered some of the most influential psychological variables when studying whites’ views of self and of persons of color. They offer a framework from which to understand views of race and ethnicity in a racialized society. These theories grew from previous research on black racial identity models, and they provide ways of assessing and predicting white racial attitudes. They are important because racial information may interfere with or enhance cross-racial interactions. Further refinements in an understanding of racial attitudes can help modify these attitudes. In essence, instead of stating that a white individual is racist or not, white racial outlook theories suggest that attitudes that whites have cannot be so simply categorized, although these attitudes may have components of racism embedded within them.
These theories also enhance some of the socialpsychological literature, including theories of symbolic or modern racism. The majority of whites in the United States are less likely to behave in the overtly racist ways that whites did prior to the civil rights movement, though traces of such racism may be present covertly. Rather than measure racism as a unidimensional, bipolar construct (i.e., racist or not racist), WROs can delineate nuances of racial attitudes. These WRO theories offer a means to determine whether whites understand the sociopolitical realities of race, and they help explain why a person may behave in a racist fashion in one setting but not in another. They have been examined to determine how whites cognitively and behaviorally structure racial information across a wide range of situations, such as consultation environments, counseling dyads, and multicultural competence training. This brief introduction includes two major theories of white racial outlook, their assumptions, their instruments used to measure them, and their relationships to racism.
A brief introduction to the origin of WROs as an offshoot of black racial identity theory can help one to understand their development. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, William Cross Jr. and others developed stage models of black racial identity (understanding self-concept as both a black individual and as part of the black community) as a means of understanding the development blacks go through to live within a white-dominated society. This was an era in which a variety of historically oppressed groups became more vocal politically and socially, including the gay community, the American Indian community, and the black community. Pride movements, including Black Pride, were becoming prominent. From this era, more psychological research into black attitudes developed, with Cross developing his “Nigrescence” model. In this model, levels of black racial identity were presented that highlighted attitudes toward both the in-group (other black Americans) and out-groups (predominantly white Americans). The model has since been updated, and other prominent researchers, such as Janet Helms (1995), have presented their own models of black racial identity. Helms devised her model of black racial identity in the early 1980s, and she later formulated white racial identity models from that original black identity model.
There are a few white racial outlook models but the psychological literature focuses primarily on two, the White Racial Identity (WRI) model and the White Racial Consciousness (WRC) model. The two are built on different theoretical philosophies, have different assumptions, and have different means of measuring and understanding racial attitudes. Helms’s WRI model rests on the assumption that whites are aware of what being white means to them and that they move through a series of developmental ego statuses (or stages)—from being oblivious to racial issues to becoming comfortable with whiteness—while simultaneously accepting other racial groups. Whites grow up privileged in society and learn to recognize themselves as privileged, though often unconsciously. In order to protect this privilege, whites distort race-related reality, which contributes to racism. Helms indicated that in order for whites to not be racist, their two primary developmental issues are to abandon the entitlement and privileges they receive from society and adopt to a nonracist white identity. In fact, in part because of her work in this area, there has been new psychological research literature focusing on white privilege.
Essentially, whites must begin to understand that they are given benefits in society simply because they are white, while also recognizing that persons of color are not afforded those same benefits. After recognizing these benefits, they can begin to achieve a nonracist identity. Helms’s white racial identity theory states that racial identity develops through a sequential process in which more mature ego differentiations occur as statuses mature. The differentiation occurs through various information processing strategies, which are used to incorporate racial information and can be either dominant or nondominant. Helms highlighted that because of the dominant-nondominant theoretical component, whites generally do not fit into only one status prior to moving into another status. In essence, when a white individual comes across racial information the ego selects the status that is dominant depending on the situation and environment.
The White Racial Identity (WRI) Model . The WRI comprises six statuses, with the first three (Contact, Disintegration, Reintegration) reflecting movement toward the abandonment of a racist identity, while the last three (Pseudo-independence, Immersion/Emersion, and Autonomy) are reflective of movement and acceptance of a nonracist identity. Abandoning racist ideology begins with the Contact status, in which whites are unaware of societal or individual racism and are satisfied with the racial status quo. The Disintegration status arises because of racial anxiety and ambivalence, often resulting from an event that causes a person to question previous views of race. During this status, people must reconsider their racial viewpoints, and they can either eventually maintain the status quo or move toward greater involvement with persons of other races and racial information in general. Movement into the Reintegration status is underscored by denigrating other racial groups and idealizing one’s own racial group.
Accepting a nonracist ideology begins with Pseudo-independence, which is highlighted by an intellectualized approval of other racial groups, although full acceptance is not accomplished. Those moving into the Immersion/Emersion status begin to understand the benefits and privileges that have impacted and influenced them simply for being white. At this status, some people begin to join activist groups against oppression; at the very least they begin to understand their role living in a racist society. Finally, those that attain the Autonomy status have an appreciation for other racial groups, understand the sociopolitical realities within society, but also have an appreciation for being white. Their racial worldview is more complex and they are willing to renounce racial privileges.
In order to assess WRI, the White Racial Identity Attitude Scale (WRIAS, or RIAS-W) was developed. While there appears to be some psychometric evidence validating the WRI theory, John Behrens (1997), Jane Swanson and colleagues (1994), and others have found that the WRIAS does not seem to measure the WRI model well. They argue that the instrument is merely a unidimensional, bipolar racism scale that simply measures the racist and nonracist attitudes of white Americans toward black Americans. It is still used by WRI researchers, however.
The White Racial Consciousness (WRC) Model . An alternative model was developed in the early 1990s by Wayne Rowe and colleagues (1994, 2002) as a reaction to the WRI model, called the White Racial Consciousness (WRC) model. Readers will notice both similarities and differences with the WRI, as both present views of “whiteness.” The WRC framers believed that whites do not move through the identity developmental statuses devised by Helms, instead arguing that whites learn racial information in the same manner as other information. The theoretical and functional structure is embedded with a sociocognitive approach, is theoretically simpler, and conforms more to the racial attitude research historically highlighted by social-psychological researchers. Essentially, the WRI discusses white identity while the WRC discusses white attitudes. The WRC focuses on the present attitude type determined through attitude formation, and it presumes that racial attitudes are learned in much the same way as other attitudes. It does not focus on the underlying psychological mechanisms that drive the attitude types.
The model is measured by the Oklahoma Racial Attitude Scale (ORAS) and includes four attitude types: Dominative, Integrative, Conflictive, and Reactive. Briefly, the Dominative attitude is reflected in ethnocentric attitudes, with individuals believing that the white race is either superior or rationalizing the oppression of groups of color. Integrative types feel comfortable with racial issues and recognize white privilege and racial oppression. Conflictive types are opposed to overt racism and discrimination yet have difficulty with programs designed to assist those who have been historically oppressed. Finally, Reactive individuals are aware of white privilege yet hold onto white guilt over past and current oppression, taking on a parental attitude toward groups of color. Thus, the Dominative and Conflictive attitude types are considered racist, whereas the Integrative and Reactive types are considered nonracist.
WRO theories have relevance toward racial issues within the therapeutic relationships, business relationships, or various trust issues within a community, among others. Researchers working in this area can explore multiple possibilities that can yield fruitful rewards. Whether at the individual level or the group level, there are many racial concerns within the United States and other countries, and more study of WROs can help individuals in politics, business, education, and therapy appreciate the racial barriers and racial assets needed to understand racial identities.
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Mark M. Leach