Helms White Identity Development Model
In the United States, virtually every White person is socialized to believe implicit and explicit messages about themselves and members of visible racial/ethnic groups (Jones, 1996; Helms, 1993; Salter et al., 2018). They are continually exposed to these messages through our culture, society and institutions. How these messages are interpreted and responded to is how one’s racial identity is expressed. Based on these perceptions, automatic thoughts about what we’ve been conditioned to believe about ourselves and others can emerge.
Racial identity development theorists, study how the construct of race impacts various groups within our culture. Research psychologist, Janet E. Helms revolutionized racial theory with the examination of racial identity for both Black and White Americans. While it was customary to focus on marginalized racial groups, the “White race” is a part of the construct of “races” and comes with it’s own set of beliefs. Helms (1993) defines racial identity as: “a sense of group or collective identity based on one’s perception that he or she shares a common racial heritage with a particular racial group.” p3
Biologist take on Race
Alan Goodman, professor of biological anthropology at Hampshire College said this about race:
“What’s heartening is that so many students love it. They feel liberated by beginning to understand that, in fact, whiteness is a cultural construction, that race is a cultural construction, that we really are fundamentally alike. It’s our politics, it’s political economy, it’s an old ideology that tends to separate us out. It’s institutions that have been born with the idea of race and racism that tend to separate us out.”
Race is a Social Construct
What is a Social Construct? A Social Construct is an idea or belief that is created by the culture and exists because people within the culture all agree that it should exist. This is true for race, as it has been long established that race does not exist outside of the construct, in which, we as individuals agree that it should exist. In the case of race, it’s creation was rooted in the need to justify the brutal and violent use of African slave labor, which brought economic prosperity to the United States (Giddings, 1996).
Three Types of Racism
There are three types of racism (Jones, 1996; Salter et al., 2018; Helms, 1993)
Individual – How a person’s personal beliefs and behaviors conscious and unconscious are in such a way, as to convince oneself of the superiority of Whites and inferiority of Blacks based on physical/genetic “racial” characteristics which make Blacks inferior in all contexts. (moral, socially, intellectual etc.)
Institutional – Systemic racial inequalities reflected in cultural practices, customs, laws, politics and economy.
Cultural – Conscious or subconscious beliefs and customs that promote superiority of White culture, language or traditions over non-White cultures.
Helms (1993) indicates racism is such a part of the cultural climate, it can become a part of a White person’s racial identity. In order to develop a healthy anti-racist identity, an individual must a) develop a full acceptance of the cultural implications of being White and b) hold an understanding that Whiteness does not depend on holding a perception of one being superior to others (Helms, 1993; Salter et al., 2018; Sussman, 2014; Jones, 1996)
The Toll of Racism Whites
Initially research in White racial identity focused more on the impact to the victims of racism, as it was assumed only the victims were harmed by racism. There was no examination of the harmful effects of racism on the oppressors. According to Helms, (1993) some harmful effects of racism on White individuals are:
- The absence of a positive White identity
- Denying one’s Whiteness
- Feelings of inferiority/White fragility
- Feeling threatened by the presence of racial awareness in non-White racial groups
Healthy White Identity
Helms (1993) noted, despite the socialization toward racism, there were some Whites who had developed a White consciousness that is healthy, without racial distortions. In essence, Whites are capable of overcoming racism and developing a positive White identity.
Helms’s empirically tested White Racial Identity Development Model and 50-item White Racial Identity Assessment Scale (WRIAS), designed to assess attitudes related to the statuses of White racial identity development were first introduced in 1984. Helms (1993) proposed a two phase process of White identity development. Both the first and second phase consists of three statuses that mature over time involving a process of abandoning racism and developing a healthy non-racist White identity (Helms, 2017).
The first phase – Abandoning racism
Contact status – Once a person either encounters Blacks or the idea of Black people, they have entered the contact status. The person may have a transient awareness of their Whiteness because they haven’t had to think about their Whiteness. They may exist in primarily mono-cultural (all White) environments and have limited contact with Black people (co-worker, client, customer). They may act in racist ways and even enjoy acting in these ways due to their not having to confront the morality of doing so.
Common comments made by individuals in this status are “I don’t see color!” “I treat everyone equally!” In order to move from this status, a person would need to have a deeper understanding of the differences of how racial groups are treated in this culture. Once a person begins to recognize the inequities between Blacks and Whites due to having deeper connecting experiences with Blacks, then they enter the next stage of White identity development.
Disintegration status – There is a conscious understanding of what it means to be White and the moral dilemmas associated with this realization. This creates an internal conflict called dissonance, which creates emotional discomfort. In an attempt to escape or avoid this feeling the individual may:
- Avoid further contact with Blacks. This approach is often reinforced in White environments in order to maintain cultural and institutional racism and emotional comfort.
- Seek information to help mitigate feelings of shame and dissonance such as, seeking out information that invalidates the existence of racism or any personal responsibility for it as a White individual.
- Attempt to convince others in their personal social circles that race is a social construct and Whites are not superior to Blacks.
Reintegration status – Conscious acknowledgement of one’s White identity as being superior to non-White individuals. May associate with peers who hold similar feelings about White superiority. Outward expressions of bias, to include violence and exclusionary behaviors designed to protect White privilege. Feelings of guilt and shame are often transformed into rage and anger, particularly if the individual has hostilities toward Blacks. Stereotypes and bias about inferiority of Black people and culture is ingrained.
Many individuals remain in this stage indefinitely unless some jarring event propels them from this stage. The murder of George Floyd and subsequent high profile social injustices toward Black individuals, may have been the impetus for many Whites to move from this stage into the second phase and third status of Helms’ White Racial Identity Development.
The second phase – Developing a non-racist White identity
Pseudo-Independence status – The first status in developing a non-racist positive White identity. In this status, the person begins to intellectually reexamine the ideologies around White superiority and Black inferiority as they are no longer comfortable holding racist beliefs and ideas. They begin to see Whites as being responsible for racism and begin to question how they may consciously or unconsciously contribute to those belief systems. They still hold some ideas based in racist belief systems.
They may seek greater interaction with Blacks to “save them” by applying White standards to the help given. They may intellectualize race rather than examine their actual feelings surrounding it. They see the world through a White cultural lens and continue to be uncomfortable with their White identity. They may look to Blacks to explain and seek solutions to racism rather than Whites.
Immersion/Emersion status – A person in this status is beginning to ask the questions of “who am I and who do I want to be?” They come to terms with race and recognize the misinformation surrounding race and racism in history and it’s systemic impacts within our culture on racially marginalized groups. Other Whites are often brought into discussions surrounding questions like “How can I feel proud of my race without being racist?” Conscious effort is put into the reexamination of beliefs around racial understanding and information. May seek out programs like the SEED project.
Autonomy status – Whiteness becomes an internalized positive part of the person’s identity. The individual understands fully that they are able to hold a positive White identity without the need to feel superior over others. They are able to abandon Personal, Cultural and Institutional racism.
They are emotionally mature enough to have deep discussions on race due to no longer feeling threatened by such discussions. While this stage highlights the emergence of a non-racist identity, individuals in this area are overall able to better work with diverse groups in general and have a more developed racial worldview. They are open to self-examination and new information supporting a more diverse anti-racist worldview. There is a conscious effort toward maintaining this status through the attainment of knowledge and experiences. To develop a greater understanding of your bias take the Harvard Implicit bias test.
In closing, author James Baldwin wrote these words in 1962 in a letter to his nephew on racism, which continue to ring true today. Referring to Whites in this excerpt:
“You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.
Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity.”
It is up to each individual to be internally motivated toward recognizing the belief systems around racial conditioning and make a conscious effort to confront, connect, and learn in order to create a positive white identity. Helm’s research provides a means in which to comprehend, assess, discuss and encapsulate one’s journey toward an anti-racist White identity.
Dr. Africa L Rainey, M.A, LCPC, Ed.D
Baldwin, J. (1962, December 1). A Letter to My Nephew – Progressive.org. The Progressive. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://progressive.org/magazine/letter-nephew/
Giddings, P. (1996). When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. HarperCollins.
Helms, J. E. (Ed.). (1993). Black and White Racial Identity: Theory, Research, and Practice. Praeger.
Helms, J. E. (2017). Handbook of Multicultural Counseling (L. A. Suzuki, C. M. Alexander, J. M. Casas, & M. A. Jackson, Eds.). SAGE Publications.
Jones, J. M. (1996). Impacts of Racism on White Americans (R. G. Hunt & B. P. Bowser, Eds.; Second Edition ed.). SAGE Publications.
Public Broadcasting System (PBS). (2003). Interview with Alan Goodman. Race the Power of an Illusion. https://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-01-07.htm
Salter, P. S., Adams, G., & Perez, M. T. (2018). Racism in the Structure of Everyday Worlds: A Cultural Psychological Perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(3), 150-155. 10117709631214177724239
Sussman, R. W. (2014). The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. Harvard University Press.