Racial Identity Development

This page will review the following theories:

  • Atkinson, Morten and Sue’s Racial and Cultural Identity Development
  • Cross and Fhagen-Smith’s Model of Black Identity Development
  • Helm’s Model of White Identity Development
  • Rowe, Bennett, and Atkinson’s White Racial Consciousness Model
  • Ferdman and Gallego’s Model of Latino Identity Development
  • Kim’s Asian American Identify Development Model
  • Horse’s Perspective on American Indian Identity Development

According to Evans et al. (2010), Omi and Winant (2004) defines race “‘as unstable’ and ‘decentered’” (p.254). However, an individual’s racial identity is a sense of belonging to a community of people who share a similar, specific heritage.

1. Atkinson, Morten, and Sue’s Racial and Cultural Identity Development: Five Stage Model (1979,1989, 1993, 1998):

Served as foundation for the variety of racial and ethnic identity development models to follow.

  • Conformity
    • One identifies with white culture, learns and assumer stereotypes and has no inkling to identify or learn about their own racial or ethnic heritage.
  • Dissonance
    • Encounter is the catalyst for one to question white culture and begin an interest in one’s own racial or ethnic group
  • Resistance and Immersion
    • Individual withdrawals from white culture to delve into his or her own racial or ethnic exploration in the effort to define a new identity.
  • Introspection
    • Individual actively seeks to integrate the redefined identity into the dominant culture without compromising aspects of his or her own racial or ethnic identity
  • Synergistic Articulation and Awareness
    • Optimum identity; Individual is able to identify as he or she wishes, appreciate other cultures including the dominant culture and balance all aspects of his or her heritage.
  • Atkinson et al.’s model served to be the primary model of all of the racial identity theories. The model conceptualizes the basic progressions an individual goes through when defining his or her racial identity. Although there are many models that have followed this premier, student affairs professionals can still facilitate conversations about race through this model, especially when a group is compromised of mixed races.

2. Cross and Fhagen-Smith’s Model of Black Identity Development

  • Cross (1971) adopted the idea of nigrescence, the process of becoming black, as the foundation for the later sector model develops with Fhagen-Smith. The model looks at the progression of identification of individuals as they move towards a healthy black identity.
  • Cross and Fhagan-Smith (2001) conceptualized the life span model of black identity, six Sectors compromise the development model:
  • Sector One: Infancy and Childhood in Early Black Identity Development
    • Contributing factors such as families, social networks and historical events all play a role in the early socialization of black children
    • Parents, guardians and those who are present in a child’s life have routines and norms that emulate the black culture and an individual is consistently being socialized into the Black culture, almost through osmosis.
  • Sector Two: Preadolescence
    • Development in this sector is influenced by the parents; high or low race salience or internalize racism
    • High Race Salience – instillation of importance of being black, black culture is most important
    • Low Race Salience – Place no emphasis on race, although they are aware
    • Internalized Racism – Experience negative issues with black community, thus develop self-hatred and hesitance to identify as black
    • Cross and Fhanagan-Smith suggested that an individual who has high race-salience is most likely to develop the post positive self-concept, in terms of his or her Black identity
  • Sector Three: Adolescence
    • Begin to develop a black self-concept, authenticating one’s own beliefs is key to an achieved identity
    • Individuals may confirm or redefine their salience in this sector
    • Adolescence is a turbulent time, as is, developing a self-concept may be affected by an individual’s peer group, community, and/or school environment. i.e. Are you Black enough?
  • Sector Four: Early adulthood
    • Low/High Race Salience and Internalized Racism reemerge in this stage
    • Low Race Salience is characterized by the construction of diverse identities and see race unimportant
    • High Race Salience is characterized by the establishment of a group of peers with the same values as black culture
    • Internalized Racism perceive black culture in the same light as sector two, however there are moves to modify and solidify a healthy self-concept
  • Sector Five: Adult Nigrescence
    • Four Stages accompany Nigrescence:
      • Preencounter – Low race salience individuals will assimilate into mainstream with an appreciate of black culture, while internalized racism individuals will become anti-black
      • Encounter – Event will cause conflict and a questioning of their black identity
      • Immersion-Emersion – Immersed into black culture become black nationalist or pro-black and entrench themselves in the culture and issues of the group, Emmersed individuals
      • Internalization/Internalization Commitment – has three specific resolutions to dissonance
        • Black Nationalist – Individuals believe being black is the most salient identity, use as political and social platforms to ignite change
        • Bicultural – Individuals integrate their black identity with the dominate culture
        • Multicultural – Individuals identify as black, but have explored other identities as a reference group orientation.  Also serve in a key social justice role
  • Sector Six: Nigrescence Recycling
    • Sector is characterized by nigrescence recycling
      • Nigrescence Recycling – Individual encounters an event, which calls into question their black identity.  Those who have truly achieved a healthy self-concept will reachwisdom, which is a firm understand of black identity from in all facets of life.

Where do student affairs professionals hold our stack?

In Cross and Fhagen-Smith’s Model, administrators encounter students as early as sector three. If not, definitely the encounter occurs in sector. The most important influence we can have in an individual’s journey to a healthy self-concept is providing them with the space to explore and find their own place. This is not limited to the Black Student Union, this filters into academics and courses offered as well as integrating faculty, staff and administrators who have a positive self-concept as a Black individual. Students are definitely willing to open up about their experiences when they think there is already a shared struggle or journey.

3.Helm’s Model of White Identity Development (1995)

  • Phase 1- Abandonment of Racism
    • Stage 1- Contact
    • Stage 2- Disintegration
    • Stage 3- Reintegration
  • Phase 2- Evolution of Non-Racist Identity
    • Stage 4- Psuedo-Independent
    • Stage 5- Immersion-Emersion
    • Stage 6- Autonomy
  • The theory assumes all individuals who identify as White begin with views of racism. Additionally, student affairs professionals will most likely interact with students in stage 3 & 4.
  • Student affairs professionals should allow these students to speak their minds, make mistakes and have intentional conversations with these students as events occur. Unfortunately, some of the situations and words that may come to our campuses have been institutionalized or socialized without the students’ being aware.

4. Rowe, Bennett, and Atkinson’s White Racial Consciousness Model (1994)

  • Offers a model to speak to the role White plays into the relationships with themselves and those who identify within another race
  • Categorized into two categories (Non Linear):
    • Unachieved White Racial Consciousness
      • Three Types –
    • Avoidant –
      • Unaware of the role race plays in society, shy away from race unless forced to have conversation or event
    • Dependent –
      • Individuals are aware of White as a race, but refuse to identify as such and lack commitment to values and beliefs unless it’s the consensus of the group
      • Reflection and resolution about White identity before an individual can move beyond this type of consciousness
    • Dissonant –
      • Individuals are aware of their White identity but struggle with information and events surrounding race or race confrontation.
      • Individuals are interested in informing themselves about other race identities
  • Achieved White Racial Consciousness
    • Four Types:
      • Dominative –Individuals believe they are a superior race and believe in negative stereotypes
      • Passive – Individuals avoid interaction with other racial groups
      • Active – Individuals express views through prejudice and discrimination
      • Conflictive – Individuals believe every race is equal, but will be opposed to the idea to enact measures to create equality
      • Reactive – Individuals understand the reality of White privilege and understand the inequalities and injustice surrounding race
      • Active – Individuals with genuine concern and work to correct the issues, grapple with anger or disappoint if efforts are unsuccessful
      • Passive – Have little interaction or action to correct social justice issues
      • Integrative – Individuals understand the intricacies of race and the role it plays in our society and individuals also have an clear vision of their White Identity

5. Ferdman and Gallego’s Model of Latino Identity Development (2001)

  • Important Note: Racial identity is a secondary identity in the Latino culture
  • Six Orientation (Belief that identity is a process not staged):
    • Latino- Integrated –
      • Individuals understands our society in terms of race and identified with the larger Latino community
    • Latino-Identified –
      • Individuals believe race is fluid and society is a dualistic construction of race.
    • Subgroup-Indentified –
      • Individuals have strong identification with specific subgroup within the Latino culture, belief that all other subgroups are subordinate
    • Latino as other –
      • Individuals who hold no stake in a subgroup, often cause by the uncertainty of his or her heritage
    • Undifferentiated/denial –
      • Individuals claim a color-blind mentality and race is not important
    • White Identified –
      • Individuals identify as white and the view, values and beliefs as such

6. Kim’s Asian American Identify Development Model (1981, 2001)

  • Five Stages (Sequential and Progressive):
    • Ethical Awareness –
      • Identity is formed through family structure, prior to integration of school and peers
    • White Identification –
      • Individual actively attempts to assimilate and identify as White to avoid criticisms of differences
    • Awakening to social political consciousness –
      • Individuals have realization of acts of discrimination stem from the structure of race in our society
      • Begin to join forces with other oppressed groups to uplift and move race forward
    • Redirection to Asian American Consciousness –
      • Individuals develop a sense of pride within themselves with support of their family, friends, social networks
    • Incorporation
      • Individual establishes healthy self-concept, integrate and interact with others outside of his or her own race

7. Horse’s Perspective on American Indian Identity Development (2001)

  • Centered around the idea of consciousness
    • Individual’s knowledge of language a culture, emphasizes the assumed identity
    • Individual’s consciousness is increased by the awareness and comprehension of the tribe’s history
    • Adoption of worldview that is consistent with traditions and culture of his or her heritage
    • Lastly, the amount of emphasis and individual places on his or her American Indian heritage

Student affairs professionals must understand that every students comes into our universities with varying degrees of racial development and experiences with students of other races. There will be mistakes and words spoken that are not meant for harm, but we have to be ready have the intentional conversations. As well as providing spaces on campus for students to discuss their differences, but more importantly the similarities that are evident within the different development theories. A Latino student may be struggling with their fit on campus at the same time a black student is and providing the space for those conversations will be more beneficial than just the individual’s development of a healthy self-concept.


This page was written and created by Michelle Robinson. Please use the comment section below to ask questions, provide reflection, discussion and/or feedback. To contact directly about this page, please see Michelle Robinson at microbi23@gmail.com.


8 Responses to Racial Identity Development

  1. Becky Boni says:

    awesome job Michelle… very good, very interesting..

  2. Kim says:

    Thank you. Working on a class for urban students in a rural setting. This is a nice summary of identity development theory.

  3. I liked the content very much. Congratulations, you write very well.

  4. Thalia says:

    Can you discuss about Critical Race Theory, I am having trouble understanding it.
    Thank you .

  5. Deb Jones says:

    Excellent Ms. Robinson…I’m starting my dessertation and your writing is a road map to theories in ethnic identity development…Thank you! DJones

  6. Deb Jones says:

    Excellent Ms. Robinson…I’m starting my dissertation and your writing is a road map to theories in ethnic identity development…Thank you! DJones

  7. Jonas says:

    After traveling and living in both Asia and Africa, I noticed that just about all skincare products available in this part of the world contained skin whitening. I also noticed that most commercials displayed showed white people in them and thus not only selling the product displayed but maybe also that to be successful you must be white.


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